How Programs Fit into an Ordinary Means of Grace Ministry
When we speak of “ordinary means of grace” ministry, we are really talking about ministry that is built on a foundation of confidence in God’s sovereignty. If the fruitfulness of our congregations depends on our skill, effort, and cleverness, then our efforts will be best invested in coming up with programs and strategies that are most likely to bring about the desired results. But we know from the Bible that God is the one “who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6) and that salvation “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). As a result, the question that ought to shape our approach to ministry is this: what sort of activities has God freely and sovereignly commanded and promised to bless? That is to say, through what means does he work in order to draw, strengthen, encourage, build up, mature, and capture the hearts of his people?
We might use a handful of different words to indicate these activities, but they boil down to a few ideas:
— God calls and blesses his people through his Word, especially when it is preached, but also when it is read in private or in smaller groups.
— God gives grace in response to the prayers of his people, whether they are offered in corporate settings, in small groups, or in private.
— God blesses his people through the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). When God’s people come in faith to be baptized or to the Table, they experience communion with him and each other and the strengthening of their faith and joy in the Lord.
— God also shapes and edifies his people through the local church, particularly its fellowship, care, oversight, and discipline.
Now, those four means of grace might not seem like much in terms of an effective ministry strategy. It seems like a church would need much more than just those ordinary activities in order to grow in size and maturity. It seems obvious that it would be more effective for a church to create a series of carefully targeted programs aimed at generating interest, excitement, and involvement. This is why so many churches seem to spend so much of their time and energy on putting together bigger and better programs, things like:
- Camps for children and youth
- Big holiday gatherings (Trunk or Treat, anyone?) for the community
- Meetings aimed at people with specific needs (recovery, grief, singleness, divorce)
- Events designed to get men or women together
But God has always had a way of doing things that confounds our expectations in order to magnify and glorify his wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18–31). So a church that trusts in God’s sovereign power to save and build his church will focus on those ordinary means of grace more than a series of splashy programs.
But that doesn’t mean that there’s no room for programs in the life of a healthy church. In fact, as long as they occupy the proper place, programs can help people to grow in Christ and experience his grace. But the tricky part is that phrase “the proper place.” What is the proper place for programs?
Here’s the key: our programs are helpful only to the extent that they put people in contact with the God-ordained means of grace. It doesn’t matter if a program draws a crowd of unsaved or unchurched people; it doesn’t matter if it’s well-attended by church members. Many programs create the appearance of growth and progress without actually seeing much of the Lord’s work accomplished.
What matters is that we engage people with the means of grace. If God saves people through their hearing his proclaimed Word (Romans 10:17), then we want our outreach programs to create opportunities for unbelievers to hear the gospel Word. If God causes his people to grow through his Word, then we want our children’s programs, our youth programs, and our adult discipleship programs to be focused around God’s Word. If God blesses his people in response to their prayers, then we want to design our programs to encourage the church to pray. If God uses the fellowship of the saints and the oversight of a church’s elders as a means of grace, then we want our programs to facilitate those relationships.
Here are a few examples of programs that serve an “ordinary means of grace” ministry model:
- A food distribution and community garden brings our neighbors onto our church’s campus, where church members can meet them, build relationships with them, pray for them, and invite them to read the Bible.
- A Bible study for at-risk youth gives them a chance to hang out in a loving home, have a good meal, play some games, and study the Bible.
- An after-school homework club helps immigrant children with their homework and teaches them the Bible.
- Church members are set up with one another for one-to-one Bible reading, where they use study notes prepared by one of the elders.
- A men’s group meets to read a Christian book and break up into small groups to talk about their lives and pray together.
These programs serve the larger purpose of exposing people to the things that God has said he will use to bless his people. This approach to ministry requires church leaders to regularly evaluate these activities to make sure they’re actually serving their intended purpose. Without regular evaluation, programs tend to become ends unto themselves, and well-intentioned Christians can sometimes see their role in the church as continuing certain ministries, even when they’re no longer effective. In order to deploy programs well, church leaders need to be able to explain how a certain program exposes people to the means of grace, and then be very honest in evaluating whether or not it’s actually accomplishing its purpose.