Adding multiple numbers is pretty easy: 3+1+2=6, and that’s no too difficult to figure out. But what happens if you are measuring more than just quantity? What if you want to measure direction as well? That’s the realm of something called vector mathematics.
Vector math represents both amount (called magnitude) and direction, and it can help you figure out the net result of different forces pulling in different directions. So say you are pulling something heavy with a magnitude of 3 while two of your friends are pulling with a magnitude of 1 and 2, respectively. As long as you all three are putting in the same direction, simple math kicks back in: 3+1+2=6.
But as soon as you start pulling in different directions, the equation gets a little more complex. Say you and your friends are pulling on an object as represented in Figure 1, above. You are pulling with a magnitude of 3 to the right, represented by an arrow pointing to the right that is 3 units long. Your friend with a magnitude of 1 is pulling up and to the right, the arrow representing direction and the length representing magnitude. Your other friend is applying twice as much force, but she is pulling at a right angle to your direction. So what direction does the object go? And how far? 3+1+2 no longer equals 6.
In vector math, you can simply connect the arrows representing magnitude and direction, placing the start of one arrow at the point of the last. No matter how many arrows you connect this way, you can get a cumulative magnitude and direction by drawing a new arrow from the start of your first arrow to the point of the last. The blue arrow in Figure 2, below, shows how vector mathematics can add both magnitude and direction. Imagine three people pulling on the object in Figure 1. Figure 2 tells you how far, and in what direction, the object in Figure 1 will move. Pretty slick, huh?
3+1+2 does equal 6 if everyone is pulling in the same direction. But pull in different directions and not only will you not get as far, you will also be off course.
Church leadership works in much the same way. The more alignment you have between ministry areas, the more you will all be working to keep your congregation moving in the same direction. The more each group or program sets its own agenda and direction, the more the net gain will shrink. And, even more critically, you will also be pulled off course.
Program vs Path
Tony Morgan, Chief Strategic Officer and founder of The Unstuck Group, recently wrote a blog about the differences he sees between healthy, growing churches and congregations in decline. Morgan writes, “The churches experiencing the most healthy growth tended to have a discipleship approach in the form of a path.” In other words, they have a clear way of moving, helping people take small steps in the right direction.
Churches that tended to be stagnant or in decline, according to Morgan, “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.”
Morgan uses a diagram similar to figure 3, below, to talk about the differences between program-driven churches and congregations with a clear discipleship path.
The programs represented by the circles on the left have familiar labels in Morgan’s original. All of the familiars are there: Men’s Ministry, Women’s Ministry, Youth, Sunday School; even Missions, Small Groups, and Financial Peace University. From your own experience, you could probably add a few dozen more …
The Path congregation, on the other hand, has a very limited number of circles that represent clear steps in a discipleship process. Morgan’s diagram labels these Worship, Serve, Grow, and Invest. My congregation has played around with language of Connect, Grow, and Launch. But the point isn’t the specific labels. Rather, the emphasis is on a clear path for people to follow as they grow in discipleship.
Morgan’s observations really hit home as he describes some of the differences between these two different ways of conceiving of how to be church together. “What’s the win” for a program-driven church? Morgan’s answer: “Getting more people involved in activities.” Contrast that with the win in a Path-driven congregation: “Helping more people take a next step.”
When the programs in the church all set their own agenda, “the structure is built around the programs, which leads to teams operating in silos.” By contrast, when the path shapes the structure, you get “teams working together to increase movement.”
In a programmatic church, the programs themselves will naturally be in competition with each other for volunteers, budget money, even pulpit announcements. A clear discipleship path helps keep everyone’s focus on resourcing and communicating the next clear step in the process.
Programs measure attendance; paths measure movement in a direction. From a vector math perspective, a path produces very different kinds of outcomes than programs do.
Insights from Vector Math
The circles in the Program church on the left represent silo ministries that each have their own agenda and, while seeking to serve Jesus and His kingdom, are not necessarily seeking to support a specific discipleship pathway. From a vector perspective, then, we could give each of these programs their own magnitude and direction.
The circles in the Path church on the right don’t represent ministry areas, rather a unified process moving people in the same direction, a process that has discrete, repeatable steps that lead to the next step. The strength of this discipleship pathway is its alignment, so all of these circles get vectors with the same magnitude and direction. See Figure 4, below.
A very busy church, like the one on the left, with lots of programs going in different directions feels like it is having high impact because it has high activity. But a church with fewer activities which are all aligned to the same path, like the one on the right, will actually get you farther down the road, AND—perhaps even more importantly—down the road in the right direction.
While that may feel somewhat counterintuitive, vector math makes it clear: add up all of the different vectors on the left and then add of the vectors on the right, and you get something like Figure 5, below.
All of the unaligned activity on the left adds up to less forward momentum than the limited, but aligned, pathway on the right. The blue arrow on the left is also clearly pointed in the wrong direction. The problem of manic activity without alignment is more than its inefficiency: it also pulls you off course.
Transitioning from Program to Path
If you are trying to transition from a Program-driven church where every ministry area sets their own direction, to a discipleship Path where every ministry helps people take a next step in an identifiable process, then you have two options.
Option A: Removing What Doesn’t Align. Cutting programs could be seen as the nuclear option, but ripping the Band-Aid has advantages. Less activity with more alignment will get you farther down the path and keep you on course. And the church on the right in Figure 6 may look a little empty, but it is actually getting more done than the church on the left.
Option B: Align What’s Already Moving. The alternative to dropping ministries that don’t align is to bring alignment to the ministries you have. The downside to this approach is the potential to derail your congregational vision because so many different ideas about direction are converging.
But the upside is pretty huge: more alignment with more programs is even better than more alignment with fewer programs. You will need to let go of some of what you do, but the end result of more alignment between more ministries has powerful potential. Do the vector math on Figure 7, below, and you can see the enormous potential.
Observations about the Transition
If you want to transition from Program to Discipleship Path without taking the nuclear option, you could start conversations in your leadership team with one or two of the following observations:
1. Good People Doing Good Things Assume They Are Already Aligned
You’ve got some really good people in your congregation. And they have been doing some really good things since before you arrived on the scene. These godly people have the potential to be your biggest allies. Ironically, they also have the potential to be your biggest roadblock in the transition from Program to Path.
The reality is, they ARE aligned to a vision, at least at a 10,000-foot level. If you start with the Great Commission or the command to love your neighbor, any activity—absolutely anything at all—will align, at least in some generic way.
So good people doing good things can easily assume they are already aligned to your congregational vision and discipleship path. Don’t blame them for this assumption. Be deeply thankful for their commitment and their work. Honor their vision. And slowly, relentlessly, persistently, clearly help them see the Path you are trying to nurture and support.
2. True Alignment Needs Specifics
True alignment cannot remain at the 10,000-foot level. A discipling culture needs common language and imagery. Your church already has a broad commitment to theology and mission, but you also have “the way we do things around here.”
The clearer you can describe what your path looks like and what the next step is, the more you can align your ministries for higher impact. Be concrete. Be specific. The goal is alignment that allows a range of ministries to help a variety of people take a small step down the same discipleship path.
3. Directional Leaders Invest in Directional Leaders
All the current leaders of all your current ministries need special attention to help them grasp and embrace the discipleship path of your congregation. You just can’t get to them all.
The only viable option for a directional leader is to invest in other directional leaders. Although you may see the direction more clearly than anyone else, you can’t be the only one who owns the vision. Your primary work in setting direction is investing in the leaders who can invest in the leaders who can make change happen. The clarity of the vision is too important for you to be the only one who knows it inside and out.
4. The Longer Fuse has a Bigger Bang
The transition from Program to Path takes more time—and has more potential—than you currently imagine. When you commit to discovering and implementing a discipleship path as part of the DNA of your congregation, don’t expect immediate results.
Your job, over time, is to help your staff and leaders take a next step in the right direction. As they do, as you invest in directional leaders, they will begin to help others take a next step in the right direction. As the momentum grows, you must add clarity and specifics to the vision, so people know if their next step is aligned with the path we are all on together.
Such a transition will probably mean less people in certain programs. And for a Program church, that won’t feel like a win. But stay focused on small steps in the right direction.
And then give it time. And then double that time. And then, when you feel like giving up, instead give it more time. Once the path is clear and identifiable, and your ministries are aligned to help people take the next step, the impact is greater than you can currently imagine. If you can hang on that long …
5. All of These Observations could be Wrong
I think the best way to transition from Program to Path is to commit to the long haul, to engage people who are confident they are already aligned to a vague vision of the whole Christian Church on earth and to help them see what your concrete, specific congregation is doing in concrete and specific ways to help others take a small step in following Jesus. I think the potential impact of aligning what you already have is worth the potential cost.
But I might be wrong about that.
In my current ministry setting, we are only about three years into the transition from Program to Path. But we didn’t even know that’s what it was until recently… So maybe in another five or six years I would tell you something different.
But for now, the best way I see to move forward is to lovingly and persistently invest in leaders who can own the vision and invest in other leaders. If we can align all the stuff we are already doing to a clear path for following Jesus—well, I can’t wait to see what happens then!