Many churches are plagued by the program approach to ministry. They look at other churches and see good things happening, and they ask what they are doing to see those types of outcomes. The result of that conversation is a program or a conference to teach others how to achieve those same results. As a disclaimer, I don’t believe there is anything inherently sinful or wrong about programs. A program is meant to be used as a tool to assist or aid a church in its purpose and mission not to replace the mission or purpose.
Not only does the program approach work against the mission, but it also does several other things to work against the church. Here are a few
1. The New Testament church didn’t even know what programs were.
The New Testament church was not concerned with which children’s ministry program do they install for their Sunday morning worship service, or which Tuesday night visitation program, or any other program. They didn’t even know what a program was. Their main concern was to teach and live out what Jesus, the Old Testament, and the apostles taught. They worshipped together, ate bread together, and lived generously. Ministry was actually pretty simple.
2. The program approach makes a church do a bunch of things poorly.
Churches that utilize the program the approach will often utilize multiple programs for various ministries in the church. Think of a buffet mentality. When you go to the buffet, you take a little of this and a little of that. You start grabbing bits and pieces of everything. This works great for a buffet but not so good for a church. What happens is that each one of those programs are executed at a low level. Instead of doing a few things well, lots of things are done poorly.
3. Programs are only bandaids for gaping wounds.
If you had your appendix removed, your doctor wouldn’t go to the medicine cabinet and grab a tiny bandaid to cover the wound. If he did, you would die. In the malpractice proceedings that would surely follow, he would proclaim, “I put a bandaid on it. I did something.” The good judge would look at him incredulously and your doctor would lose his case.
Many times, we treat programs the same way. If you have multiple serious issues in your church, utilizing a program is not going to fix those problems. If anything, your problems will only increase.
4. The program approach creates ministry silos.
People apart of programs usually love their programs. Think of programs like your favorite fried chicken place. I’ve lived all over the country, and I really love Chickfila, Zaxby’s, Cane’s, and Popeye’s. They are four different chicken places, but when you talk to people, they are very passionate about their chicken place. Some may like one or two, but they’ll be sure to tell you why they don’t like the others. They will often drive many miles to get their chicken.
Programs also create cheerleaders for their program inside the church. People are so emotionally vested in that program that when it comes time for that program to die, people complain. They get up in arms for taking away their program that they love so much. In severe cases, it can split the church.
5. The program approach is more concerned with the means than the ends.
Programs are a means to an end. Some are more geared towards teaching. Others are more geared towards community, and others towards evangelism or discipleship. Programs are meant to bring about a certain end, but because people love their certain programs, they will be more in love with the program than the desired outcome. Whenever that happens, the program takes a life of its own, and the desired results are not achieved. Those are clear signs the program needs to die.
6. The program approach is a disjointed approach instead of a unified approach.
About ten years ago, there was this TV show called Junkyard Wars. Teams would be tasked to build a project that was usually mechanical in nature. They build amphibious vehicles, trucks, etc. The catch was that they had to go to the junkyard to find all of their parts. People came up with all sorts of crazy designs. Some worked. Many did not.
Those who work in a program approach often look at their church by going through the junkyard and assembling programs here and there to try to make something work. It creates something disjointed instead of holistic and well though out. Instead of creating something that makes sense from beginning to end, they’ve made something that may or may not be conducive to what they are trying to do.
Programs aren’t bad. Just make sure they are not the end all in your ministry. Start off by praying through and reading the Bible for what a healthy church looks like. Define that in manageable chunks for your congregation, and then maybe put in a program that makes sense for what you are trying to do instead of the other way around.