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 as the “staff” grows the number of programs tends to grow. People have to justify their existence and the bureaucratic imperative kicks in. “What is this person doing? Why are we paying them?” “Oh well, they’ve just come up with this exciting new idea that will really bring _____ (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 50 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 400th time, explaining that,

We’ve made a principled decision not to become a ‘programmed’ church. We’re convinced that Jesus and his Apostles instituted a very simple three-fold program: 1) preach the Word when it’s fashionable and when it isn’t; 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 sometimes he just called it ‘the church.’ So, that’s 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 again on the Lord’s Day evening for another public service where we open the Word again and pray. That’s our program.

That’s 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’ll 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 some new people in here.” 

There are pastors who know better. They know what the marks of the visible church are, 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.