Monday, January 23, 2012

Why Youth Ministry Programs Aren't Necessarily Bad

This is one post where I'm not even completely sure that I agree with the idea I'm proposing. But allow me to play the devil's advocate for a moment.

Programs. It's like a four-letter word in youth ministry leadership, the necessary evil that we hate to have as part of our ministry.

Let's do a word association. What comes to mind when you hear the word "program?"

Event planning.
Those bulletins that tell you the order of a service or event.

In the youth ministry world, it's become nearly cliche to say "we're all about people, not programs." We know that church was never meant to be a program, that relationships with people matter the most, that programs can become a hindrance to true discipleship. Leading voices decry the plethora of programs in our communities and demand that we de-program our ministries. Yet we continue to have programs in our churches.

What if the concept of programs wasn't inherently evil? What if the word "program" could be redeemed?

A new definition: "program" means being intentional.

To have a program means one must have intentionality and purpose and planning and structure. Instead of operating haphazardly and without direction, programs provide paths that can lead to relationships and discipleship. Programs are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. They begin to grow out of control when they stop reflecting the ministry values and start becoming bizarre cultures/values in themselves.

I want to lead with intentionality, having a core set of values that shape and define my entire ministry culture. To truly de-program my ministry, I would have to value the arbitrary and chaotic, fostering a culture where programs can't exist...which ironically is a program. My set of values are like the boundary markers--fence posts--for my ministry culture; they define what is most important, and what can go by the wayside.

Imagine that all your programs were suddenly cancelled this week. Your gathering space unexpectedly became unavailable (maybe your church building burned to the ground), your calendar was erased, and your cell phone was dropped into the toilet. Even without programs, we would begin to plan when and how we would gather together again as a community. We would find ways to communicate with people and set up times to meet with them. We would bring Bibles and celebrate communion and sing songs and share life. This concept of regularly meeting and worshiping in community is a decidedly Biblical idea. There would be a sense of structure and purpose and consistency. We might call that a program.

It's not enough to say, "we don't do programs here." Instead, "we value people over programs," is a better mantra. It doesn't have to be either/or. Programs can foster environments that lead to Jesus-y relationships and a movement towards Christ together.

Rigidity and busyness and event-planning isn't a part of my program. Being intentional is.

What do you think? What are the dangers of programs, and what are the benefits?


  1. I think you are dead on the money on Programs being about intent. It is fairly obvious to those of us who have served in youth ministry before that there are perils to falling in love with programs for programs sake, but the chaos of *not* having a program or structure would rampage onto the stereotypical jr. high youth room. Nothing would be accomplished to any meaningful goal, and while a good time may be had by all, it does not glorify God.

    Paul's writings always seemed to deal with, at some level, chaos and order. Too much order, and we become like pharisees. Too much chaos, and we are like the pagans. Christ in our lives brings to us an order, a structure, inherent to living our lives for Him. It seems completely logical to me that we would need to bring that same sense of order and structure to our community worship and community lives.

    I hope I made sense. It's been a long day, and I may not be coherent.
    (And I haven't been involved in youth ministry for a long time. A little out of touch.)

    1. Well said, I loved your thoughts on the balance between chaos and order.

  2. I agree that programs give us a construct within to work to foster relationships. Working in adventure and wilderness based ministry one might say we focus too much on our activies. But the reason we raft, rock climb, and hike is to provide space for walls to come down and relationships to be built. A friend of mine that was starting language school in a country not necessarily favorable to planting churches likened the school to the scaffolding that is up as a house is being built. It won't stay there forever but is necessary for building the house. Programs can be viewed the same way, they certainly have a purpose, as long as they aren't just for programs sake, but intentionally moving us toward a relational goal.

    1. I've heard a similar metaphor to scaffolding: a trellis and a vine (there's a book out there with the same title). The trellis is the structure/program that allows the fruit to prosper. No trellis, and the vine withers. No vine, and you've just got yourself a dead stick in the ground.

  3. One of the core values of RPC is "intentionality" anything and everything we do must have a reason/purpose that helps create an environment for the Holy Spirit to work and for relationships to be formed that are centered around Christ.

    So I do like programs just as long as they are intentional about transforming lives.