Letting Some of it Out

Today’s blog post is going to be intended for a very specific group of people.

One of you posted today, in a group dedicated to our former church service, the following:

“Just wondering what your thoughts are on this. I wanted to comment, but couldn’t put it into words very well.”

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2012/10/03/killing-church-programs-what-the-church-can-learn-from-apple-and-google/

This is my response.

I’m going to try to write this coherently.

At the heart of it, what this writer says is true. Programs that don’t work should be stopped — and if change is your goal, incremental changes are always accepted more than wholesale changes.

However, the question for me becomes how do we define when programs are “working” or not? Are we solely treating the church like a business in which we are seeking the greatest return on investment? If so, there are any number of programs that could be cut — especially most of the charity work that we do. Having those programs is clearly a drain on the church’s resources. While some might argue that a decent share of our attendance is made up of people who are proud of our charity work, and who might not donate as much if that charity work weren’t done, I would suspect that we could slowly, bit by bit, choke off the charity work and retain the money without losing a significant portion of our contributing population. We could then use those funds for additional expansion or infrastructure. Shiny things get people in the door, and return on investment would continue to go up.

Or do we define the programs “working” by encouraging the charity functions? After all, defining a church by business standards is pretty cynical; while there’s some element of business that’s necessary, the point of a church isn’t supposed to be the coffers, it’s supposed to be the good works. So we should be asking what programs directly impact and support the charities? Probably things like the high school and college groups aren’t that impactful on the charities. I’m certain they do some work that helps the charities, but it’s not the overall goal of groups like that. I’m sure the expense of keeping those groups going — what with their various retreats and get-togethers — is higher than the amount they put into the charity treasury. Again, that doesn’t seem like a wise financial investment. Some might argue that by getting devoted teenagers, you develop a devoted adult church body, but consider how many people live hundreds of miles from the church youth group that helped shape them. For many of these kids and young adults, we’re priming them to support other people’s charities; for many others, we’re nothing but a social hour that keeps them from more secular activities. None of this is bad, of course, but it doesn’t hit the bottom line of funding the charity work.

But this writer is concerned about the “demise” of the church; maybe he’s referring mostly to the noted decline in attendance and passion in American churches today. So maybe using the economic models is just a mistake. Maybe we should be defining what programs work by how well they bring participants to regular attendance and participation, and use the assumption that these two criteria also are more or less in sync with people who have developed important relationships within the program, and also, hopefully, with God. This seems to tie in with the writer’s comments about Ping and Google Wave. Not enough people were using them, so they weren’t worth the support of the companies. However, the parallel breaks down very, very quickly. For companies like Apple and Google to continue to support Ping and Wave, it takes resources. Expected “usership” numbers are pre-calculated, and if those numbers aren’t met, it’s a problem. Money has been invested in staffing, in development, in support, and sometimes even in advertising — and without enough users being heavily invested and involved, it becomes an economic drain. Once again, we’re discussing the money factor, which we were trying to avoid. We’re more interested in the devotion of the program’s participants. And while it’s true that we need to consider SOME “usership” economics — you don’t want to be devoting resources to heating and cooling a room designed for 500 people if you regularly have only 15 attendees — if you can comfortably balance those numbers (say, filling a room to at least 50% on a fairly regular basis, and getting close to capacity periodically), then the judgement on the viability of a program should be simply how enthusiastic the “users” are for the program, as shown by participation and attendance.

If a program is shut down despite “working,” or avoiding the danger of “demise,” as the writer puts it, we have to assume not only that there has not been an attempt to make incremental changes, but that at least one of the following must be true: (1) The program was using resources that the church believes are better spent elsewhere. (2) The program was running counter to the church’s overall goals, which may or may not be concerned with participation and devotion over economics. (3) The church did not recognize the success of the program.

Since there’s no possible way that anyone reading this thinks that I’m being purely hypothetical, let me get this out of the way now. I feel that Sojourn was closed for all three of the above reasons. They took our resources for the senior high. The goal of the church changed and became uniformity of style — an attempt to “brand” that strikes me as impersonal and disappointing as it reeks of franchising and everything I hate about other “mega-churches.” And despite the initial semblance of support from the pastoral staff, as things have progressed to the one-size-fits-all-or-else mode, I have seen no indication that their concern for the success of Sojourn — which was our passion and devotion — has extended beyond their hopes that it will transfer due to what is essentially brand loyalty.

(Yes, I am still bitter. I’m trying not to be, and I’m failing.)

People like this writer are trying to make a church fit a business model, and in one sense that’s commendable; churches need to be stewards of the finances with which they are blessed, and the goal of keeping a church open has at its heart the benefit of society as a whole.

But I can’t help but feel that in this situation we’re figuratively “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), and that our cries are unheard or ignored.

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One Response to Letting Some of it Out

  1. joanna says:

    Thanks, Strange, for your perspective. I’m still feeling marginalized, too. Failing at the ‘brand loyalty’ thing.

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