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The Program-Driven Church

Updated Feb 19, 2009
The Program-Driven Church

One link led to another and I happened recently upon the website of a large NAPARC congregation. As I often do I looked to see who the pastor was. That link led me to a list of “pastoral staff” who coordinate a breathtaking number of programs. 

My first reaction was to blame the senior minister and elders. “How could they facilitate this incredible tangle of programs? Where is the gospel? Where are the sacraments? Where is discipline in the life of the church?”

Then it occurred to me that this welter of programs probably was not invented wholly by the minister and elders. To be sure, it often happens as the “staff” grows the number of programs tends to grow. People have to justify their existence and the bureaucratic imperative kicks in. “What is this person doing? Why are we paying them?” “Oh well, they’ve just come up with this exciting new idea that will really bring _____ (fill in the blank) back to church.”

Just as likely, however, the programs are a response to pressure from the congregation and the community. One of the questions pastors get most often is, “Do you have a program for such and such?” The answer to this is more or less binary: “Why yes we do!” or “Well, no, I’m sorry we don’t.” If the pastor can meet market demand then he may gain a customer. If he fails to satisfy market demand, the customer will go to the service provider down the street.

Pity the pastor. What is he to do? Can he educate someone, who has been conditioned by 50 years of modern evangelicalism, over the phone, about the centrality of Word, prayer, and sacrament to the life of the church? Can he do a mini-bible study right there on the phone for the 400th time, explaining that,

We’ve made a principled decision not to become a ‘programmed’ church. We’re convinced that Jesus and his Apostles instituted a very simple three-fold program: 1) preach the Word when it’s fashionable and when it isn’t; 2) Administer the holy sacraments to the edification of the congregation; 3) administer discipline. He even had a name for his program and a name for his institution. He called the program ‘the Keys of the Kingdom.’ He called his institution: the ‘Kingdom of God’ or sometimes ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’ and sometimes he just called it ‘the church.’ So, that’s what we do. We meet for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day morning. The service is oriented around the Word, prayer, and the sacraments. We have catechism instruction for the youth and for grown-ups. We go home to eat (and sometimes we share a meal together between services). We come back again on the Lord’s Day evening for another public service where we open the Word again and pray. That’s our program.

That’s a difficult conversation to have. More than likely the person on the other end of the phone (or email) will say, “Oh, well, I was looking for such and such a group. I was in one a few years ago and I really loved it. I need one of those. Thanks for your time. We’ll keep looking.” After a few of those sorts of calls, the pressure to conform grows. The pressure mounts as the elders begin to press the pastor to “get some new people in here.” 

There are pastors who know better. They know what the marks of the visible church are, what the means of grace are, what the keys of the kingdom are, and what the elements of worship are. The demand for programs, like the constant drip of water that wears a groove into a rock, wears down even the most resolute pastor. Perhaps a new, more “business oriented” elder is elected. Perhaps a newer, “more exciting,” or “more relevant” congregation gets planted down the street and before long families begin to drift to the new program-driven congregation.

Some of those pastors who know better would like to do better. They remember the zeal they once had to preach the gospel, the joy they had studying and praying over their Greek and Hebrew bibles (time which is now spent managing a growing staff) as they prepared to bring the Word. They had hoped to minister the Word to people, to see them grow in grace and glorify God by doing things his way but few seemed to want that.

Those pastors with a conscience are troubled. They’re afraid of what might happen if they begin to rock the boat. No one wants to preside over a Scottish Revival. Some stifle the pangs of conscience by telling themselves that they will begin a reformation just as soon as we get another Reformed elder but somehow the conditions never seem to be just right.

Other pastors have simply accepted the “program-driven” model as the only one available. These cats openly measure themselves by “buildings, bodies, and budgets” and they are unashamed. The entrepreneur might have taken a modest small to mid-sized congregation and “grown” it into a large and influential congregation. If it were a business, he might sell it and start again with a new one. Perhaps they’ve heard someone tell of an “ordinary means” model of ministry but it sounds exotic and they’ve never seen it. They see themselves as CEOs or as “Ranchers” and they have no idea how a “Word and sacrament” ministry could possibly function in a go-go 24/7 wired world. 

Finally, to the engine of the program-driven church: the congregation. Not always, but often the congregation is just as culpable for turning the church into a mall. They want what they have (perhaps implicitly) demanded and it seems that they’ve demanded “the mall.” After all, the mall is where they get their needs met. The mall forms their culture. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar. It works. The mall has a food court, a cinema, and all the right shops. Why can’t the church be like that? What’s wrong with it? 

The main thing wrong with it is that the mall is the Kingdom of Me and My Choices. The Church is the Kingdom of Christ and his grace. They’re two different kingdoms. The Kingdom of Christ is totalitarian. It is not a democracy. It is not egalitarian. It is not market-driven. It comes from heaven and enters history by the power of the Holy Spirit operating through the unlikely means of the preaching of the Gospel, the announcement of Good News, that something has been done for me, apart from me and that I benefit from all of that by hearing and believing. The Kingdom is not about my choosing but about being chosen. It’s not about my sovereignty but about God’s. There’s no food court but just a holy meal where God the Son feeds his people with his own body and blood unto eternal life.

What to do? For those who know better they should pray for courage and for wisdom. Reformation has to begin somewhere. They need to begin teaching the elders what the church is, what ministry is, what the means of grace are, what the marks of the church are, and the purpose for which Christ has instituted his church. Then they have to begin teaching their congregations. Going slowly, being patient and careful of the well being of the sheep is essential to any Reformation. Yet there must be a certain resoluteness about this business. As reformation begins and programs diminish (they must decrease, Christ must increase!) some sheep will leave and find more attractive pastures with more and better programs. Know from the beginning that you will not “keep” them all. That’s okay.

Your most fundamental conviction must be that the church is Christ’s kingdom, that it belongs to him, that he bought it with his blood (Acts 20:28). As long as you know for whom it is you work, you’ll be okay. If you’re seeking Christ’s glory and the salvation of his people, you’ll be fine--even if a Scottish Revival does break out. If you’re seeking something else, then perhaps you’re in the wrong line of work?

R. Scott Clark is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. Dr. Clark has published widely and blogs regularly at Heidelblog.


Mall of America photo used with permission of Wikimedia Commons, Rene Sinn.


Christianity / Bible / The Program-Driven Church