It is no great secret that I am duly adverse to program-driven ministry. I think I have made this abundantly clear in my post, Moving Toward Relational Ministry. While I do not think that programs are evil or will lead to the death of the Church, I do think that they are useless unless they act as platforms for young people and adults to engage one another in life-sharing relationships that are open and available to the presence of Christ within them. Programs have their place, to be sure, but I will use this post primarily to speak to some of the problems inherent in program-driven ministry.
1. Programs are impersonal. Programs by their very nature take away the human element. They are based in producing a system by which personal qualities are removed from the playing field. The idea of a program is such that any clever or well-trained individual might step in and lead the program. They do not need to have a gift or talent, and while such a gifted individual might make the program more fun, personal charisma has little to do with the success of any given program. Those for whom the program is designed are expected to show up, have the program do its work on them, and to leave edified. Programs take out the spark of spontaneity that is so natural to the rest of our human lives. Because of this impersonal element, programs demand harsh metrics of success.
2. Programs demand quantifiable success. A program is only as useful as the end-product it creates. If a public school, for example, is not successful in producing good students, then its funding from the state will be cut. If we are to hold to this standard in the Church, however, it isn’t a far stretch to look at Jesus and suggest that his “program” was a failure since Judas was a “church dropout.” Ministry, while hoping for the best, simply cannot demand such metrics of success.
3. Programs become primarily concerned with self-perpetuation. While most programs are started to help participants, they eventually become about keeping themselves alive. For example, one could look at the standardization of American education and suggest that it is a good thing. In some ways it is as it aims to raise everyone to a certain standard. Unfortunately, when reaching that standard becomes the goal, then eventually all that matters is the standard and the needs of the young people it served take a back seat to the school trying to preserve itself by teaching how to take a test. Instead of finding ways to educate each student to the best of his or her ability, we suggest that the test and the program are the key to success, even though all signs point to their failure. We can do the same thing in the Church, suggesting that a program we have come to love does not contribute to the problem of church dropout. Instead of thinking creatively how this program can be retooled, changed, or (if need be) discarded, we end up inventing new programs that do not solve the issue at hand. We simply have kept the programs alive.
4. Programs are temporary. Programs come to an end, and they thus do not echo the eternal nature of the relationship-based Trinity. Of course, we are not eternal beings apart from the Divine Life that is given to us, but the things that impact us the most resemble some part of this Divine Life. Programs may be successful at keeping young people in attendance to church or church functions, but once our young people graduate high school and these programs, they leave. This is not because our program has not done the job, but it is because it did exactly what it was supposed to; it filled a temporary gap. When we treat programs as if they are the answer, we fail to see that the Trinity is not a program; the Trinity is a community. The Trinity is relationship. Programs come to an end, and they must. If we continue to treat them like they are the answer to church dropout, then we’re in for more young people leaving the Church.
5. Programs do not teach critical thinking. “Get with the program.” It’s not too hard to imagine a well-intentioned adult saying this to a young person, but ultimately, what does it convey? “You cannot think for yourself. Trust the program. Get with it, and simply follow along like everyone else.” In our programs, we instill in our young people the virtues of going with the flow, keeping the status quo, and not thinking outside the box in order for them to belong to our program. The problem is that we are not tailoring the Christian Faith to help young people see where the Faith intersects with their lives. When they go away to college having learned the value of “getting with the program” in order to belong, then I don’t think we can be surprised when “getting with the program (or fraternity)” involves binge drinking, sleeping in on Sundays, and sleeping around.
In my next post, I will explore five reasons to say, “YES!” to relational youth ministry. Be excited. Be very excited.