Churches shouldn’t rely wholly on programs to do the work of ministry, which means that a lot of churches need to think about cutting some programs and reworking others. More importantly, program-driven churches should work to cultivate a culture of discipleship.
But how? How can you wean a church off of an excessive dependence on programs and move toward a culture of discipleship? How can you slim down your church’s diet of programs without causing a shock to the system?
STRATEGIES FOR BECOMING A POST-PROGRAM CHURCH
Those are big questions, and sometimes they have high stakes. In some churches, the adult Sunday school program is like the electric third rail: touch it and die. Further, as with most practical questions, many of the specific answers will vary church to church.
Still, here are a few suggestions. I hope they will be useful for church leaders who are trying to wean their churches off programs and cultivate a culture of discipleship and evangelism.
1. Put better content in the programs you’ve got. If you’ve got programs that aren’t going away any time soon, figure out how to more biblical content into them. Sunday school is a good place to start.
2. Find other ways to reform existing programs. For example, train and deploy new teachers in Sunday school or small groups. Find and cultivate people who are growing as Christians and are eager to help others do the same. Help them develop a vision for how a program can be used not as a social club, but as an engine for discipleship.
3. Let sick programs die. Attrition can be your friend. If a program is not generating enough interest to keep it afloat, discover the smiling face behind the frowning providence. It’s much easier to lay a dying program to rest than to get rid of something that is apparently vibrant and successful.
The loss of a program is not necessarily a loss to the church. It frees up members’ time. It frees up church leaders’ time. It cuts down on clutter. It allows you to redirect people’s efforts toward more valuable uses of their time, like loving and serving their non-Christian neighbors.
4. Reprogram people when they come in your front door. Almost every prospective church member will ask, “How can we get involved?” For many, this translates as, “What programs do you offer?” So, from the very beginning of your relationship to new folks, help them to reframe their ministry mindset. Encourage them to see their commitment to the church as more basic than their commitment to any program or small group. And encourage them to live out that commitment by regularly attending the church’s public services, building relationships throughout the church, and serving in whatever ways are needed. Encourage them to see church involvement as more about people than programs.
In short, reprogram new people to think in terms of the ministry of the pew, not merely participation in programs.
One good place to have a conversation about this is in a membership interview. When people are about to commit to your church, encourage them to see their church involvement in terms of attendance, prayer, service, giving, and personal relationships. Some of these things may be facilitated by programs, but programs can’t do the work for them.
5. Redirect traffic toward better programs. Not every program deserves an equal share of the spotlight. If you can’t kill a program or significantly reform it, at least you can use public airtime to positively direct people to other ministries that will be more beneficial. You don’t need to say a word against the program—you can just gently direct people’s attention elsewhere.
6. Labor to transform your leaders’ (and potential leaders’) ministry mindset. The most deep and lasting change will come when all of your elders champion and model it. So invest deeply in cultivating a biblical philosophy of ministry in them. And plant lots of seeds in men who have the potential to serve as elders down the line.
I’ve heard Mark Dever recommend that in an effort to develop a “culture of discipling” mindset, a group of church leaders could read and discuss the following four books, in this order: The Gospel Blimp by Joseph Bayly, The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman, The Trellis and the Vine Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, and The Deliberate Church by Mark Dever and Paul Alexander. And I’d add Jonathan Leeman’s Reverberation to that list.
7. Build discipleship into everything you do as a pastor. One of the most effective tools you have in this process is your own personal model. So lead by example through faithfully discipling others.
8. Find as many ways as you can to make discipleship a defining feature of your church’s culture. Here are twenty suggestions to get you started.
9. Make membership meaningful. This last one is one of the most important. The clearer the distinction between the church and the world, the more the very existence of your church will help Christians grow in Christ.
Conversely, if you’ve got hundreds of non-attenders on your roles, your church is effectively saying that living like Christ has no bearing whatsoever on being a Christian. And if you’ve got non-members serving and leading, you’re sending the message that committing to and submitting a church is merely one option for Christians.
So make membership meaningful. You’ll find that when your church is full of genuine, committed Christians, the culture of the whole church will begin to change organically.
On January 8th, Mark Dever preached at the installation our of church's new associate pastor, Hunter Powell.
Mark's sermon on I Corinthians 4, entitled "The Marks of a Real Minister", was very helpful. It renewed my zeal for the ministry and it's well worth your time if you could use some encouragement!
You're in for a treat with Thabiti's Anyabwile's new book, Finding Good Elders and Deacons. Let me give you three reasons. First, it will help you grow in your understanding of what godly maturity looks like in the context of the local church. This really struck me when I read the book for the first time. Elders should exemplify the character qualities that all Christians should grow into, and so Thabiti's meditations on the list of elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 basically provides all of us with a portrait of what Christian maturity looks like. It's a beautiful picture.
Second, it will provide you with an excellent discipleship tool for using with a younger Christian in a discipleship relationship.
Third, it will provide an excellent gift for your pastors or fellow pastors, giving them a tool for evaluating prospective elder and deacon candidates.
In order to provide you with a better introduction, I thought I'd ask Thabiti a few questions about the book. I'm grateful to him for taking the time to offer these replies.
1) What are some of the wrong qualities churches prioritize in their search for new elders and deacons?
Most well-intentioned churches make the mistake of looking for good qualities that re not prioritized by the scripture. So, they look for men who are well-known or popular, men who’ve been successful at business or another endeavor, or men who appear charismatic and influential. These may not be bad things, but they are in no way sufficient things or priorities. When these kinds of characteristics displace biblical godliness, churches end up looking for the wrong kinds of people who inevitably lead the church in the wrong direction. How can people who place a low priority on godliness ever hope to faithfully follow the Lord?
2) Why do the lists in characteristics of elders and deacons presented by Timothy and Titus seem so ordinary?
The list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 really represent spiritual maturity for all Christians. We should see these qualities in some measure in the lives of every follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, elsewhere in the New Testament we find these things being commanded or commended of the “rank and file” believer. So, in one sense, the elder and is simply another Christian, one of the brothers in whom God’s grace is at work. What distinguishes the elder or deacon is the degree to which these characteristics are evident and consistent in their life. The elder and deacon should stand out as one in whom these “normal” Christian qualities occur in “abnormal” degree.
3) How have you seen the wisdom of these lists play out in your own experience working with other elders and deacons?
I’m so prone to look for people like me in some way, or to move impatiently in seeking out leaders. These qualities tend to (a) bring to our attention people that don’t fit our mold or readily appear “like us,” and (b) these qualities slow us down such that we avoid making hasty decisions to ordain elders and deacons. The qualifications actually require we take our time in order to properly discern their presence. When I’ve been patient, prayerful, and watchful for “unusual suspects,” the church has been rewarded and blessed with men God approve for the task. That’s what we want in all our churches.
4) What happens when churches forsake these lists?
Disaster. Wolves enter. Unfaithful men take the helm of the church. Sooner or later a low state of spirituality will engulf the church. Even the very image and respect for leadership itself will be tarnished as men unfit for the positions bring the offices into disrepute. Ultimately, poorly qualified leaders hinder the work and honor of the Lord in the local community.
5) Does your book have relevance for churches beyond whichever body is responsible for nominating new leaders?
I hope so. I hope it’s helpful for congregations in knowing how to pray for their leaders and strengthen the leader’s work. I pray it’s useful for aspiring pastors and ministers in discerning a sense of call and qualification. Also, I hope it’s useful as a basic discipleship tool for men. Every man should at least aspire to be an elder because the qualifications are simply another way of describing Christian maturity. Perhaps the book would even be helpful to women in the congregation, holding forth a description of mature manhood. 1 Timothy 3 is what women should expect from male leaders, what single women should pray for in a potential husband, and what married women should honor in their husbands.
Learn more about the book and purchase here.
If churches shouldn’t rely wholly on programs to do the work of ministry, this raises some questions: First, should churches ditch all their programs? Second, if not, how should churches decide which programs to keep or cut?
SHOULD CHURCHES DITCH ALL THEIR PROGRAMS?
Should churches ditch all their programs? Not necessarily.
Certainly churches should view all “programs” that aren’t biblically prescribed as optional, and so they should hold them with a relatively open hand. But this doesn’t mean that all programs are bad, or that they are inherently bureaucratic and counterproductive of real ministry. Some programs, like Sunday school, can be excellent tools for teaching the Bible, equipping Christians with a biblical worldview, and changing the culture of a church.
HOW TO DECIDE WHICH PROGRAMS TO KEEP OR CUT
How then should churches decide which programs to keep or cut? Obviously this is a complicated question that each church will answer slightly differently. Here are three principles for thinking it through. These principles, I should add, are relevant not just for deciding whether to keep a program or cut it, but for thinking through how to reform and improve existing programs as well.
1. Programs should be means, not ends in themselves. That is, they should be means to the end of equipping the saints for the work of ministry. For instance, an evangelism program shouldn’t be the only way people in the church evangelize. Or at least, if it is initially, it should have the stated goal of equipping people to evangelize outside the program.
Further, some programs seem to exist for the sole purpose of furthering their own existence. The fact that the program exists lends it an artificial weight and importance all out of proportion to its contribution to the church’s work of evangelism and discipleship.
Of course, many programs could fall on either side of this divide depending on the quality of content, teaching, planning, and so on. Take Sunday school. On the one hand, many adult Sunday school programs contribute little to the Christian growth of their participants or the church’s culture of discipleship.
Yet in a recent Journal article, Jonathan Pennington argued that Sunday school is a uniquely helpful context for teaching church members a wide range of biblical and practical topics from how to study the Bible to parenting. One of the points he made was that if churches don’t use something like Sunday school to teach on these matters, they probably won’t be taught at all.
From this angle, Sunday school—especially a well-planned, content-driven model—helps a church to equip its members more thoroughly and completely than it would without the help of a structured program like this. Sunday school is a means, not an end.
2. Programs should contribute to a culture of discipleship, not compete with it. Let’s stay with our example of Sunday school. Done well, Sunday school is like a diet plan—it helps to ensure that the church as a whole is receiving a balanced diet of biblical teaching. It’s one specific tool for discipling Christians, and it helps feed an overall culture of Christian growth by creating the expectation that church members will be growing in their knowledge of and obedience to God’s Word.
Sunday school shouldn’t take the place of discipleship. It shouldn’t give the impression that discipleship exclusively takes place in Sunday school, or that Sunday school is absolutely essential to discipleship. Instead, it’s simply one means to the end of discipling Christians, and fostering an overall atmosphere in the church that nurtures discipleship.
Or consider small groups. If a church chooses to make use of them, small groups should be a structure that helps to nurture personal relationships and acts of service. By providing a starting point for relationship building, they should help to knit the whole church together. But people’s church participation shouldn’t begin and end with their small group. They shouldn’t be more devoted to their small group than to their church.
3. Christians shouldn’t spend all their time “at church.” Christians shouldn’t live out their whole lives within the four walls of their church. We need time to be faithful in our vocations, whether mothering or mortgage brokering. We need time to disciple our children. We need time to befriend and love and evangelize our non-Christian neighbors. And there are only so many hours in the week.
Extra-biblical church programs inherently compete for time with these other, explicitly biblical, priorities. So pastors should always be aware that time at church programs is time taken away from these other things.
MORE TO SAY
Obviously there’s much more than could be said here, but these three basic principles are a starting point. Programs should be evaluated for what they contribute not just to individual Christians’ discipleship, or the act of evangelism, but to an overall culture of discipleship. And pastors should always realize that in terms of time, they’re always dealing with trade-offs. More time in church related activities is less time with non-Christian neighbors.
Next week I’ll give a few practical suggestions about how church leaders can wean a church off programs, improve the programs they’ve got, and cultivate an overall culture of discipleship.
I recently heard Phil Ryken talking about preaching. He told a group of ministers that as long as he had been faithful, he didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not it subjectively felt like his sermon had gone well.
He pointed to the Westminster Larger Catechism, question 55:
Q: How does Christ make intercession?
A: Christ makes intercession, by his appearing in our nature continually before the Father in heaven, in the merit of his obedience and sacrifice on earth, declaring his will to have it applied to all believers; Answering all accusations against them, and procuring for them quiet of conscience, notwithstanding daily failings, access with boldness to the throne of grace, and acceptance of their persons and services.
That is good news and freedom for preachers. It means that because of Jesus, even your C- sermon is counted as an accepted service before the throne of grace!
In The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs explains why ministers and other people in positions of authority sometimes have to stand in a place of (presumably, spiritual) danger. He also notes that this should make people who do not occupy positions of authority happy for their situation!
Speaking of the Israelites crossing the Jordan in Joshua 4, he writes:
Now it was God's disposal that all the people should pass over first, that they should be safe on land; but the priests must stand still till all the people had passed over, and then they must have leave to go. But they must stay till God would have them to go, stay in all that danger! For certainly, to reason and sense, there was a great deal of danger in staying, for the text says that the people hasted over, but the priests they must stay till the people have gone, stay till God calls them out from that place of danger.
And so many times it proves the case that God is pleased to dispose of things so that his ministers must stay longer in danger than the people, and likewise magistrates and those in public places, which should make people to be satisfied and contented with a lower position into which God has put them. Though your position is low, yet you are not in the same danger as those who are in a higher position. God calls those in public positions to stand longer in the gap and place of danger than other people, but we must be content to stay even in Jordan till the Lord shall be pleased to call us out.
-- Chapter 1, Section 9
It seems that more and more churches are ceasing to rely on programs to accomplish the work of ministry. In the main, I think this is a happy development. Recently Matt Schmucker gave me a nice little label for the phenomenon: the post-program church.
Eric Hoffer is frequently misquoted as saying, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Apocryphal though the quote may be, it illustrates a common pattern, a pattern we often see with church programs. It goes something like this.
LIFE CYCLE OF A PROGRAM
Let’s say a certain program is begun as a clearly focused means to an end, usually evangelism or discipleship. Evangelism Explosion. Saturday morning men’s breakfast. Sunday school. Youth group.
The program seems to bear good fruit. People are coming. People are enjoying it. People seem to be spiritually engaged.
But eventually, the program begins to take on a life of its own. Once you have it, you have to keep it going. After all, what does it say about your church if the evangelism program folds? Programs seem to speak univocally about the health and success of your church. If they’re running and full, then your church is doing great. But if they’re leaking people and losing momentum, then something must be wrong with the church.
So you have to keep feeding the program to keep it happy. Maybe you spruce it up with a new name, new look, new plan. Maybe you hire more staff to run it. Maybe these measures succeed, maybe they don’t. But either way, some doubt about the program begins to creep in.
You begin to notice that your church has an increasing number of program partisans. Some of the older folks seem to be more loyal to their Sunday school class than they are to the church. Some of them even come to Sunday school but go to church elsewhere. The program has become a sacred calf—maybe even a golden calf.
Many pastors could tell similar stories. Whether the programs are numerically thriving or taking on water, they can have a tendency to become ends in themselves, rather than means to an end. And when programs become ends in themselves, they’re actually counterproductive to real ministry. They have the appearance of ministry but lack its power. They look impressive, but they’re not helping non-Christians come to know Christ or Christians come to know him and obey him better.
So, many pastors are looking for another way to do things. And they don’t just want another program.
WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?
What’s the alternative to programs? What does it mean to be a post-program church? Should churches get rid of all their programs, from AWANAS to Sunday school?
My short answer to that last question is a definite no. I don’t think a post-program church should be an anti-program church, or a 100% de-programmed church. I plan to say more about that in my next post, in which I’ll also think a little more practically about what it means to wean a church off programs.
What then does it mean to be a post-program church? For now I’ll simply make one vision-level suggestion: instead of running programs, cultivate a culture. Specifically, nurture a culture of evangelism and discipleship.
Culture is a notoriously slippery concept to define because it’s so pervasive and all-encompassing. Culture is to humans what water is to a fish. We hardly notice it because it’s all around us. In this way, culture defines what’s normal. And my point here is simply that pastors should preach and teach and lead in such a way that evangelism and discipleship become normal parts of every single church member’s life. That’s the goal to aim at, anyway.
The New Testament instructs every Christian to make disciples (Matt. 28:19). It teaches that the church grows as every single member contributes to the body’s development (Eph. 4:11-16).
Although it doesn’t have to be this way, one of the dangers of programs is that they can make it seem like evangelism or discipleship only occurs within the program. But evangelism and discipleship are things that, in one way or another, all of us should be doing on a regular basis. So make that your plumb line for evaluating programs—and everything else in the corporate life of your church.
For Further Thought: Easily the single best resource I’ve seen on this subject is The Trellis and the Vine by Tony Payne and Colin Marshall. Also very helpful is Jonathan Leeman’s Reverberation. And, Lord willing, we’ll think more about this next week.
The following is a guest post from Brian Croft. Brian serves as the senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to contributing to the 9Marks blog, Brian writes regularly on his own blog called Practical Shepherding. Brian is married to Cara, and they have four children.
Why must we vocally project when we preach?
A common conversation I find myself having with many of the men in our church testing their preaching gifts is the issue of projection in preaching. Different men with different gifts have varying levels of intensity when preaching. Intensity is not to what I am referring. Whether you are a loud, passionate, energetic preacher, or a thoughtful, warm, conversational one, vocal projection is necessary in every case. Here are 3 reasons why…
1) Volume. Some preachers think there is not a need to project if they are adequately amplified with a microphone. In fact, some hear their voice artificially amplified and will even project less thinking they need to compensate. The fact is, a sound system can only do so much in bringing a preacher’s voice to proper amplification. Projection is that necessary tool to find that balanced level.
2) Clarity. When I mention projecting to many of our men new to preaching, they think it is strictly a volume matter, but it is just as much a matter of clarity in what is being said. The most common example is when a preacher is speaking and his projection trails off at the last phrase, which affects both clarity and volume. I remind young preachers if my 37 year old ears cannot hear or understand what you just said in the last half of your final sentence, you can be certain the 85 year old widow with hearing aids did not either.
3) Tempo. This is referring to the speed in which a preacher speaks. In the same way a mumbler has trouble with clarity, a fast talker muddies the words together and makes it hard to understand. Proper projection can help create a solid rhythm and tempo of speech that can make a preacher who is prone to fast talking, slow down.
A few practical suggestions to develop healthy projection:
- Go in the room where you typically preach, have someone sit in the back of the room while you practice your sermon or read a long passage of Scripture without any microphone or sound amplification. If they can hear and understand what you are articulating, you probably have found a good balanced of projection for your unique voice.
- The next opportunity you have to preach, have the sermon recorded and listen to your sermon at a normal audio level. If at any point you cannot hear what you said or understand what was said, then odds are your congregation did not either. Make a note of those times where you mumbled or trailed off in speech and could not clearly hear what was said and you will probably find a pattern that can be worked on for the next time you preach.
We have all heard the stories of men like Spurgeon who preached to over 10,000 people in massive buildings without any amplification, or Whitefield preaching in the open air to thousands. Although many testify of the depth and power of the natural voices of these great preachers of old, those preaching venues are still impossible to pull off without one thing..projection. Consider how well your project when you preach. It can make a huge difference in not just how you communicate, but the vocal clarity and understandability of what you communicate.
In case you missed it, we released a new 9Marks Journal yesterday in defense of Sunday school.
It seems that an increasing number of churches are kicking Sunday School to the curb. But in the editor's note Jonathan Leeman and guest editor Trevin wax write,
If we content ourselves with a 45 minute Sunday sermon for instructing the saints, we’re letting the Friday night movie beat out our time investment into them by double.
That’s why the two of us want to push the retro envelope and encourage you to reclaim adult Sunday school. If you don’t have it, get it. If you have it, consider how you might make more of it. In the immortal words of Huey Lewis, it’s hip to be square.
The issue begins with a theological and pastoral apologetic for Sunday school that SBTS New Testament professor Jonathan Pennington wrote (with a little help from a friend).
Pennington reflects on church experiences he's had with and without Sunday school and then offers a three-planked argument for the pastoral usefulness of Sunday school.
- Knowlege is foundational to discipleship. So all pastors should seek to equip all their church members with a deep knowledge of Scripture and a robust Christian worldview.
- There should be a division of labor between preaching and teaching. Preaching leans toward exultation and exhortation and teaching leans toward instruction. For this and other reasons, some topics are better addressed in the classroom than in the pulpit, like parenting and how to study the Bible.
- If not Sunday school, then where? Small groups can't bear the teaching burden that Sunday school can, which means that if churches don't teach their people these things in Sunday school, they're likely not going to teach them at all.
Do you want all of your people to be saturated in Scripture, grounded in a biblical worldview, and able to apply the gospel to every area of life? Then check out Pennington's article and consider how Sunday school might actually be able to help toward that end.
(And if you don't receive the Journal by email, click here to sign up.)