Moving from Programs to a Culture of Discipleship in an Immigrant Church


I like to-do lists. They provide both structure and a sense of achievement. But they also have their limitations. What’s listed isn’t necessarily a mirror of my life. They don’t measure my attitudes, my motivations, or the posture of my heart. To-do lists are a helpful tool, but they make a terrible master.

Church programs are kind of like to-do lists. They provide a church both structure and a sense of achievement. Complete a Sunday School class. Finish a discipleship curriculum. Attend a weekly ministry. And while it may look like a lot has been accomplished on the outside, it may not be indicative of what’s happening on the inside.


From my experience, immigrant churches tend toward program-centric ministry. Why? It’s complicated. In Eastern cultures, attitude often takes a back-seat to whatever task lies before us. In other words, work hard and don’t complain. Eastern cultures also emphasize hierarchy; we’re taught to do what we’re told by those in leadership regarding everything from our educational pursuits to our career choices to our financial goals and even to personal decisions like dating and courtship. Our success is generally measured by our conformity to our authorities’ desires.

This aspect of immigrant culture shows up in many immigrant churches. Pastors and church leaders put together programs for church members to accomplish. These programs have great intention. After all, godly leaders long for the spiritual growth of their people. But when church members don’t understand the reason behind these programs, they can become dangerous. It’s easy for people to go through the motions and fulfill their spiritual to-do list at the expense of loving Christ and His people from the heart.


Our church has deliberately moved away from programmatic ministry. Instead of facilitating church members to evangelize on Saturday morning, we encourage them to develop healthy habits of personal evangelism. Instead of having church members complete prescribed curriculums of discipleship, we encourage members to be sensitive to others’ spiritual growth and needs. We want them to cultivate healthy habits of searching the Scriptures together, or reading Christian books relevant to their station in life.

The change was difficult at first, but it’s been rewarding. After a few years, the atmosphere of our church changed from a sense dutiful obligation to joyful burden-bearing (Gal 6:1–5). It’s been refreshing to see members take greater ownership of their discipling relationships with one another. More members are intentional in reaching out. More members have meaningful conversations. The church is growing in its love for one another.

What changes did we make? We did more than just taper off programmatic ministry. We made some other deliberate choices. I’ll name a few.

1. Include corporate applications in the sermon.

One obvious change happened in the pulpit. Our pastors made a conscious decision to make more than individual applications. We started making corporate applications, showing from the text how the Lord wants his church to love and serve one another.

2. Approach corporate worship like an organism, not an institution or production.

We reminded our church that we’re a living body (1 Cor 12). And like any other body, we need proper rest, nutrition, and exercise in order to grow and be healthy. This growth takes time, and it also requires every member of the body working together to build itself up in Christ (Eph 2:11–22).

In order to reinforce this, we made several changes to the worship service. First, we started asking members to pray in corporate worship. There was a time in our church’s history when only leaders took part in the public aspects of our gatherings. We decided that this conveyed a professionalism and institutionalism that was unhealthy. So we started asking members to pray the prayer of praise, thanksgiving, and confession. We also opened the door for members to do the Scripture reading.

Second, we asked the music ministry to emphasize congregational singing. For an Asian church, this was difficult because many members played instruments and contributed to the music ministry. But the change was necessary in order to teach the importance of congregational singing. As we began to take ownership of the singing, we began to feel like a gathering and family of believers.

Fourth, we began to end our gatherings by reading “one another” passages and encouraging the saints to practice them before leaving. We don’t want drive-by members who only show up for service and then leave. We want our members to admonish, encourage, help, and pray for one another, so we close our gatherings by emphasizing these things.

Simply put, incorporating congregational participation in the Sunday gathering changed our church. They understood their contributions in the local church as more than passive participation, but active edification for the saints.

3. We changed our members meetings.

Initially, we had one annual meeting that was primarily a business meeting (e.g., election of officers, presenting the budget, and giving reports). Over the years, we’ve changed from an annual meeting to quarterly meetings to bi-monthly meetings.

But more importantly, we changed the nature of these meetings. We spent less time on budgetary details and information-laden reports and more time on praying for members and discussing ways to help those in need. We lessened administrative discussions and moved them to the end of the meeting. We shared encouraging testimonies, read Scripture, and sang a hymn together.

As a small church—currently of 59 members and 28 children—we are also able to give a short overview of member care. We encourage members to reach out to those who inconsistently attend, to assist members in need, and to reach out to prospective and new members. By shifting our focus to member care, a crazy thing happened: our members began to care for each other.


Every church will find itself in a different place; their leaders will have to decide what’s best for their context. But in every situation, the focus must be the same: encourage the body to take ownership of its spiritual growth. We shouldn’t settle with our churches merely doing lots of things; instead, we should pursue health and vitality in the body.

Be patient. Change takes time. One healthy meal, one good night’s rest, and one session at the gym will make little-t0-no difference. But a steady practice of healthy habits changes everything. Our church has found some healthy and happy rhythms. It’s improved our quality of life together, and we aim to keep it going. We’re thankful that God has brought us to this point, and we trust him to lead us on.

Mark Pakingan

Mark Pakingan is a member of Pillar Bible Church in Long Beach, California, where he has served as Senior Pastor since 2015.

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