Strategies for Becoming a Post-Program Church
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.