The Empty Promises of a Busy Schedule
When visitors show up at a church gathering, I often hear a version of this question: “What do you have for ______?” Children? Youth? Singles? Men? Women? Seniors? They assume that a good church has a lot of programs for specific subsets of people. Programs are how people get plugged in and grow. Surely, underneath the musculature of a healthy church, we find the skeletal system of a full ministry calendar, right?
In fact, a busy ministry calendar can distract and exhaust the saints more than it establishes them in the faith and furthers the church’s mission.
The aim of this article is not to discourage any and all programs or extra activities in a church. Instead, the goal is to emphasize the primary things revealed to us in Scripture that have also withstood the test of time.
I want to consider two theological problems that mislead us into thinking that a busy ministry calendar produces maturity in Christ, and then offer three encouragements for how to structure your church’s ministries.
Theological Problem #1: Deriving Our Identity from What We Do
Being a pastor, I often ask people about how they are doing. It is remarkable how many immediately respond with a list of things they are doing. Instead of learning how it’s going trusting Christ as a pilgrim in this fallen world, I get an update on how frequently quiet times are happening, what books are being read, and their recent attendance at a community group. This is a dead giveaway that we’ve been conditioned to regard our Christian identity by what we’re doing.
Biblically speaking, the Christian life is a given life. We receive the righteousness and satisfaction of Christ by faith (Rom. 3:21–26, 5:12–21; Phil. 3:1–11). We are united to him. We then live from our union with Christ and our justified status, but we are not chasing after anything (Rom. 5:1–11, 6:1–23, 8:1–4, 15–17). Everything we do, we do in view of God’s mercy, not in the hope of attaining it.1
Theological Problem #2: We Don’t Think the Ordinary Means of Grace Will Do the Job
The church has historically understood that the Lord imparts, sustains, and strengthens his people through the ministry of the Word and the administration of the sacraments—as well as prayer and song.2 In our day, we tend not to trust that an ordinary life in the fellowship of the saints, participating in the ordinary means of grace, will lead to maturity in Christ.
Or maybe it’s not that we don’t trust the ordinary means of grace. Maybe we’re bored with them. We’re looking for the next big thing. We live on a constant quest for spiritual experiences or the key that will unlock true discipleship. And we often think we can find it in some niche ministry in the church.
Having said all this, let me offer three encouragements for your church’s ministries.
1. Unashamedly emphasize and prioritize the corporate gathering on the Lord’s Day.
When we gather as Christ’s people on the Lord’s Day, we do so to receive from Christ—his ministry and gifts. We come sinful; he forgives us. We come dirty; he cleans us. We come hungry; he feeds us. We come empty; he fills us.
Corporate worship is an opportunity to hear from and be changed by God. He has spoken. He has revealed himself. He has acted. He has remembered us. He has saved us. And so we respond. This is the most genuinely redemptive thing we do each week. God has promised to be with us, to minister to us, and to give us whatever our faith and love might lack.3
Given this, the ministry schedule in our churches should be subservient to the Lord’s Day gathering. It also should flow from it, which leads me to my second encouragement…
2. The Lord’s Day gathering should equip the saints for the work of ministry. Have a church calendar that allows the saints to minister both to one another and their neighbors.4
In our day, it’s normal to do life at a breakneck pace. People’s lives are full. Admittedly, we sometimes do this to ourselves, but not always. I’m thankful to be a part of a church where many of us are trying to live simple lives oriented around the local church. But even with that, it’s still easy to become overwhelmed by everything on our respective family calendars. I trust our church is not unique.
This raises an important question: are we serving our people well by filling up their calendars with a bunch of church activities? If modern life is a rat race, then the contemporary Christian life can often feel like a hamster wheel. We run like crazy. We’re doing a lot of stuff. But then we look up, exhausted, but aren’t sure if we’ve gotten anywhere.
It’s good to make room during the week for the saints to get together for coffee, a meal, a walk, or a play date at the park. We should make room during the week for the saints to practice hospitality. These kinds of interactions encourage the saints to confess sins to one another; to bear one another’s burdens; to invite correction; to encourage, exhort, and admonish one another; and to seek the salvation of their family, friends, and neighbors.
Do our church ministry schedules foster or preclude this kind of activity?
3. Outside the Lord’s Day gathering, everything else is a wisdom call. Really.
Our churches are not in sin for having or not having a youth group, a seniors’ ministry, community groups, or a women’s Bible study. There is a lot of latitude and liberty regarding programmatic ministries in the church.
To the elders at our church, it seems wise to provide additional times outside of Sunday morning for teaching and prayer, so we have two Wednesday nights a month where we learn doctrine, a prayer meeting every Sunday night, and catechism classes every Sunday morning. Outside of those, our other church activities serve as opportunities for the saints to deepen relationships with one another and are structured accordingly.
Here’s the question we should ask ourselves about any ministry in the church: Does this ministry clearly serve the church’s mission? If it doesn’t, feel free to get rid of it. Programs and ministries come and go. Think that way. Talk that way. Structure your budget that way.
A Final Word of Encouragement
The primary ministry of any church member is to show up to the Lord’s Day gathering. Everything else flows from that. There are countless times over the seven years of our church’s life that I have said to well-intentioned saints, “Trust Christ. Calm down. And show up to church.” Sometimes I add, “And talk to me in a year.”
That simple exhortation has been remarkably fruitful in our congregation. Why? Because the Lord builds his church through the means he has given. We can trust him.
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 This is how the apostles write in the New Testament epistles. They ground the saints in their union with Christ, affirm their adopted and justified status, and then go on to write of how the redeemed live. Notably, consider Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 John (where John affirms the saints throughout).
 Matthew 26:26–28; Luke 22:19–20; John 6:47–51; Romans 6:3–5; 10:14–17, 16:25–27; 1 Corinthians 10:16, 11:23–26; Ephesians 4:1–16; Colossians 2:11–12, 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:16–4:2; 1 Peter 3:20–22.
 See the Scripture references on the ordinary means of grace (above), as well as Matthew 11:28-30, 2 Corinthians 3:5-6, 16-18, etc.
 See, again, Ephesians 4:7-16; Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31. Regarding the significance of ministering to one another and our neighbor, also see Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 6:1-2, etc.