First, this brief commentary on the role of programs at church in this day and age.
Programming is all the stuff that people do at church. Game days, communal dinners, VBS, that sort of thing. Anything other than worship and Bible study I consider programming. The term programming implies that leadership at some level gets together and says we think that people should or would come and participate in this so lets arrange for it to occur. From that perspective, I’m not a big fan of programming. I’m more a fan of people gathering together to say we’d like for this to happen so we’re going to do it. It’s still programming of a sort, but more grass roots. That’s just my preference.
But regardless of the direction the initiative is flowing, the commentary is appropriate. People are busy. They have lots of options, and the role of church activities needs to be re-evaluated. Particularly they need to be re-evaluated if we’re going to think in terms of competition.
The Church does not compete with anyone or anything. The Church is the body of followers of Jesus Christ. It exists to nourish and sustain those believers, and to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others. It exists, by historical self-definition, to offer the Word and Sacraments of God to the people of God. It exists to fulfill the Great Commission of making disciples of all nations through baptizing and teaching them.
It does not exist to entertain. It does not exist to fill people’s time. Can it do these things as well? Certainly! And at many times and in many places the Church has met the social needs of God’s people as well as their spiritual needs. But these functions are secondary, and we dare not confuse them with the primary reason the Church exists, regardless of what additional roles the Church has played throughout the course of our lives.
Many people have fond memories of youth groups, campus ministries, couples clubs, young family support groups, and any number of other programs through their congregations. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, but they aren’t necessary, other than that God’s people felt that they wanted the Church to provide those things and so participated in them actively and enthusiastically.
Now, this doesn’t seem to be the case in a lot of places. Social and athletic and health interests can be satisfied by a plethora of other organizations that tend specifically to these goals and interests. That isn’t competition to the Church. The Church doesn’t need to outdo these other organizations and service offerings. This is not how the Church protects or serves God’s people! A youth camp doesn’t have to be a Christian youth camp. A sports league doesn’t need to be a church league. These are luxuries that we are free to indulge in when we have the opportunity, but they are not the reason the Church exists.
The Church needs to do what it is created to do. Share the Gospel. Share the gifts of God in Word and Sacrament with the people of God. Teach God’s people how to live in a culture that is less and less Christian oriented or guided, how to remain faithful followers of Jesus Christ at a secular youth camp, or in a secular softball league. That’s what the Church really needs to take seriously.
After all, NONE of those other organizations pursues the primary purpose of the Church. NONE of those outside groups exist to share the love of Jesus Christ. They exist for completely different purposes and reasons. In which case we aren’t competing with these other organizations at all.