If churches shouldn’t rely wholly on programs to do the work of ministry, this raises some questions: First, should churches ditch all their programs? Second, if not, how should churches decide which programs to keep or cut?
Should churches ditch all their programs? Not necessarily.
Certainly churches should view all “programs” that aren’t biblically prescribed as optional, and so they should hold them with a relatively open hand. But this doesn’t mean that all programs are bad, or that they are inherently bureaucratic and counterproductive of real ministry. Some programs, like Sunday school, can be excellent tools for teaching the Bible, equipping Christians with a biblical worldview, and changing the culture of a church.
How then should churches decide which programs to keep or cut? Obviously this is a complicated question that each church will answer slightly differently. Here are three principles for thinking it through. These principles, I should add, are relevant not just for deciding whether to keep a program or cut it, but for thinking through how to reform and improve existing programs as well.
1. Programs should be means, not ends in themselves.
That is, they should be means to the end of equipping the saints for the work of ministry. For instance, an evangelism program shouldn’t be the only way people in the church evangelize. Or at least, if it is initially, it should have the stated goal of equipping people to evangelize outside the program.
Further, some programs seem to exist for the sole purpose of furthering their own existence. The fact that the program exists lends it an artificial weight and importance all out of proportion to its contribution to the church’s work of evangelism and discipleship.
Of course, many programs could fall on either side of this divide depending on the quality of content, teaching, planning, and so on. Take Sunday school. On the one hand, many adult Sunday school programs contribute little to the Christian growth of their participants or the church’s culture of discipleship.
Yet in a recent Journal article, Jonathan Pennington argued that Sunday school is a uniquely helpful context for teaching church members a wide range of biblical and practical topics from how to study the Bible to parenting. One of the points he made was that if churches don’t use something like Sunday school to teach on these matters, they probably won’t be taught at all.
From this angle, Sunday school—especially a well-planned, content-driven model—helps a church to equip its members more thoroughly and completely than it would without the help of a structured program like this. Sunday school is a means, not an end.
2. Programs should contribute to a culture of discipleship, not compete with it.
Let’s stay with our example of Sunday school. Done well, Sunday school is like a diet plan—it helps to ensure that the church as a whole is receiving a balanced diet of biblical teaching. It’s one specific tool for discipling Christians, and it helps feed an overall culture of Christian growth by creating the expectation that church members will be growing in their knowledge of and obedience to God’s Word.
Sunday school shouldn’t take the place of discipleship. It shouldn’t give the impression that discipleship exclusively takes place in Sunday school, or that Sunday school is absolutely essential to discipleship. Instead, it’s simply one means to the end of discipling Christians, and fostering an overall atmosphere in the church that nurtures discipleship.
Or consider small groups. If a church chooses to make use of them, small groups should be a structure that helps to nurture personal relationships and acts of service. By providing a starting point for relationship building, they should help to knit the whole church together. But people’s church participation shouldn’t begin and end with their small group. They shouldn’t be more devoted to their small group than to their church.
3. Christians shouldn’t spend all their time “at church.”
Christians shouldn’t live out their whole lives within the four walls of their church. We need time to be faithful in our vocations, whether mothering or mortgage brokering. We need time to disciple our children. We need time to befriend and love and evangelize our non-Christian neighbors. And there are only so many hours in the week.
Extra-biblical church programs inherently compete for time with these other, explicitly biblical, priorities. So pastors should always be aware that time at church programs is time taken away from these other things.
Obviously there’s much more than could be said here, but these three basic principles are a starting point. Programs should be evaluated for what they contribute not just to individual Christians’ discipleship, or the act of evangelism, but to an overall culture of discipleship. And pastors should always realize that in terms of time, they’re always dealing with trade-offs. More time in church related activities is less time with non-Christian neighbors.