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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?

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Joel Mayward is a pastor, writer, youth worker, and film critic. The author of three books, he has written for numerous ministry publications, including Christianity Today, Christ and Pop Culture, Leadership Journal, YouthWorker Journal, Immerse Journal, The Youth Cartel, and LeaderTreks. You can read his musings on film, theology, and culture at his personal blog, www.joelmayward.com. For his film reviews and essays, check out www.cinemayward.com. Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelmayward.