5 Reasons To Say No To Program-Driven Ministry

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.

“Getting With The Program” College-Style.
It isn’t binge-drinking if it’s a tournament. Right?

In my next post, I will explore five reasons to say, “YES!” to relational youth ministry. Be excited. Be very excited.

Image sources: http://image.stock-images-men.com/em_w/02/77/90/640-02779083w.jpg


3 responses to “5 Reasons To Say No To Program-Driven Ministry

  1. “Sleeping Around.” Do you mean like a sleep-over? I don;t see anything wrong with that…
    I kid.
    I’m diggin’ this post. One thing I would like to know (and maybe this will be the direction of successive posts) what are some practical alternatives to the 5 pitfalls of program-ministry? In other words, what does relational ministry look like in technicolor? (Not to be mistaken with “technicolor yawn”)
    I would like to see (especially in the Orthodox Church) how we can show our youth the beauty and joy that comes from our faith, though it is so contrary to what we think of as “fun and happy”. I was praying in preparation for the Liturgy and Communion the other day, and it struck me how I have already started to see it as a duty of some sort. In “checking myself” I realized that I am preparing my heart to “receive the King of all”. What a difference that makes!
    That’s kinda what I’m talking about with the youth. Let them know that their “boredom” is a normal part of growing up and stepping out from under the umbrella of their parent’s faith, but not to let that boredom sweep them away. Help them to see that there is a turning point, where they will the joy of their faith if they do not lose heart and walk away.
    In watching my precious Hailey begin to enter her pre-teen years, I see that I need to guide her in such a way that doesn’t squash or dismiss her experiences. At the same time, I need to help build up her faith and help her keep from straying. It’s a scary place. One that makes what you’re saying all the more relevant.
    Thanks C-Go!

    • Jeremiah,

      I’m so grateful for your comments on my posts.

      I think you raise some really good questions and some good thoughts. I am definitely headed toward making some practical explorations of how we can move toward relational ministry in our Orthodox Faith. I think it’s actually fairly simple, and it can be done well.

      I love your thought about preparing for the King of all and how that snapped you out of the mechanistic approach to “prayer” that we all find ourselves giving into at times. It’s an easy trap to fall into!

      Here is a quick response (although, a much longer one is warranted) to that. I think that sharing your own approach to Communion, sharing your insights, opening your struggles to your children will work wonders. When I think about what it was that made me most fully enjoy reading, it is not that I was told or forced to read, but it was that I caught my parents loving reading and saw how books influenced and enriched their own lives. As I moved away from my parents in adolescence, though (that is the normal part…I’m not sure about boredom being normal; I’ll have to think about that), I found myself in relationship with other adults who also loved reading and shared this with me. If someone had insisted that I come to value reading above all else, I don’t think I would have. I watched others read and fall in love with good literature, and so I began reading and fell in love with good literature as well.

      More than one study has shown that the most important factor that contributes to a young person’s faith development is the faith of their parents…So if prayer is mechanistic and just something that needs to be done and that struggle is unknown or hidden from young people, then they will never learn how to deal with those struggles that we all have. Some Christian thinkers (mostly Protestants that I’ve heard) refer to the need for what they call “holy eavesdropping.” I like this phrase, and I think it suits what happens in relational ministry. I do not set out to affect anyone; I simply set out to share myself with them (which includes my struggles and delights in faith) and allow them to share themselves with me.

      It can be a great comfort for a young person to see his/her parents engaging faith actively and for the parents to share what the Lord has been teaching them. In this case, you can share how exciting YOU find it to be receiving the King of all in Communion. The more your children catch you loving the Lord and his Church, then the more freely you can invite them to enjoy it with you.

      This is probably a weak response, and I’m unfortunately VERY tired, so please forgive me.

      I hope this makes a little more sense, though? More to come on relational ministry.

  2. I am fairly disappointed, even given the tired factor (Rule #72 “No excuses, play like a champion!”).
    No, actually this was a fantastic response. I look forward to hearing your thoughts to come.
    What I was saying about boredom is that as they “move away” from their parent’s ideas, identity, etc they become “bored” (so-to-speak) because they are beginning to find their own likes and dislikes; not so much that they just get bored in general.
    What you described in the “holy eavesdropping” could definitely help curb that. In that light, I think the boredom is more of our fault than theirs. Not that we need to assign blame, but if we want a solution to the problem, we have to know what the problem is. So here is a little mini-confession (1/8th it’s original size): I forget to show my kids the joy of my faith, often times, because I am simply trying to get through what needs to be done (get them to school, get them to bed, etc, etc). I am so busy try to “make them behave” they sometimes miss the joy of prayer, Scripture or the services.
    Alas, their sinful dad…

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