We need to talk about church scheduling

  • Rory Shiner
  • 29 December 2016

Depending on the kind of church you’re involved in, next year’s calendar is already full—or soon will be. Typical decisions include: What will the Sunday teaching program be? When will small groups happen? What will happen in them? Will there be a weekend away? A youth camp? An ESL class?

We often fill in next year’s calendar much like we filled last year’s. But before we do, we need to stop and think. 

There is a concept in medicine called iatrogenesis. Iatrogenesis refers to the harm done by the healer. For example, before we knew we were supposed to wash our hands, unintended harm happened all the time. Think about that: an encounter with someone genuinely wanting to heal you often left you worse off.

That’s the concept I want to apply to local church ministry. Sometimes, of course, people in Christian leadership harm others intentionally. That is gut-wrenching stuff, but it’s not what I’m talking about here. Here I’m talking about the much more common phenomena of efforts that, though they were intended to help, have unintended consequences. Scheduling is one of the places this can happen. 

People have basically four things they can give—time, energy, gifts and resources—but the mix can vary enormously. Generally speaking, university students have copious amounts of time, significant supplies of energy, limited though fast-emerging gifts, and very limited resources. University-based ministries intuitively recognise this. It’s not uncommon (and in many ways not unreasonable) for a student to be involved in a couple of small groups on campus plus an evening small group at church, to be active in the church’s youth or children’s ministry, and to attend two or three conferences a year. Time and energy are the principle commodities students have to give, and they often given them generously.

The relative abundance of these resources shape student ministry in certain ways. For example, if a student goes to a Wednesday night small group at which the leader was not very well prepared, or giving it their first shot, that’s okay. It’s just one Wednesday night—a few duds out of a possible 80 or more in a year is a fair trade for the chance for people to develop their gifts.

Similarly, people aged 18-25 are establishing their values, patterns and place in the world. It makes sense, I think, for people that age to have a disproportionate level of input. It’s an investment in the next 50 years of following Jesus. If that investment includes belonging to three or four small groups and getting to a few conferences each year, sure. Time well spent.

Now consider the circumstances of the average family in a local church. Families have those same four resources—time, energy, gifts and resources—but the deck is dealt very differently. A family with young children; with one or two people working; with school and associated commitments; with life-administration; who also want to have meaningful relationships within their community… People in this stage of life have extremely limited time resources, and very limited energy. Their gifts have by now emerged and been developed, and there is often now a stable income with a base for sustainable giving. But time is very precious, and every draw on that resource is a zero-sum game. It’s the same with energy. A late-night, poorly-chaired elders meeting can take literally two or three nights to recover from in terms of the sleep-debt. The weekend lie-in is a long way off. At certain stages of family life, it does not exist. Time and energy are finite resources.

There are many variations on this theme. Tradespeople tend to work very early in the morning, making weeknight church activities difficult. Single professional adults often have huge time pressures on them at work. Musicians and performers often have big weekends, together with some give early in the week. FIFO workers have a whole different set of patterns, challenges and opportunities. Extroversion and introversion matter here—what for one person is an energy-positive exercise is for another extremely energy-sapping. The unemployed and chronically ill often have the cruel combination of significant free time but significantly limited energy.

The idea that a good church member is someone who’s there every Sunday, at small group every Wednesday, and active in another area of service, is an assumption at which we need to pause. For some people, that’s a very reasonable or even light expectation. For others (let’s say, the single mother), simply to make it to three out of four Sundays is positively heroic.

And so, for those of us who play a part in our church’s yearly programming, we need to think deeply and creatively about what we do and plan, and what our plans imply. Here are some questions we should ask:

Why are we doing what we are doing? Have we audited our explicit or implicit expectations on people’s time? What do people think we expect of them? Is it the same as what we actually expect of them?

Are we working with the natural rhythms of life where possible? Could we make better use of mealtimes? Of pre-existing commitments and communities? Of commutes and sport and exercise—either for evangelism or discipleship, or both.

Are you offering a smorgasbord of programs, and trusting people to choose what they need? If so, do people know that, or do they perhaps think you expect to see them at everything?

Or, instead of a smorgasbord, have you articulated a limited suite of commitments that you expect everyone to be involved in? If so, is that suite reasonable and life-giving? For example, Providence Church Midland in Perth has a ‘Rule of Seven’. In a month, they want people to be at Sunday church four times, two other intentional Christian inputs (a one-to-one, a small group or a prayer triplet), and one all-in church meal—4 + 2 + 1 = 7. There’s a good case to say that the month is the new week. This is one way of responding to that reality.

Do the challenges that come in the preaching fit with the implied message of the scheduling? For example, if in your preaching you regularly call for people to be more involved in the community, share more meals with non-Christians, or be better parents, is there actually space in the program for that to happen?

Does the value of the event reflect the earnestness of your requests that people be there? Was the challenge of organizing babysitters, or leaving work early, or missing Friday night drinks worth the opportunity cost? The answer can of course be yes. But it could also be no. 

Are the rhythms right? Maybe Sunday morning church plus midweek Bible study is perfect. But maybe not. What about a ‘Big Sunday’ approach? You give more or less the whole day over to Christian worship, discipleship, teaching, training and fellowship, with Monday-Saturday more or less free to “live and work to his praise and glory”?

Are weekday evenings the best time for discipleship? What about lunch time meetings? Breakfasts?

Does a regular thing need to be a weekly thing? Instead of every weeknight, what about community groups that meet twelve times a year for a meal and Christian learning? Maybe twelve deliberate meetings, with Bibles open and food served, combined with a weekend away and Christmas drinks with neighbours and work-friends would deliver more than 30 weeknights of Bible study?

None of these provide definitive answers. But I think they’re all questions worth asking. Even if the answer is “I think we’ve got this right”, to know is better than to assume.