This is the third in a series of three articles based on Bible study sessions I lead during the 2011 South Georgia Annual Conference held at Tifton, Georgia in June. This article is in two parts.
Scripture: Ephesians 4:1-16
Part 1: Programitis
We all know the mission of The United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” I suggest an alternative way of stating this is the mission of The United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ who make disciples of Jesus Christ.” God transforms the world when grace flows through the church into the world. Grace is blocked when the church gets caught up in itself and its programs. Grace is blocked when discipleship is presented as a program choice among other options. Grace is blocked when the Baptismal Covenant and the Lord’s Supper are sentimentalized.
The United Methodist Church suffers from a common North American ecclesial disorder known as “programitis.” A major symptom is believing the church exists for the benefit and blessing of its members. In programitis afflicted congregations worship is focused on affirming, encouraging and comforting the worshipers; members and visitors are offered an array of groups and programs that appeal to various interests. If you are interested in prayer, there is a group for you. If you are interested in reading books, there is a group for you. If you like to eat and travel and make new friends, there is a group for you. If you have children, there are parenting groups and fun programs for children of all ages. If you are interested in learning about Jesus and discipleship, there is a group for that too. The goal is to get as many people as possible into the church and then to help them find a place and to be comfortable. The focus of the congregation’s leadership and resources is doing everything possible to meet everyone’s needs. Programitis appears to be benign, even beneficial when it is done well. The problem, however, is that the Christians produced by these congregations bear no discernible differences from their non-Christian, “un-churched” neighbors. They are good citizens and consumers in the market-dominated North American society. But are they really being formed into disciples of Jesus Christ?
Because the focus of program-centered congregations is on serving the members, their mission is to provide religious goods and service. The leaders expend all of their time and energy trying to determine what the people want and do all they can to give it to them. Programitis places all of the responsibility for ministry upon the shoulders of the appointed and paid clergy and staff. The mission, therefore, is focused upon the people in the church with very little directed toward the world and the kingdom of God. This means that the dynamic of the Baptismal Covenant is reversed. Whereas the covenant tells Christians they are baptized for service with Christ in the world, program-centered churches exist to serve members. Members in program-centered churches behave much more like customers. When congregational leadership indicated that Christians are baptized to serve with Christ in the world, many customers flee and look for the another program-centered church that will provide the goods and services they seek.
When we read Ephesians 4:1-16, it is clear that discipleship is not a program. This is not meant to say that programs are necessarily bad or an obstacle to grace. Some programs are very good at initiating Christians into discipleship. Disciple Bible Study, Christian Believer, & Companions in Christ are examples of valuable programs that effectively initiate Christians into discipleship. The challenge of congregational leadership is to keep the focus of mission on Christ and his work of preparing this world for the coming reign of God. In the current culture, however, with the increasing pressure to increase membership, worship attendance and giving numbers, many will take the way of least resistance opt for a program-centered, consumer-friendly strategy for growth; thus giving an opening to programitis.