The Programmatic Early Church

As every pastor has done from time to time, I have warned about the insufficiency of a solely programmatic church. The Body of Christ must be identifiable as more than a slew of calendared events promising that if you attend this, you’ll become that. Yet with all of our vision-casting of the need for relational discipleship, many churches’ strategy sounds simply like a social calendar of a neighborhood gym offering classes and events for whoever decides to show up while hoping you keep depositing your monthly membership fees. 

How did we get here? Many churches begin ministry programs based upon a nearby successful example to emulate or an ongoing need to address. With the ever-growing calendar of events, different programs feel as if they must jockey for promotional priority among competing church-wide emphases. Most pastors reach a tipping point where they must decide if they will allow an overrun calendar to remain unchecked or unchallenged, refine the programs to ensure that everything that is done is done well and aligned with the mission, or disband anything on the calendar they deem as programmatic or insignificant.

Regarding the church’s calendar, you can accept it, address it, or abolish it. 

Accept, Address, or Abolish

I think accepting a bloated ministry calendar as-is endangers the health and longevity of a church’s ministry. I believe that abolishing all programs and ministries distances and devalues you the people you want to disciple. Without a doubt, I believe the wisest approach is to address the current calendar with patience, respect, and insight that allows you to help people get where they need to go. If the desire is to lead people somewhere, you can’t do that if you recklessly run people off. I don’t believe it is in the job description of a shepherd to get annoyed with the sheep so much that he has the freedom to make changes and care less of the sheep goes wandering to another flock confused and disappointed.

All churches need to reevaluate their programs from time to time, but we also need to acknowledge that programs are actually essential to what we are aspiring to do.

The goal is for church members to embrace a discipleship lifestyle. The way they will catch that is by learning it from an intentional mentor. And the manner in which that relationship will be built is because someone put a program on the calendar. That sounds awfully programmatic. 

Existing Programs (Even If You Don’t Want to Admit It)

Do you want to preach a powerful sermon that motivates the congregation to biblical belief and behavior? In order to do so, you put a date, time, and location on the calendar in order to gather. I doubt many of us are preaching in the sanctuary all week long just hoping someone will come.

We desire our people to have deep and developing relationships with others in the church. How do we encourage that to happen? You invite them to join a group that gathers with a set people under a set leader at a set time in a set location. The environment is very critical to the opportunity for relationships to develop. And it kinda sounds programmed.

Every pastor would love to see a church unhindered as they take the gospel to defined mission partnerships locally and globally. Whether it is a pocket of a community down the street or a people yet unreached around the world, we want these people reached with the hope of Christ, and we do not assume they will be reached by accident. That’s why we organize a team, train those going, set a date and time, buy tickets, arrange details, and do all that is necessary to get them there. It even sounds like missions is extremely programmatic.

Hopefully, you get the point. While there are plenty of worthwhile things that the church should do that are not a program, much of the inspiration for such things happen because of one. If a program is simply a plan by which a goal is met, I do not think that programs are evil. I do not think they can be avoided.

In fact, I think the earliest days of Christianity were marked with programs.

Jesus, Peter, and Paul on Programs

Much of Jesus’ ministry appeared to be interruptions, but they were always on the path of a set place where Jesus was intentionally heading. Jesus eventually called twelve specific men to serve a specific task of ministering to people (Matt. 10:1). He later appointed seventy-two disciples to go in pairs to defined cities in order to prepare the way for a future ministry trip (Luke 10:1). Every detail on each trip was not itemized, but the direction and the partners were clearly set.

As the early Church was growing in size and significance, they had escalating concerns of how to care for all the people with diverse needs. Peter gathered the church together and nominated seven specific men to carry out a clearly defined task. In order to make sure the needs of widows were remembered, a ministry team was configured with a clear strategy (Acts 6:3).

Paul and Barnabas were sent as a mission team to Cyprus after the church had gathered to discern the Spirit’s direction. These disciples worshiped, fasted, prayed, and commissioned these two men to go to a specific place for a specific task. Obviously, this church did not just happen by coincidence to gather and ended up going down this path. Someone organized the group for such a cause (Acts 13:2).

Leading the Way (the Right Way)

The reason I bring these examples up is that I’ve heard some pastors speak so negatively regarding ministry programs, that, by their definition, Jesus, Peter, and Paul would be guilty of programmatic ministry. If programs entail defining people, places, periods, and purposes, then even our Savior would be guilty. “You know, we shouldn’t have to plan a ministry trip for you people to get involved in the mission…We shouldn’t have to have a ministry to care for people’s needs; we should just all do it by default…Our people should just be living commissioned lives already that we don’t need to organize ministry teams.”

It’s rather shocking that our current ministry hubris puts us as somehow wiser than those who came before us – including Jesus.

Ministry often happens by unexpected opportunities, but they are often crafted and even encouraged by intentional gatherings. Programs aren’t evil. They are even somewhat necessary. So instead of leading your church to endure through a stifling schedule or exit due to a disappointing disbandment, why not edify through a coordinated calendar that allows people to grow in such a way that they are living for Jesus even when they are not gathered together?