The Post-Program Church


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.


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 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.

Bobby Jamieson

Bobby Jamieson (PhD, University of Cambridge) is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Most recently, he is the author, with Tyler Wittman, of Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2022).

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