137. Church Programs

            Many years ago, I attended a seminar sponsored by a well-known church growth expert  He was impressive; filled with facts and ideas about how, in our current culture, to help a church grow; skillful at communicating them. Over the last fifty years the church has experienced tons of the latest church growth ideas; everything from seeker-sensitive services, to purpose-driven churches to missional churches etc. And most of these programs made sense in various ways and seemed promising.  

            The problem, however, is that for most Amerian churches, the programs haven’t struck gold. Our churches in America, with some exceptions, are declining and many are dying. Thank God, the universal church will live forever, but local churches are hurting; mine included. Why?  Let me begin on a positive note.

What is beneficial about church programs?

1.    We all have a church program whether we know it or not

Programs may sometimes be unstated or invisible, but they are always present. Whenever a group of believers get together to form a church, they make certain decisions about how that is going to be done. This is unavoidable.  

2.    It’s better to have a cohesive, well-thought-out program than to just wing it

Just doing it because “we’ve always done it this way” or “that’s what so and so likes” is not a good way to lead a church. A well-considered and well-executed program allows us to work together in the same direction. It also makes it possible us to choose the best options available; ones that better match our particular people and our local culture

3.    It’s better to have a cohesive, well-thought-out program because it allows people who join to know what they’re getting into

Everyone isn’t looking for the same church experience. If our goals and procedures are clearly laid out, then they’re easier for people seeking a new church to evaluate it before they decide to join or to move on. There will always be unexpected surprises, of course, but this minimizes them.

4.    It’s better to have a cohesive, well-thought out program because it allows us to focus more on ministry and less on decisions


We don’t have to re-invent the wheel at every congregational or board meeting. The leaders and participants basically know their roles, can focus on them and be evaluated in light of them. This isn’t to say that decisions still don’t have to be made, or that programs can’t be tweaked as needed, it just limits unnecessary decision-making in these areas and allows us to focus more on actual ministry.


5.    It’s better to have a cohesive, well-thought out program because it allows us to adapt to our changing culture

The church has always had to change and adapt some degree because the culture evolves. Churches who ignore this eventually become irrelevant and die. Paul himself varied his approaches according to his audience.

            I say all this to help you understand that I am not against programs or the latest strategy. These can be helpful and may bring about a positive difference in the effectiveness of the church. They allow us to evaluate our effectiveness and make needed adjustments. By all means, let’s use our church resources thoughtfully and strategically. So why is the American church declining despite the plethora of church growth strategies?

Why do church programs often fall short?

1.    Church programs often fall short because of resistance to change

Many, if not most churches, regardless of what they say, contain a number of people who really don’t want to change. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the attitude or “We’ve always done it this way” (which isn’t true, by the way. The church has constantly evolved throughout history, however reluctantly it’s done so). Some are much more open to new ideas, but others follow much more slowly and must be worked with patiently. They’re not necessarily stubborn – that’s just their personality – both their strength and weakness. It’s easy to go to the latest seminar, get excited, and try to rush things too fast.

2.    Church programs often fall short because they’re poorly chosen

Just because Rick Warren can pull it off doesn’t mean that you can, either because your situation is different than his or because he’s just a gifted leader in that area. We need to know ourselves, our gifts, our church people, and our local culture before we choose our approach to ministry. Whatever we implement should  be a reasonably good match. We’ll also do best if we possess complementary gifts in the church; your strength making up for my weakness and vice versa.

3.    Church programs often fall short because they’re not well-implemented

I have to plead guilty on this one. I’m more of an “ideas” guy, who has trouble following through with the nuts and bolts part. It’s easy to come up with a “mission statement” and “objectives”, but it takes planning, determination, actual effort to make them come to life. Which leads to the next point.

4.    Church programs often fall short because we give up too soon

Someone has said, “Church cultures eat new programs for lunch”. It takes time, usually years, for a church to make a significant turn in a new direction and stay on course. Often, before that time is up, we’re bored of waiting for results, and already on to the next quick fix. Furthermore, it takes a while for those we want to reach to begin to respond – again, maybe years.

5.    Church programs often fall short because people don’t stick around

Much, if not most church “growth” today is transfer growth. Quite a few people go from church to church. They stay till they become dissatisfied and then move on. The challenge is that a solid church requires hard work, commitment, lots of love, and the willingness to forgive while accepting a certain amount of messiness. Many folks don’t want that. They want a comfortable, uplifting experience without too much cost or hassle, especially in our privileged Western culture.

6.    Church programs often fall short because of our sinful culture

It’s true that we, as churches, could do better than we have. But our whole culture is also shifting; moving away from God. Christianity has become less important and more marginalized in the U.S.. “Religion” is getting a bad reputation. Sin is rampant. Our country is harder to reach for Christ than it was a hundred years ago. Just as ancient Israel went through spiritual droughts, that seems to be what’s happening here. Much of this isn’t our fault. Remember, our planet is, and always has been a vicious spiritual battle zone. Satan plays for keeps.

7.    Church programs often fall short because of a lack of dependence on God


As far as our responsibility in the church decline goes, I believe that this is the key issue. Programs, clever as they may be, don’t save people. Only the Holy Spirit can do that and He can and does do it in any of a thousand ways. He doesn’t need the latest strategy or technology. All He needs is what He already has – His convicting power. By all means, use the best strategy possible, but remember that it’s on our knees that we do the most good. Godly, loving, prayerful believers, are still God’s greatest strategy.


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136. Gentleness

He’s getting old and it shows. Occasionally he falls. His memory is failing. The end of life is not always “the golden years” we’ve been told it would be (or has been shown to be in magazine pictures). This once strong, hard-working, intelligent man is a shadow of his former self. And yet those who meet him still often walk away with a bit of wonder in in their hearts. One aspect he has not lost, over the years is the sweet gentleness which oozes from him; seemingly effortlessly. He was gentle even in the prime of his life.  His grandchildren almost idolize him.

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135. Accountability

The young man, a believer, was having trouble handling the temptation of pornography. During moments of stress or unhappiness he found it incredibly hard not to turn on his phone and click on a few arousing pictures. In the past, he’d had an addiction to it. Maybe this describes you or another of our readers or listeners.

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134. Seeking Heavenly Rewards

       “I don’t care about getting rewards,” said my friend, “I’m just grateful to be going to heaven.” This wasn’t uttered in a showy, “spiritual” way, or as a condemnation to anyone else. It was put forth in a humble, grateful manner. I remember being impressed and intrigued by his perspective.

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133. Gossip

I hear that their marriage isn’t going so well, lately,” commented Sherry
            “I wouldn’t doubt it,” replied Grace, “look at their faces when they walk into church on Sunday morning, they’re not exactly beaming at each other.”
            “It’s been going on for a while from what I hear,” added Sherry with a serious look on her face. “But I understand. I wouldn’t want to be married to him either. He’s got issues.”

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132. Living with the Pain

    Can I be open with you? The Christian life hurts. I’ve often found that puzzling. After all, God has “blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1) and has “given us his very great and precious promises” (2 Peter 1) and so on. I’m a child of God, born again, strengthened by the Spirit, and headed for eternal bliss with Christ. Yet, even knowing all this, the Christian life still hurts. Sometimes a lot. And I haven’t even begun to encounter the suffering faced by so many believers. I enjoy a relatively privileged, safe life.

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131. The Flipside

            One of the reasons that Sheila married Roger was that she admired the strength of his determination. He pushed back against obstacles and didn’t give up easily.  This gave her a sense of security and dependability.

            One aspect she hadn’t counted on, however, was that this also sometimes made him stubborn. Once he had his mind made up, it was hard to change. He could be inflexible. This maddened her at times.

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130. Life is Short

Henri Nouwen, I believe, once said that we live in the myth of immortality. What I took from that was this: it feels as though what we’re doing today will go on forever. Logically, we know that’s not true, but it often seems that way. And it’s easy to live that way as well – as though the future will stretch on, as it is now, forever.

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129. Pornography pt. 2

She gazes at you with warm brown eyes, a smile of delight and invitation on her face. “Come, spend time with me,” she seems to say. You feel desire leaping to its feet inside. It doesn’t hurt that she’s already pulled off most of her clothes and looks eager to take off the rest.

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128. Pornography pt. 1

When I was a junior high boy, one day, walking a country road, I spotted some magazines in the ditch which were to change my life. They were pornographic. Even though they would be considered “soft porn” I still remember the explosive effect it had on my hormones. I kept the magazines hidden for a while (I wasn’t following Christ at the time). This was a sort of unlucky happenstance back in the 60’s. I just happened upon them. Today pornography is far easier to get.

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127. Helping our children stay in Christ

             “I don’t know what to tell you, Dad,” said the young man awkwardly. Although the son had been raised in the church by loving, spiritually serious parents, he’d chosen to walk away from his faith – still a nice, respectful, hard-working guy who loved his family and lived an overall morally solid life. But he didn’t know what he believed anymore, and was definitely over the church thing.

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126. Godly Self-Acceptance

            A couple of months ago something new and strange happened in my spirit. Out of nowhere; unexpectedly, I felt something inside relax. This tension had haunted me for years, driving me forward, keeping me frequently dissatisfied with myself. Now, at least partially, it had let go, and I experienced a new measure of freedom. It was nice –a   gift from the Holy Spirit.

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125. The Christian and Psychology

           A number of years ago, a church I was in, invited a group of Christian therapists to come in and teach for several months (men and women were in separate groups to facilitate openness). Let me admit upfront that I like psychology and have often benefitted from its insights. Yet, in my class, the teacher made a statement that caught me off-guard.  He told us that, in counseling, we should never to use words like “should”, “ought”, “must”, “need to” and so on.

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124. The Light Grip

  Years ago, I was a violinist. One of my college instructors, Alan Heatherington, was a brilliant musician. During casual conversation one day he made a comment I’ve never forgotten. He said, “When I am playing triple forte’ (as loudly as one can play), if someone were to tap my bow it would fall out of my hand.” It turns out, as most instrumentalists know, that relaxed muscles are crucial in order to play an instrument well. A clenched muscle only fights the musician’s movements. A death grip kills the flow.

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123. Calloused or Mature? pt. 2

  Recently, a Christian friend of mine picked up the habit of swearing. The words he uses, at least in my presence, would be considered mild obscenities in our society and are quite common.  What’s interesting, though, is that this man is a committed believer, not a nominal church-goer. When I mentioned Ephesians 5:4, in which Paul warns, “nor should there be any obscenity”, he just sort of shrugged and kept on doing it. It seems like no big deal to him.

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122. Calloused or Mature? pt. 1

Does sin bother you – your sin or the sin of our culture? Are you ever saddened, shocked, dismayed, or angered by the disobedience to God you see in yourself and in those around you? We’re told in Acts 17:16:  “16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”   Paul looked on the spiritual fallenness of Athens and was deeply troubled by it and the spiritual destruction it wreaked on the people there.  

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121. I'm Spiritual, but not Religious

  “I’m spiritual, but not religious”, said my new neighbor.  It was the first time I’d ever heard this perspective.  Since then, it’s become a familiar mantra. Oddly enough, there’s part of it I like.

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120. Weird Christians

  Have you ever noticed that Christians, when they’re portrayed on television, tend to come off as weird? This weirdness portrayal can be fairly mild – such as just making them seem old-fashioned, more abrasive – such as making them mean or brainwashed, or somewhere in the middle – making them seem irrelevant. To be fair, other groups also make the same charge about how they’re portrayed. It’s not just us.

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119. Cherry-Picking God

            “I don’t need to be a Christian to be a good person,” said the man. “I have a solid marriage. I treat other people fairly. I work hard. I participate in charities. Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with it. Furthermore, lots of other religions teach many of the same truths that Christianity teaches.”

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118. Patience vs Forgiveness pt. 2

    I couldn’t help it – the guy bugged me. We’d been thrown together in a situation and I’d come out of it feeling silly and a bit used. That’s all I’ll say. Yet whose fault was it? Had he actually done anything wrong? Not that I could clearly put my finger on

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