Killing Church Programs: What the UMC Can Learn From Facebook

Jason Micheli —  October 4, 2012 — 4 Comments

 Andy Stanley, the pastor of North Point Church in Georgia- one of the nation’s largest churches, observes that one of the primary strengths of new and large churches is that, contrary to many’s presumptions, they actually do LESS than established and smaller churches. ‘The less you say and do as a church the more you’re actually able to communicate and accomplish’ Stanley says.

It’s true that many established congregations, precisely because they’re established and thus have a history, are frantic with busyness, engaged with a variety of programs.

It’s also true that many of those congregations are weighed down by many programs that were, at some point, someone’s good idea that no longer serves its original purpose or does so only minimally.

Such congregations- and, I would argue, denominations- are weighed down by outdated or ineffective programs because churches, as a rule, are bad at saying no; they’re bad at giving ministries, which aren’t contributing to the overall mission or are no longer effective, a good funeral.

In other words, the mission of the church to make disciples is often the victim of busyness.

Tony Jones argues churches and denominations can learn a lesson from companies like Facebook and Apple, who are constantly make incremental changes, giving poor performing endeavors a quick funeral without stopping to worry about how people will react or who such decisions might upset:

In your latest update to Apple’s free program, iTunes, Ping is gone. It’s disappeared. What is Ping?, you ask. (Well, you should be asking, What was Ping?) Ping was an attempt by Apple to get into the social media game by allowing people to easily share what songs they were listening to, liking, etc.

You know how people are always using Spotify or Pandora to share with you on Facebook the song that they’re listening to at the moment? Well, Apple was hoping that since over 300 million people use iTunes, they could get a piece of the action.

But it didn’t work. Ping had a low adoption rate — at least by Apple’s standards — so they killed the program. They didn’t keep it going for the millions of people who used it. They didn’t apologize. They just euthanized it and moved on.

Three years ago, I wrote a post about Google Wave as a Sermon Preparation Tool, and that post was picked up the next year by Within months, Google killed Wave.

Google Wave was an online, real-time collaboration tool. I liked it, a lot, and I used it. But not enough people did. When asked about the death of Google Wave, CEO Eric Schmidt said,

“We try things. Remember, we celebrate our failures. This is a company where it’s absolutely okay to try something that’s very hard, have it not be successful, and take the learning from that.”

In my contribution to the (free!) ebook,  Renew 52: 50+ Ideas to Revitalize Your Congregation from Leaders Under 50, I argued that a significant reason for Facebook’s success is constant, incremental change. Unlike MySpace, which didn’t change anything for a long time and then changed everything, wholesale, all at once, Facebook is changing stuff all the time.

– Facebook doesn’t take a vote about whether you want them to change something.

– Facebook makes a change, explains it, and then sits back and listens to reactions.

The church needs to behave more like this. Some will argue that these are for-profit companies and they are attempting to please their investors. But the changes I’m talking about affect the user — who get to use these platforms for free. They’re not looking to please consumers, they’re looking to better the user interface.

So the church can learn a couple things from companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook:

– When programs don’t work, euthanize them.

  • Socialize your users so that they expect constant change.

 With these two simple but profound changes, I think that many American mainline churches could reverse their impending demise. 

Here’s the link to Tony’s post.

Jason Micheli


4 responses to Killing Church Programs: What the UMC Can Learn From Facebook

  1. I’m reading Bearing Fruit right now, a book by Lovett Weems and Tom Berlin, as my church prepares to retool how it looks at commitment. They cite scriptural support for the absolute necessity of doing what Jason is calling euthanasia. Pruning, the Bible calls it. A little more palatable term, perhaps, than euthanasia–but essentially the same thing. Dead branches may have produced a lot of fruit in their day. But as dead branches, they’re just getting in the way now. If a church is doing something that’s not meeting the mission–if it’s not producing new disciples or contributing to the growth of current disciples–then cut it out! Make room for something else that may get the job done. Some might point to the Bible story where the gardener asks for one more year to make a tree produce. OK. But most churches, mine included, give a lot of much beloved (but anemic or dead) practices/programs year after year of chances. With litle or no real effect. Can we afford that? I don’t think so; the time is short!

  2. Great article, and resonates with my world quite well, but one note on change. If you think about it, change isn’t really hard to accept/implement. Think of the high percentage of people that go to college, get married, join the military, have children, change jobs, relocate, etc. I would imagine that adding up all of the people that do these things would result in a very high percentage. But all of these things are huge changes from a previous state in their lives. Who would look at these and say, yeah, that’s easy to do, it’s a no brainer. In fact, they are all hard, in fact, very hard to do. The difference? In most cases, we actively sought out the change. We wanted to go to college, we wanted a partner, we wanted children. So change isn’t hard. Change we don’t want is hard. In the book Switch by Chip & Dan Heath, they walk through how to make change and many times it is small things completely different from what you actually sought out to change. FranklinCovey uses the notion of a trim tab. A trim tab is a relatively small rectangular piece on an otherwise huge rudder on a ship. When you turn the ship, you move the trim tab – not the rudder. The small trim tab moves and the suction created by it moves the rudder. So, how do we become trim tabs? How can we implement trim tabs? It all comes down to motivating people. Notice, I didn’t say getting their agreement. iPhone users typically hate new things on the iPhone at first. Look at the new maps app. It stinks. But I bet in a year people will swear by it. So how do we motivate people? How do we make sure they understand the mission of the church, the culture we are trying to build? Once people understand that, the hope is that as we understand the context of things we can make decisions within that context and thus make decisions that enhance and support the mission and culture.

  3. Bob Oelschlager October 4, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    In business, where making tough-minded choices is valued, the politically incorrect expression is, “You have to shoot the sick kids.”

    Guess you can’t really say that…

    Bob O.

  4. Yes! Very helpful paradigm.

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