Healthy Church Growth: Programs vs. Path

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Today’s post is written by my friend, Tony Morgan, Founder of The UnStuck Group.

Tony is founder and chief strategic officer of The Unstuck Group, a company that helps churches get unstuck through consulting and coaching experiences designed to focus vision, strategy and action

Tony writes about leadership regularly at tonymorganlive.comFor more on all seven phases of the church life cycle, Tony dives deep in his book The Unstuck Church: Equipping Churches to Experience Sustained Health, available from Thomas Nelson.

You can find more from Tony on Twitter, Facebook and Linked In.


I’ve observed something interesting in healthy, growing churches over the last several years.

The ones experiencing the most healthy growth tend to approach church discipleship as a path. The leaders spend time thinking on how to best help people along in their journey following Christ. They spend their energy simplifying to offer people a series of next steps.

By contrast, many of the churches I see that are in decline have an overwhelming number of programs available to attendees and even the community, but no cohesive path that helps people learn which steps to take and when.

Healthy churches approach discipleship as a path, not a program. @tonymorganlive Click To Tweet

I drew this illustration and shared it on my blog a couple of years ago:

As you might imagine, there are several key differences between both types of churches:

1. How They Define “the Win”

Over-programmed churches see the win as getting more people involved in more activities. They wouldn’t say that, but it’s how they operate.

Ask any staff member about the momentum or success they are seeing in ministry, and you will almost always hear reports of how many people attended their last event, class or study.

Churches with a path see the win as helping more people take a next step. That common understanding unifies staff and simplifies decision making. If there’s no way to measure whether or not it helps people take a next step, they’re probably not going to do it.

Healthy churches help people take steps. More of anything is not a step. Click To Tweet

2.  How They Decide What Gets Communicated

Over-programmed churches communicate everything. There’s competition among ministry leaders for people’s attention, and they often complain about lack of communications support for their area. The communications director is frustrated because there can be no strategy when everything is communicated all of the time.

Churches with a path communicate one thing. They help people take one step at a time. Communications is clear.

Over-programmed churches communicate everything. Churches with a path communicate one thing. Click To Tweet

3.  How They Structure the Team

Over-programmed churches staff and structure their team around all of their programs. This naturally creates ministry silos and turf wars.

And, as I’m sure you can guess, churches with a path staff and structure their team around the path. This fosters collaboration as all staff are focused on helping people take their next step.

4.  How They Engage Volunteers

More programs mean more demand for volunteers. Over-programmed churches often feel like they don’t have enough volunteers, even when they have a high percentage of people engaged. They spread the pool of people they have too thin.

More focus means there’s less competition for volunteers and more freedom for people to serve based on their gifts and strengths, rather than just filling positions for an ever-growing list of needs.

When you focus on a path, fewer volunteers accomplish more. Click To Tweet

5.  How They Prioritize

In over-programmed churches, whatever gets on the calendar first wins. And, things that have always been on the calendar stay on the calendar… because, well, they’ve always been on the calendar.

Churches with a path plan and build their ministry calendar around whatever helps people take a next step. Prioritization is easy. New ideas are embraced. Methods and traditions are routinely sacrificed for the good of the mission.

Here’s the reality–every individual is accountable for their own spiritual growth. And, when we look back at our lives, most of the time, it was relationships that helped us grow in our love for Jesus and our desire to follow His way.

The advantage in having a simple, clear church discipleship path over an assortment of programs is that you make it easy for new followers of Jesus to build important relationships at the right times in their journey.

You give them space to ask their questions and opportunities to exercise their faith. You also make it simpler for church leaders and lead volunteers to not let people fall through the cracks, especially early on when they need the most guidance and time investment.

All that to say, your path — or your programs — are not likely going to ever be so effective in and of themselves that you turn into a spiritual maturity factory. Making disciples is never going to be a tidy process. The Holy Spirit’s work can’t be replaced by a class or a method.

However, a discipleship path will help your church serve people better than a bunch of programs, and as we’re seeing, there’s at least a correlation between a clear path and healthy growth.

In effective churches, people realize they're responsible for their own spiritual growth. Click To Tweet

The Correlation Between Over-Programming and Decline

Incidentally, over-programming is a hallmark of churches in the Maintenance phase of the typical church life cycle—the first phase at the beginning of decline.

I share more about those early signs of decline in the conversation Carey and I had about the life cycle of a church in Episode 140 of his podcast.

If you suspect your church is dealing with this issue, I’d suggest checking out a free online tool my team created: the Unstuck Church Assessment. It will give you a snapshot of where your church sits in its life cycle today and help you start a conversation with your team about the steps you need to take—and possibly what programs you need to cut—to move towards health.

Take the Unstuck Church Assessment for free here.

Over-programming is a sign your church is in the first phase of its decline. Click To Tweet

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  • You aren't reaching enough new people even though you've tried everything that's working for other churches.
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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.