Great Christians get plugged into their church. I generally agree with this principle. I know there is great wisdom in plugging guest and new members into the various ministries of the church. A church that serves together appears to grow together. As church guru and Lifeway President, Thom Rainer said, “If you are not in a group, you are not really committed to your church.”
I agree to a point. Good church members, godly ladies, and sincere men should readily be about the business of the church. They should be ready to serve in the nursery, to attend a life group, and to take serve on the properties committee. If our church members do not do these things, we have a problem. Our churches have a problem. Only 16% of people who attend only the worship service are still in the church five years later.
To combat this problem, we try to plug people into every and any program. We create programs for our golfers, for young moms, for old moms, for senior adults, and for the youth. If you are alive, we have something for you. We tend to assume that getting someone into a program equals discipleship and growth.
Sadly the program method of discipleship is not working. I regularly run across Children’s Pastor, Minister Directors and scores of workers who have more burn mark than and 30 year-old spark plug. They are worn out, discouraged, and ready to quit. Yes the stumble past the five-year bench mark. But during that time, they have only given. They have not received And now they are ready to quit.
My experiences are not unique. Back in 2007 Bill Hybels the lead pastor of the Willow Creek Mega Church discovered that no correlation existed between one’s program participating and their love for God and others. He reported, “Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into…wasn’t helping people all that much.”
Programs do not mature people in the faith. I would argue that many of our programs actually hurt the faith. I do not believe basketball camps, small groups, and women’s bible studies are bad per se. But often, they become a substitute for real relationships. Instead of having the grieving widow into our home, we rush off to watch a video driven Bible Study on friendships. Instead of spending time witnessing to our neighbors, we are at church preparing crafts for VBS. Instead of taking the new mom a meal, we are rushing off to choir practice. We are doing things for the gospel. But in reality, we are actually substituting programs for ministry. We feel good about our church and our faith. But we have not expressed our faith nor actually functioned as the church.
Consequently, we are surprised to learn that the Dad helping with Awana struggles with drug addiction. We are shocked to learn that our friend in Bible study is getting a divorced. And we are caught off guard by the news of that our daughter’s best friend mom embezzled money. We saw all these people week in and week out and had no idea that they were struggling.
Relationships built upon the Word of God are the power of the church. We exist not to run programs. We exists to stir each other up to good deeds. We come together as the people of God to call each other to repentance. We visit each other to encourage the weak and broken hearted. We are called to exist together in community because the community is where the gospel goes forward.
As Pastor and theologian Jared Wilson reminds us, togetherness is the heart of the gospel (p149). In Galatians, Philippians, I and 2 Corinthians, and 2 Thessalonians, Paul over and over again expresses his desire to be with people. “For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” God calls us to community built on the mutual sharing of the Word of God.
The same is true of our savior. He spent time eating, talking, and living with those who he tried to reach for the kingdom.
He does not hide behind his office labeled “Messiah For Preaching and Vision.”He is sweating and crying and sleeping in from of them. And he dies for them. Jesus the pastor know that the sheep need a shepherd (Matt. 9:36).” – The Prodigal Church
I think many in our churches today prefer programs over community because community is hard work. Most Christians do not want others to know their sins and to be called to repentance. If believers are doing well, they fear interacting with the hurting because the healthy do not know how to apply the Scriptures to life.
Moreover, programs are easy. We can be busy about our Lock-in’s, our children’s camps, and our relief ministries and not even be saved. Programs do not require the gospel. They only require our effort, ingenuity, and time. Hopeful the Holy Spirit is directing all those things. But when he is not present and a program is sustained only by human effort, God is not pleased. Notice what he told the sinful Israelites in Amos 6:21, “I hate and despise your feast, I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” God does not like program for programs sake.
I do not believe we need to end all programs going forward. There is a place for all kinds of ministries ranging from food pantries to overseas mission trips. Yet, the ministries are only good if they foster relationships on the gospel. Yet, any program that distracts from community should be jettisoned and jettisoned quickly. If we refuse to confront a brother in sin, to hear the sorrows of our sister, and to bring food to the hungry because we are too busy doing gearing up for VBS, we have a huge problem. We have actually missed caring for the church in our effort to be the church.
If we do not get back to the basics of the church gospel proclamation and discipleship eventually our programing will fail. Our programs cannot restore the broken marriage, help the teenager overcome their eating disorder, and empower the child escape the burden of worry. The gospel preached through the mouths of our brothers and sisters can.
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightfully said,
The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truths. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.
Because we desperately need our brothers and sister in Christ that God has given us, we must be willing to sacrifice all to have meaningful relationships with them. We must throw off every program that keeps us from living out the gospel together. Are you ready to deprogram your church?