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Five Limitations of Church Programs

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When it comes to computer programs, writing a java script produces digital commands that then produces automated results. This is how a web page comes to life. Unfortunately, many Christians are tempted to think of ministry programs in this way. It’s as if we can simply enter the right commands and then expect the lively results we crave.

We all want our churches to be filled with disciple-making disciples of Jesus. Jesus wants that too (Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 1:28-29; Ephesians 4:11-16). And, of course, some programs can be useful to that end. But programs do not produce disciples. Spirit-filled, Scripture-filled, discipled Christians produce disciples, and not all programs are useful for producing those. With that in mind, let’s consider five limitations of church programs so that we don’t treat these programs as if they’re simple formulas for producing mature disciples of Jesus.

1. Programs don’t necessarily produce loving commitment to the whole church.
Sometimes we think that if people would just get involved in a ministry program, then they’d be “really committed” to loving Jesus and the church. So we put them on the evangelistic visitation team or the hospitality committee, or we stick them in the choir. These things might engender committed love, but they might also encourage a truncated view of Christian commitment based solely on the exercise of what that person sees as his or her gift.

There’s more to loving and serving a local church than simply exercising what I see as my gift. There are seniors to be helped, young people to be taught, shut-ins to be visited, slower Christians to be patient with, sinning Christians to be corrected, chairs to be set up, wayward members to be brought back, hurting Christians who need a listening ear and prayer, lonely Christians who need fellowship, weak Christians who need help, idle Christians who need admonishing, and faint-hearted Christians who need strengthening (1 Thessalonians 5:14). These things don’t require much gifting, but they do require loving commitment. Just “doing my thing” in a niche program doesn’t necessarily mean I’m growing in committed love for the whole congregation. In fact, you can hide yourself in a program so you don’t have to love your least favorite church members in ways that would make you less comfortable yet more mature in Christ. Shepherds should prevent the sheep from hiding from each other.

2. Programs don’t necessarily produce skilled servants or leaders.
It’s often assumed that if a member is plugged into a ministry program, then competence will inevitably follow. But inexperienced Christians often get plugged into ministry programs only to get zero feedback on how effectively they work. They’re in the evangelism program, for example, but no one gives them constructive criticism based on a mature Christian’s observations of their ministry. They’re leading a small group, but inattentive elders may simply assume that they’re leading well without ongoing ministry oversight, or without asking group members how they’re responding to the person’s leadership. These individuals are left to assume they’ve reached the pinnacle of Christian growth in service to a program, while their actual ability to speak truth to others in love (Ephesians 4:14-16), or their willingness to receive correction, remains anemic.

In fact, some programs are so time and people-intensive that they make members experts at activities of secondary importance. Our church gatherings need some musical leadership. But if 50 of your 175 members are at choir practice two nights a week for the upcoming cantata, while hardly anyone shows up to the prayer meeting, something’s off. When can they fit in an evangelistic meal with neighbors, or time for coffee and an evangelistic Bible study, if a program takes so much time? What if we took some time from our other programs to train all our members in how to use an evangelistic tool with their neighbors––like Christianity Explained or Two Ways to Live—and then left them with a few evenings in the week to actually use it? Members need margin for ministry. Programs have a place; but if they crowd out personal discipling, something’s amiss.

3. Programs don’t necessarily produce mature relationships.
We often program our small groups and Sunday schools around affinity groups or demographic sameness. We’ll have a youth program, a singles program, a young-married program, a seniors program, etc. Doubtless, it can be encouraging for members to gather with others who are in their same stage of life. But aren’t those affinity relationships, and friendships based on demographic similarity, the very ones we all seek out most naturally, whether we’re Christians or not?

We don’t need programs for the relationships we naturally seek out, but for the ones we don’t. The youth don’t need a ton of help hanging out with each other. They hunt each other down like heat-seeking missiles! What doesn’t happen naturally is the youth hanging out with the seniors, or the teens hearing adults talk intelligently and affectionately about Christ and Scripture in a Bible study for all ages. Similarly, parents with young kids gravitate toward each other. Parents with young kids, though, don’t naturally gravitate toward, say, teens, or college students, or senior saints. Instead of organizing our programs by affinity or demographics, why not organize them to encourage our different demographics to mingle (2 Timothy 2:2; Titus 2:3-5; 1 Peter 5:5)? Isn’t that what makes Christian community unique—that we unite, not around our physical or demographic similarities, but our commonalities in Christ?

4. Programs done wrongly can fracture church unity.
This has happened in churches more times than we care to admit. For example, we all want to minister to our teens. The question, however, is whether cordoning them off from the rest of the congregation to enjoy their own separate service is the best way to do that. I doubt it. If we give in to a demand for an entirely separate Sunday service program for teens, then what are we doing to their expectations of the church as they grow up and move away from us? We’re training them to expect their next church to have a college and career class, and then a young-marrieds’ class—cradle-to-grave demographic silos at church. Parsing out our members based on demographics often has other unintended consequences.

Before I was taught a robust ecclesiology, I was in a church where I only really knew the people in my singles’ class. Yet there were older, wiser saints in that church that I never took the time to get to know. I was never challenged to ask them about their own Christian lives. I was never invited to listen to their advice, hear their testimony, or be encouraged by their long-standing faithfulness. That’s partly my fault and partly the fault of the leaders who isolated us into homogenized groups. That same church also had two Sunday morning services based on musical preference—traditional and contemporary. Guess who went to the traditional service? Older people. Guess who went to the contemporary service? Young people. Guess what happened to the church a few years later? It split along those very demographic lines, because it separated the congregation into two distinct groups based on music programs geared to different demographics. Those groups grew so distant and they misunderstood each other so badly that they never intermingled again. The intention was never to irrevocably split the church, and yet . . .

5. Programs don’t necessarily produce reliable shepherding structures.
There’s a danger of setting up a small group structure where the elders then assume that the life-on-life and one-to-one ministry is happening in small groups. I like small groups. But it’s become popular for some churches to view themselves as a church of small groups, as opposed to simply a church with small groups. It’s as if every member of the church must be part of a small group, because that’s where you’re getting the most important shepherding care. But small group structures are really only as strong as the qualifications of the group leaders, and the faithfulness of those leaders to not only lead a discussion but to foster the kinds of spiritually encouraging and corrective conversations that constitute truly biblical shepherding. Let’s not fool ourselves—not all small groups are created equal.

Neither are all programs, which leads to one last question—if a cherished program outlasts its usefulness, are we willing to let it go? That depends. Do we expect our people to serve our programs, or our programs to serve our people?

Paul Alexander is as the Pastor of Grace Covenant Church of Fox Valley in St. Charles, Illinois.
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