Healthy Church Growth: Programs vs. Path



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

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

The ones experiencing the most healthy growth tend to approach 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.


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.

Healthy Church Growth:  Programs vs. Path


  1. James Gleason on December 17, 2017 at 10:33 pm

    This post is spot on! When you study the method of Jesus (and not only his message) you can see a clear discipleship pathway.
    For a practical presentation of this, read Andy Stanley’s Seven Practices, where he gives practice #2 “Think Steps, Not Programs.” Rick Warren’s base classes are another example. That being said, you can do those and still have them as only more programs. You need a clear and concise pathway that resembles the ministry of Jesus if you’re ever going to make disciples the way He did.

  2. David Switzer on December 17, 2017 at 8:30 am

    Provokes thought for sure. Seems a tad idealistic. Wonder how this philosophy would produce a church that is NOT a mile wide and an inch deep. What do you mean by invest?

  3. NotJezus on December 16, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    Could you be more vague?

    “Spirituality is precisely a path, not a program.”
    Oh. My. Gawrshdarnitt, what a revelation.

  4. Chuck on December 16, 2017 at 8:24 pm

    We worked really hard to be more of a simple church model. One area I would say is overlooked when it comes to discipleship pathway is the role of the weekend or week long retreat. This could be a serve weekend or a spiritual weekend, but I have found if I can get a teenager or adult away from the hustle and bustle of life and become immersed in a retreat where they are reading scripture and worshipping and enjoying rich community, I have seen a person take gigantic steps forward in the spiritual level life. Add retreats as apart of you ur pathway strategy.just a thought.

  5. mike on December 16, 2017 at 9:17 am

    Part of the issue with this article, as I see it, is it is essentially a marketing item rather than a helpful article. It gives us just enough information to make us ask the questions that are only found in the marketed item. Although Carey does have people who are selling things on his blog or podcast from time to time- He is usually careful to make sure they give good information rather than just leave us hanging until we buy the book. One thing Carey made clear in a recent email is that he wants his free content to be excellent so that we will be willing to purchase the paid content when it comes available. And he does that excellently. This guest article falls short of that honourable goal.

  6. Matt Palmer on December 15, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    This may sound like an obvious answer…but what is an example of going from programmes to a path? My mind goes to a path, where there are programmes needed for that path to work. Any great example of a d-path out there? Like examples of what a church is doing or something similar?

  7. work editors agencies on December 15, 2017 at 5:53 am

    I am not competent in this matter and therefore I can not make a unified opinion on this issue.

    • NotJezus on December 16, 2017 at 11:30 pm

      Then, why comment? 🤔💭

  8. Dee on December 14, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    I’m wary of clever diagrams.

    Surely the programmes are the components of the Serve/Group activities, just like hymns and prayers and readings fit into Worship?

    I agree there can be clutter and log-jams. How might we ensure that these excess programmes made way for an effective outward-facing growth programme? What is needed to handle the tricky transition from newbie welcome to belonging?

    What form does an organised pathway take – I’m left with a mental picture of a school with lessons, tests, exams and year-on-year progression. Not really workable except maybe with under-16s

    The Investment final step step is rather odd. Do you really mean $$$ or something more subtle?

  9. Kevin Carr on December 14, 2017 at 10:05 am

    I love this analogy. I work at a church that resembles the one on the left in your graphic. We recently completed the Unstuck Assessment and we all agree: we’re stuck in maintenance phase. When I’ve shared the pathway vs. program analogy with fellow leaders, they struggle to see how it could be applied to anything other than the path we use to assimilate new members. Any tips on how to help a leadership team see how the pathway analogy applies to the other 95 percent of our programming?

    • NotJezus on December 16, 2017 at 11:34 pm

      “Maintenance” is, I’m sorry to say, is it. Child rearing? Maintenance. Small group leader? Maintenance. Relationship requires loving maintenance. That’s it.

      This article, programs vs path, misses the point, imo.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.