The Program-Driven Church

One link led to another, and I happened recently upon the website of a large NAPARC congregation. As I often do, I looked to see who the pastor was. That link led me to a list of pastoral staff who coordinate a breathtaking number of programs.

My first reaction was to blame the senior minister and elders. “How could they facilitate this incredible tangle of programs? Where is the gospel? Where are the sacraments? Where is discipline in the life of the church?”

Then it occurred to me that this welter of programs probably was not invented wholly by the minister and elders. To be sure, it often happens that as the staff grows the number of programs tends to increase. People must justify their existence and the bureaucratic imperative kicks in. “What is this person doing? Why are we paying them?” “Oh well, they have just come up with this exciting new idea that will really bring x (fill in the blank) back to church.”

Just as likely, however, the programs are a response to pressure from the congregation and the community. One of the questions pastors get most often is, “Do you have a program for such and such?” The answer to this is more or less binary: “Why yes we do!” or “Well, no, I’m sorry we don’t.” If the pastor can meet market demand, then he may gain a customer. If he fails to satisfy market demand, the customer will go to the service provider down the street.

Pity the pastor. What is he to do? Can he educate someone who has been conditioned by fifty years of modern evangelicalism, over the phone, about the centrality of Word, prayer, and sacrament to the life of the church? Can he do a mini Bible study right there on the phone for the four hundredth time, explaining:

We have made a principled decision not to become a programmed church. We are convinced that Jesus and his apostles instituted a very simple three-fold program: 1) Preach the Word when it is fashionable and when it is not. 2) Administer the holy sacraments to the edification of the congregation. 3) Administer discipline. He even had a name for his program and a name for his institution. He called the program “the Keys of the Kingdom.” He called his institution: the “Kingdom of God,” or sometimes “the Kingdom of Heaven,” and other times he just called it “the church.” So, that is what we do. We meet for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day morning. The service is oriented around the Word, prayer, and the sacraments. We have catechism instruction for the youth and for grown-ups. We go home to eat (and sometimes we share a meal together between services). We come back on the Lord’s Day evening for another public service where we open the Word again and pray. That is our program.

That is a difficult conversation to have. More than likely the person on the other end of the phone (or email) will say, “Oh, well, I was looking for such and such a group. I was in one a few years ago and I really loved it. I need one of those. Thanks for your time. We will keep looking.” After a few of those sorts of calls, the pressure to conform grows. The pressure mounts as the elders begin to press the pastor to get more people in the pews.

There are pastors who know better. They know what the marks of the visible church are,1 what the means of grace are, what the keys of the kingdom are, and what the elements of worship are. The demand for programs, like the constant drip of water that wears a groove into a rock, wears down even the most resolute pastor. Perhaps a new, more business-oriented elder is elected. Perhaps a newer, more exciting, or more relevant congregation gets planted down the street, and before long families begin to drift to the new program-driven congregation.

Some of those pastors who know better would like to do better. They remember the zeal they once had to preach the gospel, the joy they had studying and praying over their Greek and Hebrew Bibles (time which is now spent managing a growing staff) as they prepared to bring the Word. They had hoped to minister the Word to people, to see them grow in grace and glorify God by doing things his way, but few seemed to want that.

Those pastors with a conscience are troubled. They are afraid of what might happen if they begin to rock the boat. No one wants to preside over a Scottish Revival.2 Some stifle the pangs of conscience by telling themselves that they will begin a reformation just as soon as they get another Reformed elder, but somehow the conditions never seem to be just right.

Other pastors have simply accepted the program-driven model as the only one available. These men openly measure themselves by “buildings, bodies, and budgets,” and they are unashamed. The entrepreneur might have taken a modest small to mid-sized congregation and grown it into a large and influential congregation. If it were a business, he might sell it and start again with a new one. Perhaps some have heard tell of an “ordinary means” model of ministry, but it sounds exotic and they have never seen it. These men see themselves as CEOs or as ranchers, and they have no idea how a Word-and-sacrament ministry could possibly function in a go-go, 24/7-wired world.

Finally, there is the engine of the program-driven church: the congregation. Not always, but often the congregation is just as culpable for turning the church into a mall. They have what they have (perhaps implicitly) demanded and it seems that they have demanded “the mall.” After all, the mall is where they get their needs met. The mall forms their culture. It is comfortable. It is familiar. It works. The mall has a food court, a cinema, and all the right shops. Why can the church not be like that? What is wrong with it?

The main thing wrong with it is that the mall is the Kingdom of Me and My Choices. The Church is the Kingdom of Christ and his grace. They are two different kingdoms. The Kingdom of Christ is totalitarian. It is not a democracy. It is not egalitarian. It is not market driven. It comes from heaven and enters history by the power of the Holy Spirit operating through the unlikely means of the preaching of the Gospel, the announcement of Good News, that something has been done for me, apart from me and that I benefit from all of that by hearing and believing. The Kingdom is not about my choosing but about being chosen. It is not about my sovereignty but about God’s. There is no food court—just a holy meal where God the Son feeds his people with his own body and blood unto eternal life.

What to do? Those who know better should pray for courage and for wisdom. Reformation has to begin somewhere. They need to begin teaching the elders what the church is, what ministry is, what the means of grace are, what the marks of the church are, and the purpose for which Christ has instituted his church. Then they have to begin teaching their congregations. Going slowly, being patient and careful of the well-being of the sheep is essential to any Reformation. Yet there must be a certain resoluteness about this business. As reformation begins and programs diminish (they must decrease, Christ must increase), some sheep will leave and find more attractive pastures with more and better programs. Know from the beginning that you will not keep them all. That is okay. Your most fundamental conviction must be that the church is Christ’s kingdom, that it belongs to him, that he bought it with his blood (Acts 20:28). As long as you know for whom it is you work, you will be okay. If you are seeking Christ’s glory and the salvation of his people, you will be fine—even if a Scottish Revival does break out. If you are seeking something else, then perhaps you are in the wrong line of work?


  1. The three marks of the true church are the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline (Belgic Confession 29).
  2. This is a reference to an old joke among Presbyterian and Reformed preachers whereby there are fewer people in the congregation when the minister leaves than when he arrived.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2009.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. The pressures are somewhat overwhelming, routinely. Even w/in a given area, in one’s own
    1) Some churches are intentionally program-driven, or
    2) Some churches will affirm the ordinary means of grace biblical model, but this is merely window dressing, the up front stuff, behind which is all the “real” ministry stuff, i.e., the program-driven ministry model.

    It is quite tiresome to minister in a nominal Christian community where 95%+ think a true ordinary means of grace ministry paradigm is not even as good as grandma’s church (not that they want grandma’s church). Thinking the program model is the Spirit-blessed, Bible approved model, “bless your heart” becomes the common demeanor of how the pastor/elders of the ordinary means of grace church are treated, at both the individual Christian level, and by their fellow elders at the presby level.

    And this is not including the local campus of the mega-mega program model church from the city a couple hours away that siphons the program-worshipers away from otherwise sound gospel conviction churches.

    It is terribly discouraging. Only a sincerely studied conviction on how the Spirit promises to be present in a church’s ministry will sustain the pastor/elders of an ordinary means of grace church. And the sheep will (in time) rejoice that their shepherds stayed the course.

  2. Thank you Dr. Clark. Your thoughts reach and edify me even though I live far away in a small town in central PA. I have passed on this article to my friends and pastors with whom I am associated.

  3. Thanks Dr. this article makes you want to stand outside these churches and hand out the three forms of unity or Westminster standards. These churches aren’t confessional that’s the biggest problem and I mean a good solid confession. Three forms or Westminster or savoy. Pretty much any confession sponsored on this blog. Most of these pastors who have this type of churches sorry to say some of them are cowards because a lot of them know better than to spit in the face of Christ every Sunday. And your right Dr we gotta pray and sometimes I think it means reaching out to some of these guys and sitting down and talking to see what in the world is up. I think it also requires calling these guys out in front of them. A lot of times some of these big churches need to know that there’s a small OPC or URCNA church down the street that think that their business style of church is wrong and from hell. And that if they ever want to talk theology to know that you’ll be coming into the convo with the greats of Christianity. Calvin, Beza, Rutherford, Owens, Boston and the list goes on. sometimes you need a spiritual round house kick to wake up. No better place for that than the confessions. So if you’re reading this and you’re from one of these big churches. My friends do yourself a favor and start reading the heidelberg catechism. And then after that maybe spend a few hours on this blog especially where all the confession are and then go tell all you’re friends what amazing deep things you just read. Enjoy amigo

  4. What were the programs that were at this NAPARC church that you viewed as detrimental?

    Of course it is true that Big E churches have terrible seeker friendly “programs.”
    But again what do we mean by programs? Your writing seems to imply that a weekly mens study is a program, or a women’s group, or anything that isn’t Sunday worship is a “program not for the church.”

    What are you qualifying then as programs? Because churches don’t NEED mens women’s studies etc but if thats what we mean by programs they are certainly beneficial things. (Although not essential like sacraments and words of course!)

    • If I missed your point Dr. Clark I apologize. I was not omitting the second part, not at all. It seems like you argue at the begin of this peace that HAVING multiple programs means you are a program driven course. I was just wondering if this is necessarily the case. I feel like a NAPARC church with multiple programs could certainly centralize the three marks of the church. Yet they can still have programs and not compromise.

      • Derek,

        In my experience in ministry people who are satisfied with the due use of ordinary means don’t ask for the welter of programs that I found on that website (and that one sees regularly). The people who ask me for this program or that are typically seeking to fill a need that doesn’t have anything to do with the due use of ordinary means.

        You may be right that it’s possible to do both the menu of programs and be a means of grace church but I doubt it. I should like to see it in practice. The menu tells me what drives, what animates that congregation.

        Why is it that this generation is the one in the church with all the programs? Because we’re not satisfied with the due use of ordinary means. I’m saying that the plethora of programs is symptomatic of a deeper problem.

        It is not natural or native to a confessional Reformed church to have children’s church and all the other programs that some now conduct. Why do they exist? 1) The church growth told us that we should do it because people like it. It’s true. When people leave their local Evangelical Mega, the first thing they seek to do often is to replicate the church they just left. They want the same stuff but on a different scale. They don’t realize that they’re setting the preconditions to recreate what they just left. 2) Popular demand. As people leave evangelical churches for a better soteriology, they haven’t always/usually connected their soteriology to their ecclesiology and so they ask for what they just left.

        After a few years of instruction, if people will stay long enough to detox from their evangelical experience, they stop asking for programs. It’s like detoxing from sugar, which is what a lot of the programs are.

        Are all the programs to be scotched? Not necessarily but we need to ask some hard questions. Who told us that segmenting the congregation was a good idea? It wasn’t the Scriptures. It wasn’t the pre-modern history of the church. Who told us that youth groups were a good idea? Again, it’s not the Scriptures. It’s not church history. Does that mean that we shouldn’t have them? Not necessarily but if we took, if you will, Calvin’s razor to the list of programs, there would be many fewer.

        I’ve seen youth groups do some good but they have to be managed very carefully. Just as often they are seedbeds for future problems.

        In the case of the site I saw, what was being marketed to the world was not the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the use of discipline. It was “this exciting program for this group!” and “that exciting program for that group!” ad infin. That’s not healthy. That’s fast food revivalism. At least at slow food revivals, one had to travel, sit, listen, and it was done corporately. This segmented revivalism is a McDonald’s menu of quasi-ecclesiastical options—and the turn to “options” (see Thomas de Zengotita, Mediated) on “the blob” and “options.” The menu-driven approach to ministry is a culture-driven approach to ministry. The demand for “choices” (options) isn’t coming from Scripture, the catechism, or church history. It’s the culture shaping the church and the church accommodating the culture.

        There is a reason mega churches are mega: they give the people what they want. Read the Bible and tell me how well that works out. I understand that gold doesn’t taste very good.

        The church may not be culture-driven. The church is not a creature of the culture. It is the divine embassy to the world. The agenda of the church is not set by the culture but by the Christ.

  5. I came to my peaceful little church where I now attend, from various evangelical churches with rocking bands and lights, rock-climbing walls, coffee shop/bookstore of pragmatic self-help books, etc.

    I left there not knowing my true sin and misery, lost in the bondage of not knowing the Lord, to come now to a quiet place such as described in the paragraph above, where the Gospel is preached. (As an aside, I left after finding Ligonier ministries online, and hearing W. Robert Godfrey’s Church History series and realizing I was in Sister Aimee’s church! My education was just beginning.)

    I’m sure the temptations for Pastors to acquiesce, compromise and fill-up ‘empty’ space are there. Don’t do it!

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