For the last half of the 20th century in America, local churches functioned as programmatic centers of activity. Embedded in a supportive churched and Christian culture, their role was to provide offerings that inspired, entertained and educated those who chose to attend. Those who attended a local church tended to look alike racially and socio-economically. They were the “good people” in the community.

Churches knew their place in the social order. They were the privileged majority, with Sundays and Wednesdays reserved for their activities. They benefited from their status and their employees were accorded a place of authority and respect in the community. Attractive buildings and professionally trained staff were important, as attenders had many options to choose from when it came to churches.

Denominational headquarters churned out a vast array of material, themes, and conferences that reinforced and dictated local church programs. Extensive training at multiple levels was provided to assure the purchase and implementation of denominational curriculum and emphases. Denominational staff members were superstars who were accorded immediate respect and status. The system was funded by local churches, which were expected to funnel larger and larger amounts of money up the economic food chain to support missions or various ministries.

The seeds of the demise of the programmatic era of local church life were sown in the 1960’s. Cultural norms regarding race and sex began a season of societal upheaval that continues today. The Vietnam War and the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King signaled a brokenness about our culture that was undeniable. Trust in institutions and leaders began to steadily erode.

Though it would take fifty years to fully emerge, the post-church, post-Christian era of American life was on its way. Today, we live, work and minister in a very different world than existed fifty years ago in 1966.

Is this bad news or good news? It depends. Perhaps it is an opportunity for the Church to connect with our original design. The first century church found itself in a minority position in culture, surrounded by competing ideologies and accorded little status or privilege. In that challenging setting, the church not only survived, but it thrived in ways not seen since. A movement was started that swept over and around obstacles and gradually transformed the culture in which it was birthed.

Movements are vastly different than programs.

For the American church to thrive in this new cultural milieu, I believe we must adopt movement thinking and recognize the limits and hindrances of programmatic thinking.

Movement thinking is:

-Driven by passion, rather than obligation. With the demise of external cultural pressure to attend church or be identified as a Christian, those who choose to attend out of a perceived need or calling, rather a sense of duty or obligation, will increasingly populate the 21st century church. Movements always capture your heart.

-Fueled by a sense of personal call. Movements across the centuries have always been spawned by a personal conviction to right a wrong or share a powerful value. Whether the issue was women’s right to vote, civil rights, gun ownership, environmental issues, Right to Life, sex-trafficking, or a million other causes, a movement depends upon personal call and conviction as it’s source of power and motivation.

-Focused on a goal. Movements know where they are going and what their goals are. Everything is evaluated based upon whether or not it advances the group toward the ultimate goal. Movements run lean on overhead.

-Marked by collaborative efforts. Movements are often the coalescing of multiple smaller groups around a shared goal. Allies are discovered as the journey toward a goal is pursued. The inevitable competition among personalities and groups is swallowed up in the relentless pursuit of a shared agenda.

-Movements value movement, not rhetoric. As the very name implies, movements prize progress toward an agreed-upon end. Those who only want to talk and posture are quickly exposed and marginalized as the movement moves past them. Leadership becomes the ability to get something done.

-Movements celebrate progress and revel in stories of change and accomplishment. Movements intrinsically know that stories are the powerful fuel that motivate and provide meaning to its members.

-Movements say “no” to those things and people that distract from the goal. Clarity around a goal enables movements to ignore the temptations to diverge from their calling. Politics and culture are seen as temptations, not solutions.

Is your church practicing programmatic thinking or movement thinking? Far too often, we find churches still employing a programmatic mindset while expecting movement-like results. To do so is a set-up for frustration and failure.

Healthy churches are recognizing that the era of programming is giving way to a season in which we rediscover our movement roots. The challenge of today is to gradually redirect our approach from pushing programs toward launching and sustaining a movement. It is hard, but good and necessary work if we are to thrive.

Bill Wilson
Dr. William “Bill” Wilson founded The Center for Healthy Churches in January of 2014. This followed his service as President of the Center for Congregational Health at Wake Forest Baptist Health since 2009. Previously he was Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dalton, Georgia, where he served since 2003. He brings over 33 years of local church ministry experience to CHC, having served as pastor in two churches in Virginia (Farmville BC and FBC Waynesboro) and on a church staff in South Carolina. Bill has led each of the churches he has served into a time of significant growth and expansion of ministry. He is the director of CHC.