the weblog of Alan Knox

Am I against church programs?

Posted by on Sep 9, 2007 in discipleship, fellowship, love, service | 21 comments

Many times, I am asked, “Are you against church programs?” Some people, knowing that I do not stress church programs, also make a jump in logic and ask, “Why are you against church programs?”

My simple answer is, “I am neutral toward church programs.” In general, I am neither for church programs nor against church programs. Of course, in a time when churches define themselves by their programs (check out most church web sites), stating that I am not for church programs usually causes those who are for church programs to view me as the enemy – somehow against the work of God in their programs. But, this is not the case at all. I recognize that God works in many different ways, including through many programs. So, my neutral stance should not be recognized as being antagonistic toward church programs.

This then, usually brings up another question: “Why are you neutral toward church programs?”

The best way for me to answer this question is to turn to Scripture, specifically Mark 7:1-13:

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother'; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God) – then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:1-13 ESV)

In this passage, Jesus deals specifically with traditions that had been handed down to and taught by the Pharisees. Notice that Jesus did not condemn these traditions, but neither did he promote them. However, Jesus did condemn any tradition that causes the individual or group to leave or reject the command of God.

Just to pick on a particular church program (tradition), let’s consider Sunday School. Sunday School is not a command of God. It is not required of believers to attend Sunday School. So, if we are not responsible for attending Sunday School, what are we responsible for? We are responsible to make disciples, to teach one another, to have fellowship with one another, to serve one another, etc. Many would say that these are the purposes of Sunday School. I agree that these are usually the purposes of Sunday School. But, when we teach “attending Sunday School” as a requirement for believers, then we are teaching our traditions instead of the commands of God, even though we may have held to our traditions as a means to keeping the commands of God.

Unfortunately, many times we teach people to hold to our traditions and to participate in our programs because the programs are easier to measure and control. For example, many times church organizations will use Sunday School attendance as a measure of discipleship. In the same way, the church organizations will control who can teach in their programs in order to protect from any instructions that would disagree with the stance of the organization. These programs and traditions, while probably started in order to help believers keep the commands of God, tend to replace the commands of God – either consciously or unconsciously – in the minds of the believers.

Thus, when asked if they are making disciples, believers can point to their attendance in Sunday School. When asked if they are evangelistic, they can point to the organization’s evangelism program. When asked if they are teaching their children to walk in the ways of God, they can point to their children’s ministry. When asked if they praise God, they can point to their participation in choir. When asked if they give to others who are in need, they can point to their tithes and offerings. When asked if they fellowship with other believers, they can point to their covered dish dinners. When asked if they worship God, they can point to their attendance at a Sunday morning meeting (“worship service”). However, while each of these programs may be means to helping believers obey God, attendance or participation are not the goal in and of themselves; and, furthermore, attendance or participation neither equates with obedience nor do they preclude the individual’s responsibility toward God and toward his fellow believers.

This does not mean that I think programs are inherently evil. Jesus did not condemn the traditions of the Pharisees in general, and I do not condemn programs in general. In fact, I have seen programs work very well. Usually, this happens when the program is organized for a specific and short-term purpose.

For example, if a family’s house is destroyed by fire, an organized program to help them with money, food, accommodations, etc. would be very beneficial. In this case, the “benevolence” program has a specific purpose: to help the church show kindness and to serve this family who is in need. When the need is met, then the program would stop. What usually happens, though, is that this “benevolence” program is continued after the need is met. Thus, we feel a need to continue to staff and maintain a “benevolence” committee or program which has no specific goal, other than show benevolence, which is the requirement of all believers, not just those in this program. The program becomes the goal, instead of the means to meeting a goal.

My friend Eric, from “Hammer and Nail“, described my position on church programs in a comment to his post called “Let Them See the Gospel“. He said:

I think one reason people outside the church may not see a living faith within the church is that we often rely on church programs to accomplish the work the individuals should be doing. I know that opens up a big “can of worms” about church programs. However, I think the connection is real. Programs, whether good or not so good, often lead people into shirking their personal responsibility to serve others by thinking that the church program will take care of it. Within the church, we need to talk much of personal responsibility to serve one another within the body and outside the body.

Thus, our goal should not be creating, promoting, staffing, and running church programs. Our goal should be discipleship, fellowship, evangelism, hospitality, service, etc. These things can happen within church programs. But, they can also be hindered when church programs become the focus and goal of our organizations. The church should focus on loving God and loving others through discipleship, fellowship, evangelism, hospitality, service, etc. instead of focusing on creating and maintaining programs.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-9-2007

    I appreciate your honesty and clarity on this issue. I’ve been asked the same question by others who know I go to a church without programs and I’ve found it hard to articulate what you just laid out beautifully. This post was definitely beneficial to me!
    Meg D.

  2. 9-9-2007


    Very well said. Great post.


  3. 9-10-2007

    Great post! This is exactly what I am wrestling through at the moment. Your thoughts here have helped me to pinpoint some of the issues that I am trying to make sense of. We are quite trained to assume that our involvement or even just association with a program equates to our own action and obedience while sometimes this can be an almost passive role.

  4. 9-10-2007

    It seems like the problem is equivocation. Like you said we tend to think Sunday School = Discipleship, and now since Discipleship is a requirement Sunday School is a requirement.

  5. 9-10-2007

    Hmmm … this is a great post Alan. As I was reading it I realized that in many respects the church has become very like the state. We have come to rely on church programs to take care of things in much the way that we rely on state program to take care of things. I’m thinking here of issues such as welfare and education. There are many such parallels though if we begin to ponder it. But, like the state, individuals in the church are continuing to shirk their responsibility to “love their neighbor” by giving to the church and hoping the church will handle the messiness of it all … in like manner we pay our taxes and hope that the state will take care of the poor amongst us.

  6. 9-10-2007


    I’m glad that this post was beneficial to you. It is not easy to explain my stance on church programs.


    Thanks for the comment and encouragement.


    I think you’ve understand me perfectly. We equate involvement or attendance in a program to obedience.


    Yes, this is a problem of equivocation. I think equivocation is a big problem with many areas of the church, including the question, “What is the church?”


    I had not thought of the connection between church programs and state programs. I think there are similarities, as you pointed it. It would be interesting to see if historically the rise of state programs (welfare, for example) corresponds to the rise of church programs. Both are fairly recent developments.


  7. 9-10-2007

    Alan, all your misgivings about church programs will go away once you start thinking of people as “giving units” rather than as members or disciples.

    Get on the ball.

  8. 9-10-2007


    I love sarcasm. Thank you. :)


  9. 9-11-2007

    I think i am neautral like you alan, the Q I have is what is this programme doing/why do we do it and therefore is it worth doing?

    We don’t have to label something a programme for it to actually become programatic/tradition – as one of my friends once joked, the last 7 words of a dying church are “we have always done it this way…”

    We can call it a programme, a ministry, a gathering, an event, a happening, a practice, formation or whatever but actually serving people together is hugely helpful and often incredibly pratical – in my busy life i am delighted when i can come along and help out on something that has been organised by someone else with other people to keep me enthused and encouraged :)

  10. 9-11-2007


    I also enjoy working on projects with other believers. Thanks for the comment.


  11. 9-12-2007


    Thank you for your post. I go to a fairly traditional evangelical church, with all the standard programs. Sunday School and Wednesday night Bible study are really pushed, and attendance in those seems to be an unofficial “litmus test” as to how spiritual someone is. I usually attend both, and might even end up teaching Sunday school myself at some point.

    That said, many times I feel more Discipled at a small group I attend that isn’t affiliated with any church. I struggle with the fact that there seems to be a mentality within the church that I attend that Evangelism is the job of our “Street Lights” program.

    I have been wrestling with many of the same type of questions you address here and elsewhere on your blog. I posted your article and will be adding your blog to my Blogroll.

    Thanks and keep it up. We need voices for change from within the church, now more than ever

    Aaron G.

  12. 9-12-2007


    Thanks for linking to my post and for your comment. In many ways, I am also part of a traditional church. In other ways, it is not traditional. Then, in still other ways, we have created our own traditions. Either of these can be good, or they can distract. I think one key is to continually remind ourselves of the goal and purpose of each program and tradition. When the goal or purpose is no longer necessary or effective, then it may be time to change.


  13. 6-14-2011

    I have found this post very helpful, something myself and my husband have been wrestling with for a long time. Thank you for articulating it so well. So as we are endeavouring to move away from a programmed based approach towards living a relational life within our community, we live with questions marks over us. Living in the UK, church programmes have also become a measure of how well a person is doing spiritually.
    I have worked in social care for a number of years supporting what we term “hard to reach families”. We often talked about whether we were working with hard to reach families or were we a hard to reach service. I believe as christians we ust ask ourselves the same question; is the community hard to reach or are we hard to reach christians (full of church activity)

  14. 6-14-2011

    …is the community hard to reach or are we hard to reach christians (full of church activity)

    What a great comment and thought Caroline.

  15. 6-14-2011

    Event, program and performanced based religious Christianity is exhausting, glad I jumped off the hamster wheel and put on the light yoke of Christ simply following Him in loving God, brother and sister, neighbor and enemy as the Spirit leads.

  16. 6-14-2011

    Caroline and Hutch,

    I agree. That’s a great comment!


  17. 12-2-2011

    As someone whose goal once was creating, promoting, staffing, and running church programs,” I am currently de-programming myself. My wife and I have resigned from every program in our legacy church. We only do things and respond affirmatively to invitations that are relational in nature, like helping lead or participating in a discussion group or being available for prayer with people or sometimes social activities. We err on the side of not participating because we are afraid of enabling people who think programs are the end all. So while it may be good to go to the monthly men’s breakfast to hang out with some guys, I don’t go because those who organize think of it as a program. If i want to spend time with the guys who attend the monthly men’s breakfast, we invite them and their wife over for dinner or something.

  18. 5-13-2013

    I believe “neutral” is the Christlike approach, as you pointed out, Alan…until such a program would cause others to tumble out of a life lived for Christ, focused on inward gratification and contentment vs. outward service. Too often there is a dichotomy of believers that feel they need to be either/or instead of both/and when it comes to disciple life in a congregant setting with programs in the mix, or out in the open organic community setting. My husband and I serve and draw from both. That doesn’t mean we don’t recognize the illness within the walls. But outside of the walls isn’t perfect either. AND it is wise to remember that the Body of Christ is ONE, despite how individuals choose to play out their part in the Body; in/out/or both. I am grateful my lesson came “early”. We departed from traditional church in 2006 to live a mission life in service to advancing the Lord’s Kingdom throughout communities in another country. It shocked our church leaders, as we made our choice without seeking permission or commission from the church. I admit there was a weirdness discerned in all of that, and I ached a bit for the silent treatment I perceived we were getting. But not long after, our oldest son died and we had to come back home to do the formalities of burying him. Hardest thing we’ve ever had to do! But the church rallied behind us and supported our journey home and back through their ‘benevolence program’. So while I can speak all day against programs when I choose to take one side over another, I must be wise to consider that perhaps one day I will find myself humbled again and in need of the very programs I condemn.

    Great article! It’s refreshing to see honest neutrality on the topic. Lord bless you!

  19. 5-13-2013

    We still have a relationship with a traditional church, a couple in fact. One of them we consider our “marrying, burying and holiday (Easter/Christmas)” church.

    The argument of traditional vs. home/simple church folks have misses the point in my mind. To most people I hear it’s a location or clergy/leadership issues. To me it’s a discipleship issue. In a traditional church, it’s not about discipleship, it’s about membership and attendance. The goal is to get people to attend services, get involved in small groups and programs and then call it discipleship. In our home church, someone doesn’t even have to join us on Sunday morning for us to be discipling someone because we can get togehter whenever, wherever. We’re also more likely to be more involved in our neighborhoods and community because the “church” isn’t always asking us, or laying a guilt trip on us, to volunteer in their programs. Same goes with how we give our money.

  20. 5-13-2013

    (Wow I didn’t realize I had posted right before Claudia a year and a half ago.)

  21. 5-13-2013

    Claudia and Dan,

    Great comments! Thank you both. I love the focus on discipling one another (helping one another follow Jesus)!