Putting Programs in Their Place
And it turns out they do have a place.

In some circles, the term "church programs" has become an epithet for all that is wrong with the institutional church. For a generation hungry for authenticity and community, "programs" feel staged, impersonal, and cold. For a generation increasingly skeptical of government, big business, and corporate machinery in general, "programs" reek of institutionalism, bureaucracy, and insensitivity to human need. Programs may not be the problem, but they are certainly a symptom. They give us something to throw stones at.

To a certain extent, these feelings are justified. After all, programs are the means by which we draw people into our churches. Once they're in, we get them involved by participating in or leading our programs. Participation in programs becomes the way we judge how "involved" people are - if they're engaged in our programs, we call them "committed." Programs become a means by which we judge our effectiveness as ministers - we can know we're doing a lot for Jesus, because we're running so many successful programs. In some churches, it appears the congregation exists to serve the church's programming.

Some folks have responded to this reality by eliminating programs all together. "We're about people, not programs," they say. Instead of investing in formal ministries, they would rather invest in human relationships. And I agree: the church is the physical body of Christ on earth; an organism, not an organization. Even so, programs are biblical, if they are done the right way.

One of the places in the New Testament that most clearly addresses anything like church programming is Acts 6:1â€"7. The short and long of it is this: the church is growing, but the Grecian Jews are complaining to the Hebraic Jews because the Hellenistic widows are being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. (Daily food distribution is a program, right?)

This passage offers a corrective vision of what a program should look like.

It begins with a community need that is theologically justifiable. All the widows weren't being fed. This has serious implications. To begin with, the problem was creating a problem in the fellowship - it threatened to destroy the unity that was a primary marker of the Christian church. Furthermore, the early church knew that gospel compelled them to care for widows (James 1:27). In order to be faithful to their calling, then, they needed to do something. So…

It is overseen by qualified folks. The apostles decided that the church should choose 7 men whom they considered "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom." Presumably, such men (in this case there were only men) would be concerned about the things the Spirit was concerned about - the unity of the church and the care of widows. And their service would free the apostles to do what they were called to do: "prayer and the ministry of the word."

June 19, 2009

Displaying 1–8 of 8 comments


August 12, 2009  9:41am

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often. Patricia http://lioneltrains.info

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Matt Stephens

July 22, 2009  9:23pm

Love the post, Brandon. You didn't join the mindless mob of cynics who don't know how to distinguish terms from concepts. One other biblical caution for programs: when they become the predominant means of involving the congregation in ministry, they supplant the Spirit-led, way-of-life ministry in the contexts in which God has, in His providence, scattered them for redemptive work. Too many church leaders assume they have been appointed by God to determine how and when the sheep of their flocks should be ministering. Certainly there are ministries/programs that require pastor-initiated leadership. But I suspect that they are not large, centralized ministries designed to involved the majority of members. Rather, they are smaller initiatives that can be accomplished by smaller "bands" of believers (perhaps believers who are joined together in community in other ways already).

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July 06, 2009  4:18pm

I'm reminded of something I once heard someone say: If the Holy Spirit's presence were completely removed from the earth, 95% of church activity would continue and not notice the difference.

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June 22, 2009  12:23pm

"Participation in programs becomes the way we judge how "involved" people are-if they're engaged in our programs, we call them "committed." I think you pointed out a very significant point in your assessment of programs. In my previous church experience, commitment was heavily weighed by participation in programs. Subsequently participation in programs was then the gauge of spiritual maturity and discipleship. The more one was 'involved' the more of an indicator it was of their maturity in Christ. In my humble opinion, I believe this to be faulty logic, and, I believe it caused (and still causes) confusion around what it means to really be a disciple of Christ. I think more often than not, it isn't the idea of programs that is flawed, it is how we flawed Christians choose to use them. Structure isn't always a bad thing, but, as above mentioned, when we miss the point of a program, that very program ends up being a hindrance to Christ and the furthering of his kingdom, instead of the help it was intended to be.

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June 20, 2009  4:30pm

Paul and Richard–thanks for your comments. These are very helpful. As for your question, Paul, about communities evaluating programs in this way, I think Acts 6 speaks to that, too. Verse 2 says that all the disciples were involved (surely not all 5,000 from Pentecost?). Verse 5 says, "This proposal pleased the whole group." The implication here seems to me to be that this was a community discernd process. As for your second question, I'm curious to hear what you think.

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Paul Sheneman

June 20, 2009  8:42am

Richard, I think that your question is good and is pointing us in a helpful direction along the same trajectory as Brandon. For he is pointing us to Biblical criteria for the discernment of programs as means of grace. Wesley frequently did this with the class meetings to ensure that they were a place of formation and transformation (i.e. means of grace). Likewise, Brandon wants to make the point that programs are not the problem but the reasons for starting them and carrying them out are the problem. Thus the criteria of... 1. Theologically justifiable community need 2. Selection of qualified folk 3. Expansion of the kingdom Some questions I would have to add are... Do you see communities evaluating or discerning programs this way? Are there other criteria for activities that can be a means of grace to people?

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Richard H

June 19, 2009  4:20pm

One way to look at programs is as structure activities. If we understand them in a Weberian context, as Routines supplanting charisma (grace), then sure, we ought to dump them. But can we take them as means of grace, as graciously given habits?

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June 19, 2009  12:29pm

One other addition: it wraps up when the goals are met rather than becoming enshrined for successive generations to carry out hungry widows or not.

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