June 19, 2009
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. Soâ€¦
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."
It leads to the expansion of the Kingdom. Because of this program, Luke tells us, "the word of God spread" and the "number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly." I imagine this was because the church was doing what it was supposed to be doing and the apostles were doing what they were supposed to be doing.
I've pastored a couple of churches and served on countless committees, and I can say with relative confidence that if we subjected all our programs to these three criteria in any of those churches, we would have cut our number of programs considerably.
Instead of beginning with a community need that's theologically justifiable, we tended to run programs because we felt we should ("The church growth books say you need a small group program if you want to be successful.").
Instead of finding folks to lead who are "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom," we'd enlist any poor sucker with a pulse and a guilt complex to oversee a program they felt no real commitment to. When we had burned through enough volunteers, the staff would take over the program, which kept them from prayer and the ministry of the word.
And instead of leading to the expansion of the kingdom, programs selected and run this way tended to use people up, overtax the staff, and result in exhaustion, bitterness, and a dearth of resources.
In other words, I don't think programs are the problem. The problem is the way we choose them and the way we run them. It's hard to deny that the church should serve people through formal ministries. Whether you call them co-ops, initiatives, or whatever, at the end of the day they're still programs.
But maybe I'm missing something. How does this strike you? Are there other criteria you use to decide what programs to launch and which ones to trash? Does Acts 6 affect the way you think about programs in any way?