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.
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.