Programs are useful things, but they are not ministry in and of themselves. I appreciate the illustration given in the title of Colin Marshall and Tony Payne’s book, The Trellis and the Vine. In it, programs are likened to a trellis that provides a structure for the growing vines (i.e. people). This helpful illustration properly places church programs as a means not an end.
As a pastor at a church that is potentially going from a high school to a permanent building soon, there have been many discussions on how to utilize the new building. For the first time we can have ministries throughout the week at a central location anytime we want. The possibilities seem endless. But we have to evaluate these potential new programs and the old ones to see if they are the best ways to accomplish ministry in our local context. Here are some criteria I am personally using:
1) Do they promote ministry?
With this question, I want to evaluate whether the program is an end unto itself or actually promotes gospel ministry and discipleship? Christmas programs are a great way to invite the community to your church, but if the gospel isn’t preached and the glory of Christ is not proclaimed, it is waste of time and money. Likewise, men’s breakfasts are great as long as they have a greater purpose and don’t evolve into simply breakfast with the guys. As Jesse wrote about evangelism, “Its about people not programs.”
Intentionality is powerful. Programs should have a purpose. If they fail to accomplish the goal of equipping the saints or fostering the “one another’s” of Scripture, then they should be evaluated and/or replaced. Like Paul, I want to present everyone complete in Christ and there is not room for dead weight programs. Colossian 1:28 should be goal of every program:
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
3) Is there a better program or can they be improved?
Change can always be difficult but often is the best medicine. Sometimes programs need to change or be stopped altogether. Perhaps there is a better way of doing things, and leaders in the church must be open to this. The Bible gives great freedom in the details of how ministry works itself out in local church contexts, so this is good question to constantly ask of every program.
Eventually some programs will loose leaders and go through changes. One danger is when a person is forced into leadership when they are not gifted in the same ways as the previous leader. In this case, there can be an attitude of keeping a program going just because it has always been there even though it has become an unnecessary burden and no longer accomplishes it intended goal. A good solution is to take the current leadership and create a program around what they are gifted and passionate about.
5) Would people do it naturally without the program?
As helpful as programs can be, you don’t have to have them for everything. If you are training disciples to be disciplemakers, they will begin to naturally make disciples without any structure. This involves building this disciplemaking attitude into the church culture. People only have so much time, so it is important to make sure church programs are actually helping to facilitate the a culture of disicplemaking as opposed to just squeezing people dry.
Programs are useful servants upon which to accomplish ministry, but they make bad masters. The goal of presenting all believers mature in Christ should guide every church program and provide motivation for excellence. That way churches can avoid unnecessary, poorly run, or non-ministry driven programs from hurting gospel ministry.
As a side note, Bobby Jamieson has written a helpful article on programs over at the 9marks blog.