As Southern Baptists, we understand ministry programming. We have a program for everything. It is fair to say that ours is a program-heavy, program-laden denomination. When I use the term “program”, I am referring to the plans or structures used to reach, educate, and engage specific ministry audiences. Programs such as Men’s Ministry (formerly Brotherhood), Women’s Ministry, VBS, Missions, Sunday School, Discipleship Training, Evangelism, Church Music, and WMU are designed to help plug children, youth, adults, and senior adults into the life of the church. None of them are inherently bad. Add to the mix para-church ministries such as AWANA, Upward, FCA, Samaritan’s Purse, Community Bible Study, Cru that seek to further engage God’s people in ministry and you can soon have more programs than you can effectively supervise and administer. When you add a third layer of activity such as corporate worship, Bible study, internal fellowships, and special holiday services, the pace within the church can become dizzying difficult to maintain – not to mention the challenges of financing, staffing, and publicizing these activities.
One of the books I have read recently is Barry Schwartz’s, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. He advocates that whether we’re buying a pair of shoes, ordering a cup of coffee, selecting an insurance company, or deciding on which college to attend, everyday decisions—both big and small—have become increasingly difficult due to the over-abundance of choice with which we are presented. His belief is that too many choices lead to two pitfalls: decision paralysis and regret. Decision paralysis occurs because we are overwhelmed with all the options, resulting at times in no decision at all. If we manage to navigate the paralysis and decide, regret lurks in the background, calling into question whether our choice was the correct one. His work led me to consider the busyness of our churches today. Further, his work has caused me to consider my own approach to church ministry. If Schwartz is correct, the same two pitfalls (paralysis and regret) exist for churches having too many programs and activities.
Decision paralysis. In church ministry, a plethora of programs and activities make the next step unclear. In churches today, many things are presented as “opportunities for involvement” or “points of connection.” At times, it becomes hard to keep up with the barrage of announcements unloaded in a 3-4-minute window. As the number of opportunities increases, the likelihood that people will decide to do any of them decreases. How many times have you been shopping for a big-ticket item (car, furniture, television, etc.) and had to walk away due to an overwhelming number of options? Church members face the same dilemma when wading through the choices they are presented. When multiple events are scheduled on the same day or at the same time, this paralysis becomes even more intense.
Regret. An overabundance of programs, activities, and opportunities increases the busyness of a church but lowers confidence in what is offered. If everything is important nothing is important. When people go to A, they likely wonder if they should have gone to B. When people choose C, they often wonder if D would have been a better choice. How many times have you purchased that big-ticket item, took it home and began to wonder if “the other one” would have been better or more enjoyable. This is referred to as buyer’s remorse.
I have always advocated for a “more is better” approach to ministry because that is what I have been taught in 20 years of pastoral ministry – programs are the answer to the church’s problems. Based on recent ministry observations and conversations with different people, I am learning that more is not always better, it’s just more. I am learning that programs can be the cause of some problems within the church. I am learning that such a fast pace and aggressive approach is difficult to maintain. It’s impossible for churches to do everything excellently. When the church attempts to become all things to all people, offering every conceivable program, it can become wide and not deep. The downside of too many choices in the church is that activity can pull people away from relationships and family, away from living on mission in the world around them. I am learning that activity does not equal spiritual transformation.
Before I am accused of saying something I did not say, I am not opposed to ministry programs and church activities. I do however believe that church leadership must know the body and its ministry context; then utilize the needed programming and necessary level of activity. Imagine for a moment your vehicle is in the repair shop to have the alternator replaced. The mechanic may have a large and extensive collection of tools at his disposal. That doesn’t mean that he/she will use every single tool in the box on your repair – only the necessary ones. Ministry programs are only tools. They are a means to an end – the spiritual transformation and development of the God’s people. To avoid decision paralysis and regret, and to bring about real transformation, a “less is more” approach may be in order.