There are many diverse programs in churches worldwide, too many to count. I attended some for many years growing up, including Awana, youth group, Bible quizzing, college and career Bible studies, vacation Bible school, Sunday School, etc. My parents prioritized involvement in the church over sports and education and were insistent that my siblings and I attend these programs. I was the son of a youth pastor (my father graduated from Washington Bible College with a two-year degree) and attended Wednesday night youth meetings with other teens in the church.
I have attended multiple churches: Baptist churches, traditional non-denominational churches, contemporary community churches, etc. However, I can say without a shadow of a doubt (based on my own experience) that I got very little out of every church, sermon, and ministry I attended throughout my life until I discovered Ichthys - Bible Studies for Spiritual Growth by Dr. Robert D. Luginbill, a website dedicated to providing in-depth Bible teaching.
I realized many years later that most churches are lukewarm with very little teaching content present in them. Of course, the reader of this site should be familiar with all of this already (Revelation 3:14-22). This lukewarmness was a contributing factor to my lack of spiritual growth over the years.
The focus must be on the truth as contained in God’s Word, taught at more than a surface level
There is nothing wrong with having church programs or even the occasional activity here or there. But, of course, it depends on what a church means by “program.” Programs should involve serious ministry to bring people to the truth and help them grow therein. If the truth was top priority, many current programs would either cease to exist or take on different forms. What do I mean by “forms?” I mean that the Bible would take center stage and become the dominant issue.
Many church programs mean well but are far off the mark regarding sound teaching, approach, and emphasis. Socializing, games, music, verse memorization, fun activities, and the like have taken up far too much time and importance. The little teaching and mutual encouragement in the truth there is usually comes in some short lesson overloaded with stories, illustrations, and basic “elementary” teachings. But if a program actually wants to help believers of all ages grow spiritually, they need to teach the Bible and communicate it seriously.
Those selected to teach the Bible seriously need to be qualified and up to the task
And this requires people who are qualified for the task, not just any member(s) in the church. Yes, God calls all believers to ministry. But not everyone asked by others to “step up” to the podium is led by the Spirit to take on the job. Christian service should never be a forced issue so that it becomes a chore. The point is not getting people out of their comfort zones, but whether or not they actually have the gift and calling (from God) to do what others may be prodding them to do. We follow the Holy Spirit, not men.
Additionally, a believer’s primary ministry may involve evangelism or other believers partially or wholly outside the narrow defines of their local congregation. Although anyone can minister anywhere and at any time, the main work the Lord calls some to may involve ministering behind the scenes in other ways, instead of serving visibly in their particular local church. Websites and blogs are just one example. Others may teach off on the side in their homes. In the end, there are many possibilities.
The primary purpose of assembly
The primary purpose of going to church is to hear the Word taught, to grow and progress in it, and to minister it to others. Another reason is for mutual edification and encouragement. Dr. Luginbill of Ichthys states this principle well:
The main additional purpose of Christian fellowship is to draw encouragement, directly and indirectly, from our fellow believers who are likewise advancing in the Christian life and who are likewise facing difficult trials, and to gain courage, comfort, consolation, motivation and encouragement through our mutual contact and mutual testimonies.
To add to the above, any good church will support its members financially, especially missionaries, teachers, and those in need. That is what family members do! They help each other spiritually, financially, and physically. There are so many ways this can be done – far from just the limited set many people tend to think of as “normal” church actions.
What about activities and social events? Are they inherently bad somehow?
What about activities? There is nothing inherently wrong with them (hikes, movie nights, bowling, games, etc.). But there is a time and place for all these things, and that is a very important truth to always keep in mind. To elaborate a bit more on the balance that needs to be struck:
Basically, any social gathering can make for good ministry opportunities, meaning there are benefits to these things that cannot be entirely written off. And it isn’t necessarily a bad idea to incorporate physical activity into the mix here and there too – over the long term, doing such might even prove greatly beneficial. So, bearing all this in mind, we can even encourage activities in moderation. But – and this is a very important but – we must keep them in their proper place. This is because all ministry programs need to never steal the primary focus away from presenting the truth of the Word of God clearly and seriously.
People need to do the ministries the Spirit actually calls them to, not slot themselves into a pre-defined role they are pressured or guilt-tripped into
Every believer in every church has a spiritual gift and ministry involving the truth in some way, but that may or may not manifest itself through some pre-organized channel. The problem is that many church-goers identify their ministry as that which the church has (in a limited way) created for them, and not what the Lord would actually have them do.
Even though they mean well, some programs in many churches have become a distraction to believers who should be serving elsewhere in some other way. A person may think to themselves, “I’m serving Christ in my church, and that is all that matters.” They may be tempted to pat themselves on the back and think they are doing a good job when, in fact, they aren’t doing what they should be doing at all! Ministry is not just about serving, but “how” and “where” we serve. It doesn’t mean we do something out of pressure or fear; some churches are notorious for operating through such legalistic schemes. Even if these worst behaviors are avoided, the typical congregation stresses service but not the growth and progress that leads up to it, the very foundation upon which it must operate. For this reason, many believers jump into something they aren’t called or prepared to carry out, making them unqualified.
It isn’t a good idea to mold people’s ministry for them in an inflexible way. Instead, the church should support, encourage, and advance people’s callings in any biblical way possible without interfering with the Lord’s specific plans for that individual. The modern church has, unfortunately, defined ministry in a limited way.
Learning scripture vs. memorizing verses, and ministries for children
The Bible does command Christians to hide the Word in their heart (Psalm 119:11). But how this happens occurs differently for everybody. Some excellent teachers aren’t good at verse memorization, yet when asked to interpret the meaning of a passage, they can do so in a heartbeat. And this is where the biggest problem with many church programs (Awana is one example) lies. Simply memorizing verses (which many children forget within a few days) is not hiding God’s Word in their hearts if the passage’s meaning is not understood. Truth that is not comprehended nor understood cannot be properly applied (James 1:22). So that is not teaching children Scripture, but only verse memorization!
As to how one ought to go about hiding the Word in one’s heart, that is a process that will occur naturally for many believers. The more a person reads the Word, studies it, thinks on it, receives it, prays about it, and lives it out, the more passages will naturally come to their minds, especially in time of need. So you could say that this is a work and ministry of the Holy Spirit. For those who do better memorizing Scripture by repetition, it is not necessary to force them to have to do so in the presence of others. If some people want to, that is fine, but it should never be a forced issue.
And yes, children can learn the Word! Indeed, everyone learns differently, but the youth need good spiritual food at an early age to grow spiritually, just as adults do. Of course, teaching sessions for children should be a part of every church. Children need to be taught the Word of God more simplistically because of their age. That is why we have gifted men and women called to teach them. If we never explain God’s Word to our youth, then we only hinder them. And if we water the truth down, we set them up for failure (Proverbs 22:6).
Bible Academy - by Curtis Omo is another good teaching ministry containing individual lessons for both children and adults. Of course, this ministry may not be everyone’s “cup of tea,” so to speak. But parents need to find a trusted Bible-teaching source for their children; it is not optional. Here are a couple more links on the resources for children Bible Academy offers:
The goal of any children’s ministry is to teach children God’s Word, not to entertain them or force Scripture down their throats without explaining the meaning of what they read. So any ministry targeted at children must ultimately be focused upon their spiritual growth, not only games and athletics and so on. Of course, there is nothing wrong with activities because children need time to play and develop their bodies. But that does not mean keeping one (physical activity) while throwing out the other (good teaching that children can comprehend).
Mission trips are good, but we need to help people grow spiritually, not just bring them to Christ. Far too many churches send their members out to evangelize for a week to a few months only to leave without establishing a teaching ministry for their converts. It is a great thing to win people to the Lord, but that is only the beginning of the Christian journey. After salvation, believers are left on earth to grow, progress, and produce. Everyone needs the tools and resources to do this because this will not occur automatically. Believers need the Word of God to study and learn under a prepared teacher. Additionally, everyone needs fellowship for mutual encouragement. Churches not only need to be planted, but they require a team effort to maintain.
A good church will support those called to missions. Thankfully, the Lord will never fail to provide a means of income for those who set out to spread the gospel. God will always supply our needs so that any believer, no matter their gift or calling, will always receive what they need to carry out the ministry they have been assigned (Philippians 4:19).
Evangelism and mission work ought to be viewed as solemn responsibilities undertaken only by those God has actually called, and must be taken dead-seriously
Evangelism is a great thing, but not everyone is called to it as their main and primary service to Christ. Considering the variety of gifts and ministries in the church (1 Corinthians 12:4-11), no believer should “wing it” and take a stab at something without correctly discerning their spiritual gift(s). Unfortunately, far too many believers don’t know what they want to do in life and decide to take matters into their own hands by jumping into the mission field without consulting the Lord first. This results in people involved in something they should have never pursued. Yes, believers can serve at any time, but mature ministry requires prior spiritual growth and progress. Spiritual growth is the answer to the question, “what does God want me to do?”
And suppose a believer has the gift of evangelism specifically. In that case, that will be an ongoing task they will carry out until the Lord decides when their time is up (something He foreknew in eternity past). Thus, mission trips are a good thing. However, short-term endeavors aren’t sustainable unless long-term relationships are established (something Paul and the apostles were famous for). There is also then the issue of leading those converted to a good pastor or teaching ministry where they can advance from that point on (instead of stagnate due to being abandoned).
Overseas ministry is not a joke and should never be treated as some pleasurable vacation where we can do whatever we want regardless of time or circumstances. We must remember that we represent Christ as His ambassadors, which may require us to adjust our habits and behaviors to some degree. Christian liberty is a wonderful thing, but is not to be mishandled to the spiritual harm of other people (Romans 14:13-23). Like Paul, we need to learn to adapt to our environments without compromising the truth, and make it about other people and not ourselves (1 Corinthians 9:20-22). We must understand that we will encounter people with different backgrounds, cultures, and customs from our own. With this in mind, we must be wary of ourselves and the type of influence we have on others (1 Peter 2:12). After all, God, angels, and our departed brethren are watching us (Hebrews 12:1). Everything should be done in moderation. There is work to do. We are there to serve, not be served or cater to ourselves (Matthew 20:28). Does this mean we cannot enjoy ourselves to some extent? Absolutely not! But all things must be kept in moderation.
Mission trips don’t only involve evangelism alone
Another crucial factor we need to remember is that missions trips aren’t just for evangelization purposes. Believers with various gifts (assuming the Lord calls them to long-term service in another country or somewhere else in their own country) can also serve through missions. As we have said earlier, converting people to Christ is the first step, while teaching, encouraging, and strengthening are other critical tasks that need attention (Acts 14:21-29; Matthew 28:19-20). Different believers have the gifts of teaching, encouragement, giving, helping, exhortation, and the list goes on. There are so many possibilities!
Be that as it may, everyone still needs to make sure God wants them to participate in this kind of ministry work before jumping into anything. Many believers will minister right where they are – in and around their home country – while others may travel abroad or to a specific location alone. Whatever the case, we know that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few (Matthew 9:35-38).
In the end, there is nothing inherently wrong with organized ministry programs. However, the question is more along the lines of “does a church really need this or that, truly?” Only the congregation can answer that question. It depends on whether there is a need, how they operate, and what they emphasize. But programs should never be a forced issue or something we pressure others to participate in.
Everything written in the sections above in no way suggests that those involved in many of the church programs many believers are already familiar with aren’t serving the Lord in any way (that would be judgmental to the extreme). Neither is it true that children cannot benefit at all from these ministries. But although there is some profit, there is quite often a lot that is missing on the serious Bible teaching front, and this results in much harm. Such programs that lack in depth Bible teaching are only contributing to the lukewarm trend so rampant in our church era of Laodicea.
Unfortunately, this is the sad reality with many Christian camps, Sunday School classes, youth groups, Vacation Bible Schools, and other church programs. What they all tend to have in common is little profound Bible teaching and serious fellowship (since mutual encouragement and serious fellowship requires the truth). Instead, you have music, food, games, crafts, entertainment, verse memorization, stories, and the like, but very little spiritual “nutrition." All of these programs could be so much better if only the truth was actually being dispensed seriously.
As above, in all fairness, these events have produced “some” fruit (exactly how much is not for human eyes to judge, and will be unknowable by all except God). Children have gotten saved, missionaries have received support, and youth have been inspired through these organizations to go into ministry themselves. But that does not eliminate everything we have said thus far, because there are far better and more biblical ways to accomplish these goals – ways that will have a more meaningful and lasting impact on far more people.
The dark flipside to the current lukewarm state of affairs – also equally true – is that many have gotten very little from these experiences and have only gone from bad to worse because they were not really given what truth they needed to spiritually advance as they should. Does that excuse them for backsliding? Absolutely not! But from my observation, many church programs have become more of a distraction from the serious business of spiritual growth, advancement, and production than almost anything else, because of how much time they take up, how they choose to function, and what they decide to prioritize.