The Power of Church Programs?

The American church seems to have become a spiritual version of the smartphone. Need directions? We have an app for that. Need a recipe? We have an app for that. Need to know how long you’ll have to wait for a table at your favorite restaurant? We have an app for that, too. Only in the church we do not have apps, we have programs. Rocky marriage? We have a program for that. Rebellious Teens? Yep, program for that. Poor people in society? We have a program for that. Is there a problem we don’t have a program for, we’ll start one (and maybe hire a pastor to run it!).

Yet for nearly two thousand years the chief activity of the church has not been programs but preaching. Somehow, in the last few decades, we have lost sight of the power of preaching and put our faith in programs, as though preaching is insufficient to bring about change. Instead of Piper’s Supremacy of Christ in Preaching, we act as though it is the Supremacy of Christ in Programs. How did Calvin aid the Holy Spirit in the transformation of Geneva? Programs? No, Preaching! Consider the big names in evangelicalism today (Chandler, Driscoll, Piper, Keller, MacAurthur, Carson, Duncan, Ryken) known for programs? No! Preaching! And yet, we still assume Chappell wrote a book entitled Christ-Centered Programs rather than Christ-Centered Preaching!

Which brings us back to the role of the church in dealing with the poor. The solution which everyone is striving for is that perfect program, that ace-in-the-hole which the church can use to help the poor. In the face of such a search, solutions of presence, prayer, personalization, and so on seem insufficient and trite. But the saddest part is that the answer to the poor has been staring us in the face all along, not in the form of a program, but the power of Preaching!

For two millennia, preaching has the been the answer to the church’s challenges and the world’s problems. Today, though we search for programs. The irony in all of this is that programs have started over the church’s history, but as a result of preaching! The church preaches compassion on the poor and the people respond to that preaching in action, in programs! Thus, if the church really wants to help the poor, really wants to address the economic problems of the inner cities, the church needs to stop looking for programs and preach the Word of God, trusting the power of the Holy Spirit to transform hearts and motivate the people in the pews to action.

Only through the power of preaching can the church address ALL the issues facing the poor, from the poor’s personal issues to societies injustice, to inaction by Christians. Let us hope that church rises to the challenge and returns in faith to powerful preaching.

26 Thoughts.

    • True, but remember that the deacons were added because the care program distracted the Elders from preaching and teaching! And yes, the church should care for widows and orphans, ala James, but all believers are to care for them, not rely on the church to start a program to get it done. That’s my point in caring for the poor. Rather than pastors dreaming up programs, let them preach the Word of God and allow the people in the pew to create their own programs.

  1. Your argument seems to destroy/ignore the role of pastoral leadership. It was the apostles who recognized the problem, it was apostles who established the program. After creating the framework they then delegated responsibility for implementation, but that implementation was based on their leadership.

    If pastoral leadership means anything at all, it means that pastors must know their congregation and take actions to address those issues. Just as the apostles (surely the first NT pastors) did.

    • Fully agree, but the pastor should not look out, see the poor, and then dream up a program to address that problem. Pastoral leadership involves a pastor looking out, seeing the poor, seeing this is wrong when I have a church full of businessmen, and then challenging those men, through preaching, through encouragement, through one on discipleship to be the church. The reality is that the pastor is not on the front lines or in the trenches. Instead, like a commander in the rear, the pastor has the vision, sees what needs to be done, and challenges the soldier in the pew to go out on the front lines and get it done. Every person will address the needs of the poor differently, what the pastor does is make sure it is addressed. In today’s churches, we have lots of programs to deal with the poor (my own church included), but how often is care for the poor addressed from the pulpit. At least in the church where I’m an assistant, rarely.

      • yet of course seeing the problem and “dreaming” up the solution is exactly the example the apostles set. That’s pastoral leadership. Understanding your congregation, being aware of the issues, and then leading the change.

    • If cars needed fixing, I’d ask mechanics. If my plumbing needed fixing, I’d get a plumber. If the problem is economic, find someone in business. I think you are taking ‘dreaming’ too far to assume that the apostles dreamed up a program for dealing with the poor. My reading of Acts is that they dreamed up people and the people took care of the logistics. That’s what I’m suggesting. Challenge the people in the pew but let them dream up specifics. Otherwise, we might end up listening to the other poster on this blog who suggests we play pod-casted sermons to free up the pastor to dream up programs.

      • fascinating. Have you ever read something over and over and your just positive you “know” it? Well….

        So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

        So the apostles did identify the issue, but they turned over the need to the congregation with the command to the disciples to appoint deacons to fix the problem.

        Thanks for forcing me back to scripture. Guess I should of started there before bloviating.

        Of course this passage then leads into discussions about congregationalism v. elder lead……..

  2. I don’t think there is any power in preaching per se. Preaching is just a specific way of talking about a particular subject. The power comes in deeds, not talk: God’s redemptive act; the Spirit’s unexplainable influence; our actions. All preaching can do is show us the need of doing something — repent of sins, love our neighbors, etc. That’s not where pastoral leadership ends, that’s where it starts.

    • Faith comes by hearing, hearing by the Word of God (Romans 10). The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). Faith without works is dead (James 2). The problem in today’s churches is that we have often have personal faith without community working. What is needed is not a pastor dreaming up an economic solution to poverty, but a pastor who stands in his pulpit with the courage to say that the person in the pew should stop living a dead faith and act, challenging them to think how they are part of the solution. Yes, preaching is where it starts, not where it ends, but it is the most important piece of the process because the Word of God is the Sword of the Spirit.

      • Greg says I’ve been “fatally owned” here. Okay, I’ll bite. How?

        Yes, faith by hearing the Word, which is living and active, and leads to action in a living faith. So? I’ve not been challenging the source of power (which is in the Word, by the way, not the pastor’s words; the two are separate, they do not commingle or transmogrify one into the other). I’ve been challenging a stunted view of the pastor’s practical role in putting that Word/faith/action continuum into practice.

        We have no end of “courageous” pastors who tell parishioners that, after they are done with their full-time jobs, they should take on the additional full time job of organizing and creating ministries to our neighbors. That’s not courage. That’s every Sunday across the country, and it’s a dodge.

        Talk is most definitely not the most important piece in the continuum, it is just the first part. A pastor’s talk is neither the Word of God nor the Sword of the Spirit. It’s just talk. It’s talking *about* the Word of God/Sword of the Spirit, but it is not the thing itself.

        The important piece is and always has been the doing. Maybe what we really need is some courageous parishioners to stand up and tell their pastors we expect them to do more than talk. We need them to provide the *practical* leadership necessary to organize and create.

        Until then, it looks like things will bump along as they are now. And the way things are right now is pretty pathetic (in case y’all haven’t noticed). If we’re okay with that, then by all means, let’s have more pastoral talk.

        Not sure how this constitutes being “owned,” but perhaps someone will explain.

    • “I don’t think there is any power in preaching per se. Preaching is just a specific way of talking about a particular subject.”

      True…but it’s not just any particular subject that we’re talking about being preached here…we’re talking about the gospel. It’s not a mere subject expressed in mere words; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16; 1 Cor 1:18).

      The power of preaching is not the act itself. It’s not the eloquence of one’s speech, or train of one’s logic. It’s in the subject that is being preached: the Gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:17; 2:1-2).

    • I’m not putting them against each other. I’m suggest programs flow from gospel proclamation. Forget preaching and focus only on programs and we’ll have a return to the social gospel of the early 1900’s.

  3. Can you please prove the causal link proving that preaching is historically what truly helped the poor out of their condition? And that it did not involve the pastors getting involved in starting programs?

    • I think that Keller is a great example of pastors that preach the Word faithfully and also start programs through their church that help the poor. Below is a description of Hope for New York from Redeemer’s website:

      What Is Hope for New York?
      As Redeemer’s mercy and justice outreach to the city, Hope for New York seeks to provide volunteer and financial resources to organizations serving the poor and marginalized in New York City. Hope for New York’s vision is to create a city in which individuals and communities experience spiritual, personal, social and economic well-being through the demonstration of Christ’s love.

    • I can prove historically, ala early 1900’s, that when the church gave into the idea that programs to help the poor were the end all, that lost sight of preaching and left us with the “social gospel,” liberal seminaries, and declining churches. In many ways, we have never recovered. Should pastors be involved? Absolutely! Do churches need programs? Yes! But the ‘power’ to change hearts and lives lies in the gospel. Do the work of an evangelist, Paul said, preach the gospel…programs flow from the proclaimed Word of God, they do not precede it.

  4. Well, if our conclusion is that a pastor’s job is merely to talk, then we’ll have to look for leadership elsewhere. It is entirely unrealistic to expect parishioners, after they are done with their full-time jobs, to take on the additional full-time job of creating and organizing the programs and structures to effectively minister to the needy. And it’s grossly unfair to them. They want to serve, but they don’t have the capacity to also do the pastor’s job for him.

    And yes, we ought to look into the efficiencies that technology can provide us. If a pastor’s job is primarily to talk, then there is no reason to have a person on a full-time retainer at each and every church all across the country simply to give a 40 minute message once a week. That could easily be handled by a simulcast or podcast from one of perhaps a handful of learned teachers in each denomination.

    Then we could use the money we saved to hire someone who will actually create and organize.

    By the way, I’m with Jason Janz. I, too, would like to see the evidence that talk fixed the world’s problems over the last two millennia, as opposed to actual love in action – organized and directed by pastoral leadership.

    I am deeply saddened that, recognizing the profound problems facing our neighbors today, our conclusion is that what we really need is for pastors to talk more. What we need is for them to *do*, or stand aside and allow us to hire someone who will. Until one of those things happens, apparently we’ll have to watch the church scrape along as the nearly irrelevant institution its incessant talking has made of it.

  5. Let me touch on another point in this disappointing conversation. The apostles were not set apart to preach the gospel because there is something about preaching that requires full-time attention. They were set apart because, in all of Christendom, they were the only 12 people qualified to bring the gospel to others. And getting the message around was a time-intensive project: They did not have printing presses, or the internet, or large auditoriums in which to gather, or any means at all of bringing the message to large numbers of people all at once, Spreading the news consisted primarily of speaking to small groups of people in individual homes.

    That reality created a *practical*, not a theological, need for full-time pastors. Even at that, the practical reality was already dissolving in the New Testament period. Paul did a fair amount of spreading the news, and yet he had time to make himself useful to the communities in which he found himself. A tent-maker, wasn’t he?

    Here’s the current practical reality. We no longer need pastors set apart to do nothing but talk. We can get the talk from a simulcast, or YouTube, or a podcast, or someone reading one of the hundreds of thousands of sermons preserved in innumerable books.

    What we *do* need is someone set apart to provide practical leadership in our desire and efforts to care for our neighbors.

    You want to talk about power? Watch what happens when we are finally able to get organized to bring a physical manifestation of God’s love to our neighbors. That will be powerful. But it will never happen if the pastor just chats it up on Sunday morning.

    It doesn’t look like we’re going to be changing how we do business, however. I’m sure the needy will be comforted that, from time to time on a Sunday morning, there are pastors who are talking about them.

    • Hey Dan,
      Two thoughts. One, history is full of time when we focused on programs to help the poor but neglected preaching. Most recently, we have the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the second largest denomination in the United States chose to focus on social issues instead of the gospel. Today, they number only 5 million when they were originally 25 million. There are very few gospel proclaiming churches left in that denomination. You cannot have programs without preaching.

      Second, I’m not suggesting ‘more talk.’ I’m glad you are in a church where you have a ‘courageous pastor’ who addresses the poor, etc. Unfortunately, that is the minority. Most people want feel good messages about their daily lives, not a call to action. I’m not calling for more talk, I’m calling for the correct talk. The early church, as recorded in Acts, did not have many programs per se. Instead, scripture says in Acts “that they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching” and that their acts of charity, etc. flowed from that. Such teaching was not necessary because they didn’t know. Judaism had the same teachings. Instead, it is the Word of God, and the teaching of that Word that transforms hearts and makes them want to serve. Most churches do not have the people “who want to serve but don’t have time to do the pastors job for him” that you speak of. I wish they did, but in the many churches I have served and been a part of, caring for the poor is not usually on their radar screen. If it was, I’d agree wholeheartedly with you. Unfortunately, my experience has been people with the knowledge, money, and time to help, but sit in the pew doing nothing because they figure its the pastors job or someone else will start a program.

      • Thanks Kyle, that gives me a better sense of your concern. You do well to be wary of a return to the “social gospel.” But the problem with the social gospel was not that it made use of programs, it was that it was an attempt to foist off on the government the church’s responsibility to care for our neighbor. The failure was predictable, as was the exodus from churches that favored that approach.

        If the church starts loving our neighbors in an effective way through Christ-centered programs, we won’t be replicating the misnamed and mis-directed social gospel. We’ll be putting the real gospel into action. And we need pastors out front providing the leadership in doing this.

    • Hey Dan,
      Check out my recent post. I think this is a solution that would make us both happy and return the balance of word AND deed, rather than just talk. As James says, Faith without works IS dead. If churches can leverage the deacons they already claim to have, the pastor could teach and shepherd the deacons and they could some up with the specifics in their areas of expertise.

  6. Pingback: Links to readings

Leave a Reply