Church Programs – “Is This Stuff Really Worth It?”

Intended Primary Audience – Church ministry types, vocational, non-, bi-, and all who labor for the Kingdom.

As church staffs, ministries and calendars are gearing up for the respective fall launches and kick-offs, just about every September I ask myself in exhaustion something similar to what so many other ministry-types ask, “Is this stuff really worth it?”

There’s the mad rush to find volunteers, the countless emails, the meetings, the copier that gets jammed, the complaints, the apathy, and the overly-excited folks which leaves you wondering if you can deliver up to their high expectations, therefore making them future complaints.  It’s ridiculous to say out loud, there’s the fear of punishment with shame (“This is not only your job, but your calling“), and so many do not vocalize this until they have their foot out the door.

You hear a lot of complaining about “programs.” That word has been the whipping “individual” (this blog is politically correct) for missionals, emergents, neo-reformed, youth ministry types, and anyone disenchanted or overworked in the Church.  We say things like we should be more about people than programs. And it’s easy to agree with a statement like that.  We talk about over-programming. We talk about Purpose Driven Church (Purpose not programs!). We talk about Simple Church (Simpler Programs!)  We say Jesus didn’t have any programs but we create dozens of them based on a pattern of ministry.  (Groups of 12, pairs, inner circles of 4 and then there’s Acts 2, Pauline models, etc).

If we look at most church websites, we see a variety of ministries, “programs” with descriptions that some times promise more than a presidential candidate. “Come to Thirst/Fountain/Oasis/The Well ;) and the Bible will finally make sense to you!” (For the record, I teach a ministry called Oasis so know I’m poking fun of myself too.)

Be fair though, if you click on a church website and don’t see any ministries, you might assume that they are not doing much outside of their Sunday morning worship service.  And frankly, for most, I’d say that’s a fair assumption.

Like it or not,
Small groups is a program.
Simple Church is a program.
Churches meeting in bars, living rooms, coffee shops, abandoned dealerships in the heart of the city offering presence-centered incarnational redemption to the community, is a program.

I like a lot of these things – One of my main responsibilities is supporting small groups, I liked the Simple Church concepts that Rainer and Geiger helped us work through, I like pub church gatherings and value incarnational ministry.

But we have to admit, some of this is quite semanticical (that’s a word right?).  And while we generally mean the same thing – all these things are programs because we are dealing with numbers of people.  And groups of people need organization.  They need a dedicated time and place needs to be organized. Volunteers need to be found (we do rightfully criticize if everything is professionally run), but that means these volunteers need to be vetted and if they work with children, they need background checks, and it there are not enough, there needs to be a rotation schedule, which requires a spreadsheet, database and an email chain. Curriculum, worship elements, service opportunities, refreshments, I could go on and on but in some form or another, this is a program. Especially if you do this with any type of regularity.

The problem with programs is that they tend to take a life of their own. They tend to become a ministry monster, gobbling up attenders, volunteers, the staff, resources, and time. It can be a very hungry and insatiable creature. When it becomes untamable, we fight back and look to pull the plug, resolving that programs are a terrible idea and we should avoid them.

Those who are faithful to their local church can feel overwhelmed and taken for granted by the needs of the program. Those who are new to a church or on the fringes can have an “impersonal” experience because of the program. Regardless of where one is coming from, often many will express, “This place is fake – it doesn’t care about people – only about _____ (the blank is filled with “numbers” or “money” or “being known as the cool church”, etc. ).

The one thing that every program has is people. If ministry is not centered on people than its doomed to be “successful” in any Kingdom sense – we all know this. But “programs” can be a beautiful experience of the Christian faith IF …

… they are truly Christ-centered. However the purpose is stated, if it’s more about following Jesus than “keeping the kids happy” or “giving adults a break from the stress of life”, it will have long term life-giving Christian potential.

… there is opportunity for authentic Christian community. Not just Christians socializing and mingling with other Christians, we’re talking sharing in the experience and mission of the gospel message together.

… there is commitment from all aspects. Anytime the commitment pendulum swings too much to one side for too long, resentment builds and the ministry lags.

It’s so important that we ask ourselves why are we doing what we are doing. Especially during the craziness of launching the fall “programs.” Lives have changed and more can. It’s good that we are seeing that we can do better. It’s good that we are critiquing (hopefully ourselves too). And in some ways, it’s good that we are hustling hard to get done what needs to be done.

One of the lessons that I am learning in the large church model is there are so many different types of people and we need many different types of churches of all sizes and methodologies. Regardless of what context we find ourselves in, what we do matters to each other.

It’s essential that we ask the questions regarding sustainability, mission effectiveness and make paradigm changing decisions but if we are waiting for the perfect ministry model, we’re going to not only find our that our ministries struggling but we will also squander our God-given callings and opportunities.

Are church programs worth it? Well, depending on how you unpack that – yes.

Wishing all those laboring a Christ-filled year.


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