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Church Programs vs. Authentic Community

My wife is quick to point out my errors, particularly when I commit the linguistic sin of hyperbole. Hyperbole occurs whenever we exaggerate or inflate our position in the hope that our twist-of-truth will bolster our argument. I was reminded of hyperbole when I recently read a blog by Rev. Erik Parker entitled: “Want to Kill Your Church? Start A Program!”. This well-meaning pastor asserts:

So here is the thing about programs. They don’t work. Programs don’t work – communities do. Programs are for communities that have forgotten how to be communities.” (https://millennialpastor.net/2013/11/07/want-to-kill-your-church-start-a-program/).

While I appreciate Rev. Parker’s relational emphasis, and I strongly affirm that ministry happens best in the context of authentic relationships, I believe his blanket devaluation of ALL church programming is unfortunate and somewhat misinformed. Not all programs are bad. Granted, many of our church programs have outlasted their effectiveness years ago. But what Rev. Erik Parker’s seems to suggest in his greater article, is that he believes that church programming creates artificial communities that cannot function as effectively for Christ as “authentic communities naturally do”. To a point, I agree with Rev. Parker. Church programs are artificial communities. The issue then is to determine if authentic-community can occur within a church’s artificial community programs? Rev. Parker insists that this is not possible, I want to suggest that it is not only possible, but authentic-community does occur within well-developed church programs on a regular basis. In fact, I would go so far to say that if a church refuses to develop organizational systems, they will relationally alienate a large percentage of the Christian population.

Since the early 80’s, the Boomer generation has utilized a church growth method that offered programs designed to target demographic affinity groups: A children’s ministry for children, a teen ministry for teens, and a young married ministry for young marrieds, etc. Boomer church leaders hoped that by bringing people together of like life-stage, relationships would form, and interpersonal ministry would eventually trickle-down to the personal level (See: Illustration 1).

Illustration 1

Affiliation Group Programs

While affinity groups are great Christian socialization strategies, they have proved to be poor disciple-making strategies. As a result, many Millennial church leaders want to flip this traditional ministry methodology away from targeting affinity-groups and instead focus on loving individuals within the context of small inter-generational and inter-cultural communities. The goal is that the more people we love, who then authentically love others, the more Christ’s Church will grow without any need to focus on demographic life-stage, nor discipleship life-stage. I refer you to Illustration 2 below.

Illustration 2

Authentic Community Model

In theory, these loving communities will grow because all people need and desire love and acceptance. So, in theory, these communities claim to better reflect Christ’s disciple-making methodology…after all, Jesus loved to hang out with sinners. And while I affirm these community objectives, there is one glaring sociological dynamic that the community-ministry-model overlooks…According to the Myers-Briggs assessment construct, 43% of the human population have different social needs than the community-ministry-model can typically address. Please allow me to explain.

Since 2002, our ePersonality® assessment, a Myers-Briggs variant offered by AssessME.org, has documented the following:

  • 57% of the population “Relate to the World Around Them” through an ADAPTIVE set of values (See: Illustration 3). This means that a small majority of people do not value systems, plans, or programming structures.  Adaptive people tend to be relational people who can easily flex with life’s opportunities and demands. These people can easily fit and function within Pastor Parker’s “Communities”.
  • 43% of the population “Relate to the World Around Them” through SYSTEMATIC values. Systematic people require multi-layer organizational structures, plans, and programming systems to help them know how they may fit and contribute to the organization.

Illustration 3

Meyer-Briggs Quadrants

Systematic people quickly tire of pure relational communities that are not linked to a defined missional purpose. Furthermore, and possibly most importantly, systematic people typically build relationships through working with other people to accomplish a shared mission objective. I, for one, feel closest to those who serve and sweat side-by-side with me in our shared goal to expand the Kingdom of Christ in this broken world. It is difficult for may systematic people to simply build “social” relationships. In fact, their strictly social pool is quite small, consisting generally of family members and a few close friends. Systematic people generally consider the people they work with regularly, either on their job, or within a ministry program, to be their friends. For systematic people, working together to accomplish a noble task is their natural foundation for building any “authentic” friendship.

In contrast to systematic people, relational-adaptive people form relationships with people simply because “people” are their mission. They need no task-oriented purpose to serve as a pretext for relationships. Sadly, however, relational-adaptive people tend to project a superior attitude within our present-day church-culture. They often assert that their way of doing ministry is the best way. In fact, I have personally experienced many relational-adaptive pastors exclaim that their ministry methodology is the ONLY way to do ministry. Or, again, that their way of doing ministry is most “Christ-like”. Relational-adaptive pastors naturally create churches which are organizationally flat, and so emphasize relational community over organizational systems and programs. As a result, these ministries fail to build relational communities that include systematic people (43% of the population). These people quickly grow tired of the relational-adaptive church’s high social demands and lack of focused purpose. They struggle to discern how they fit within the flat community. But, here’s the big reveal: Relational communities can exist within organizationally programmed systems, but these programmed systems cannot exist within a flat relational organization.

But, here’s the big reveal: Relational communities can exist within organizationally programmed systems, but these programmed systems cannot exist within a flat relational organization.

It is hard to believe any pastor would intentionally reject 43% of the population simply because the needs of these people conflict with the Pastor’s relational-community ministry paradigm. But it happens all the time. Many small churches remain small because their pastors refuse to move beyond their purely relational ministry model and integrate the organizational systems necessary to include systematic people. As an example, over ten years ago a pastor of a church with about 120 people attending asked me to consult regarding why his church was not growing. He commented that if they could have retained all their visitors over the previous decade, they would be larger than 1,500 in attendance. When I explained to him the systems and structures that would be needed to be inclusive of systematic people, his response was literally hostile. He declared, “That’s not relational ministry, it will never happen as long as I am pastor of this church!” And so, his church remains about 120 people to this very day.

So, can we at least agree that it is just as wrong to declare: “Do You Want to Kill Your Church…Start a Program”, as it would be to say, “Do You Want to Kill Your Church, Start a Community”? I believe that when we respect God’s created order, which includes different kinds of people with differing needs and abilities, we then respect God Himself. Authentic community is the goal. But communities which accept only flat relational-organizational structures, are not authentic communities, they are in fact sectarian communities at best.

If we can accept the premise that church programs can be beneficial to many people if they are properly developed and supported, then our task now is to flip the traditional church program paradigm, from programs that focus merely on treating people as members of a social affiliation group, which hopes that disciple-making will somehow occur, to programs that intentionally and strategically support the relational disciple-making process.