Saturday, February 19, 2011

Programming Is Killing the Church

Okay, so the title is a bit provocative -- even, perhaps, exaggerated.  But the point is that we are being programmed out.  Every day I go through the mail I am deluged with new programs designed to make what we need to do easier, to help us do what we are not doing, or to redress the failed programs that are paralyzing my congregation (and me as a Pastor).  I am talking about programs like the generic Master Greeter program or a new community involvement program from District or an old program like the Stephen Ministry or a specific program like the Pastoral Leadership Initiative or a radical program like the Transforming Churches Network or an essential program like the Joyful Stewards program...  The programs that are thrust upon us from outside and inside our own church body are multiplying to the point that it seems this is about the only snail mail I get.

Of course, most of it ends up in the round file (or, in my case, the recycle bin).  Part of me hates to throw those things away -- the weak and vulnerable side of me wonders if I have not thrown away the invitation to the one genuinely good program that will make my life easier, make me more effective as a Pastor, motivate my congregation more, and make my congregation more effective.  It is the sinful human nature in me that wants a program to do what God has given me to do, what He has given the parish to do, or what He has promised to do.  In my weakness I want a magical cure to all the problems I face as Pastor and my parish faces as a congregation.  In the beginning of my ministry, I thought it was all financial -- if only we had enough money to do this or that...  Now I know that this is one of Satan's big lies -- both that all our problems can be solved with more money or that we do not have enough in the Church (like God is short of cash and has to borrow it from us).  But still it catches me up from time to time.

The biggest danger in all of this is that the most essential things that belong to us as a congregation have ended up being labeled as programs or viewed as programs by Pastors and the people in the pew.  Worship has become a program and so we can evaluate it, we can adjust and direct it, we can define who we are trying to reach with it, and we can change the core values that govern it.  Baloney.  Worship is about the means of grace.  What we do in worship is Word and Sacrament.  It is not a program -- it is God bidding us into His presence, bestowing upon us His gifts, and sustaining and transforming us with His grace.  As soon as we call it a program, we turn it into something that proceeds from us, exists for us, and is defined by us.  When that happens, worship, for all intents and purposes, ceases.

Catechesis ends up being a program.  The whole educational endeavor becomes a curriculum, a goal, and a means to that goal instead of the kind of ongoing life of catechesis envisioned in the Scriptures.  The Word of God becomes merely a tool in this process (as does the Small Catechism) and knowledge or understanding or feelings become the arenas in which we define success.  The success of catechesis is faithfulness in worship and the baptismal vocation lived out in daily life -- nothing more and nothing less.  What is your program for adult catechesis or youth catechesis or Sunday school, etc.?  When the conversation becomes more about these as a program instead of being in the Word, at the Table, and living out the baptismal vocation then catechesis becomes simply methodology.

Evangelism is the one area that has suffered most by becoming a program.  We have adopted or adapted methods that have ended up defining evangelism than the Scriptural call to be always ready to give account for the hope that is within you or to be Christ's witnesses.  I began my parish life under the constraints of what was called the Abdon Plan and its organization of the congregation around way too many boards and committees.  Its greatest weakness was in introducing the idea that some people are evangelists and most people are not and the evangelism program is best directed to finding out who has the gift and working only with them.  Strange that it would take until the 1960s before the Church would figure out that witness was not part of the baptismal vocation but the specific gift of a few.  And to think that until the twentieth century congregations did not even have evangelism committees!

Even mercy and service are not immune from the programming mentality.  Imagine that -- mercy and service are programmed and not simply the reflection of God's mercy and service to us!

I am not suggesting that there are not good programs out there or that we should not use them.  I am challenging the idea that the ministry and mission of the Pastor and of the congregation are programs in and of themselves.  I think this idea is killing us -- trying to sift through the good from the bad, the ones that work from the ones that don't -- and killing our congregations -- by erasing the distinction between the things that are part of our identity and how we do the things we are given to do....

What do YOU think?

5 comments:

Chuck @ Mission Lawrence said...

I think my entire life has been a process of trying to escape programs and see the transforming life of Christ do its work by flowing through the life of the congregation as you describe through the "ordinary" but supernatural still "means of grace" as we follow the "Table of Duties" in our lives, work and home.

I'm glad for ancillary ministries of mercy (not sure if they are programs as much as vocations) but we seem to try to micro manage everything by programming.

Paul said...

"Strange that it would take until the 1960s before the Church would figure out that witness was not part of the baptismal vocation but the specific gift of a few. And to think that until the twentieth century congregations did not even have evangelism committees!"
Even the SED is having their spring training on VOCATION -- mirable dictu! Your thoughts are liberating -- keep up the good work:)

Anonymous said...

What about all the special program
Sundays that the LCMS wants special
offerings?

Lutherans for Life, Lutheran Hour,
Valpo, Armed Services, Seminaries,
Black Ministry, Bethesda, Lutheran
Bible Translators, Lutheran World
Relief, Ablaze, Lutheran Schools,
LWML, LLL, Lutheran Social Services,
District Camp, Wheat Ridge, Dakota
Boys Ranch, KFUO, Mill Neck Deaf
Ministry, Orphan Grain Train, Luth.
Heritage Foundation and others.

These solicitations not only
interrupt the Church Year Calendar
but become a distraction for the
parish budget.

Anonymous said...

Every pastor deep down in his heart
is looking for the magic bullet
program that will turn around his
congregation. Unfortunately, there
is no "one-size-fits-all" program
from the LCMS or any other human
organization. Guido Merkens pushed
Living Lutheran Leadership, Don Abdon
pushed a reorganized Parish Leadership plan before the recent
tsunami of leadership programs.

Ultimately, each pastor must assert
his own pastoral leadership to
lead the flock entrusted to his care with the Means of Grace.

Jeremy Clifton said...

Amen, amen and amen.

Just today I heard someone at my church say something to the effect of "At our service today a family visited that just moved to the area. They have five children, and if we don't have the programs to keep them here, they will move on to the next church up the road that does."

Is this what the church has become? Whatever happened to Word and Sacrament ministry?

"Worship has become a program and so we can evaluate it, we can adjust and direct it, we can define who we are trying to reach with it, and we can change the core values that govern it. Baloney. Worship is about the means of grace. What we do in worship is Word and Sacrament. It is not a program -- it is God bidding us into His presence, bestowing upon us His gifts, and sustaining and transforming us with His grace. As soon as we call it a program, we turn it into something that proceeds from us, exists for us, and is defined by us. When that happens, worship, for all intents and purposes, ceases."

Could not agree more!