Serving in Simplicity: Unprogramming the Church

by Anthony Rea | 6 min read

For those of us who are blessed to serve God’s people, we feel the weight of expectations whenever a new visitor decides to pop in to our churches, and we find ourselves wondering, “Is what we have going on here enough for them? How will we measure up?”

We want to be enough. We want our little fellowships, home churches, and even big churches to be enough. We desire so badly for them to be welcomed into the family, to plugin, and above all to grow for the glory of God. We want them to share in our joy of worshiping Jesus and serving in His kingdom.

But, unfortunately, our current western church culture presents the message that a successful church looks a certain way. This is exemplified in our conferences being hosted by large, successful churches, led by pastors who are sometimes larger than life. Please understand that this is not a critique. There are all sorts of reasons why that is practical; certainly from a resource standpoint, it makes sense.

What are we supposed to embrace as essential when the common indicators of successful ministry are giant buildings, sprawling campuses, multiple services, a dozen programs that are dedicated to “identity ministry” (men, women, singles, youth, children, seniors, bikers, surfers, nerds, seminarians, moms, bodybuilders, mom-bodybuilders, etc.)?

Is all that really necessary ? Do we need another program? Another group? Another event to add to the calendar?

Meeting (or not) the Cultural Expectation of Church

Here’s what I’ve learned over the past 16 years of ministry. When people visit a church, the minimum expectation is a vibrant and energetic children’s ministry – sequestered, of course, away from the adult service to minimize any untimely distractions; a killer youth group; a well-polished worship band (worship leader no older than 30); and fresh hot coffee at the door!1

Having served in large and small churches, I understand the value of each of these. And there are dearly loved people in my own life who are faithfully serving in such contexts. Jesus is doing amazing work through them!

But if you are planting a church or pastoring a small church ( or maybe even my house church people!), may God help you if you are missing one of these key ingredients! Visitors will think twice before returning to such a barren tundra of a church! I don’t write this with any sense of sarcasm. I pastor a small church. We have found that a children’s ministry is undoubtedly beneficial. The same is true for youth and worship. And you better believe we have fresh, strong coffee ready to go (it’s my personal conviction that you can determine the strength of a church’s doctrine by the strength of their brew).

But, we have also found that we can’t hold a candle to a larger church’s programming and polish! Sadly, many small churches feel compelled to “play” big church – to their own detriment. It inevitably leads to spreading volunteers beyond their limits and propping up ministries that shouldn’t be propped up just for the sake of “having it.” We see those programs as a sort of indicator of success – and we desire to be successful too!

All of these pitfalls have led to some meaningful meditation in my own life about “un-programming“ the local church.2

A road back to the basic principles we see in scripture of Church.

Unprogramming our Smaller Churches

What does that mean exactly? It means serve within the means the Lord has given you, be faithful in the small things, and be who you have been made in Christ. We don’t have to continue to turn the gears of “consumer” Christianity by inventing a new ministry for every whim.

We don’t believe in an a la carte form of ministry in our fellowship. We believe that God has given leaders to the church to equip the saints themselves for the work of ministry. 3 The saints are the people responsible for the ministry! And they are responsible for listening to the Holy Spirit, discerning His leading, and taking ventures of faith to see whether or not their ministry desires are from the Lord.

When small churches pretend to be big churches, we dismiss the beauty of the small churches that Jesus is building – the connections, the authenticity, the real life of it all. A personal anecdote will serve to show what I mean.

Our mid-week service was struggling. Our church is young – especially by church standards. We are five years old in a city with churches that are over 100 years old! We are also a small, growing church. On average, we have about 50 people fellowship with us (and I’m counting the kids – they are people too!). And we always have visitors dropping in.

When we first started, we wanted to make sure that we were making people comfortable. One of the things we did to try to accomplish this was treating our midweek service just like the Sunday morning service – there would be no surprises for the adventurous saint who wanted to try out the midweek service. The teaching content was different, but we had full musical worship, we had a kids ministry, we had the preaching – you know the deal.

As time went on, attendance remained very low. People couldn’t make it. Half of our attendees were in the kids’ ministry away from everybody else, and I ended up teaching just four or five super committed people. Praise the Lord.

But the kids’ ministry volunteers were the same volunteers from Sunday mornings (my wife and mother-in-law), so essentially they never got to sit in a service, fellowship with others, or hear the exposition of Scripture! What a shame.

So we stopped doing that. We just stopped. We un-programmed. We downsized.

Devoted to the Essentials

We decided to live in our own skin as a small church and devote ourselves to those things that are essential in the life of any church – the apostle’s teaching, the fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers. 4

We came to a point where we realized we didn’t want to pretend to be a big church. We realized that we had an opportunity to be our most authentic selves, to love one another, and to serve our families … as a collective church family.

We cut out the musical worship (I know, heresy!), we invited all of the kids, teenagers, and families into the main meeting space, we pulled out a giant tub of Legos, we got a single-serve coffee maker, and we committed to working through the Bible one chapter at a time – verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book.

Where once I and four or five other people tried (and mostly failed) to sing together in an attempt at corporate worship, instead we intentionally set aside a portion of our time at the beginning of our gathering for congregational prayer. Anybody can pray out loud, anybody can praise the Lord, anybody can share Scripture to comfort, edify, and exhort everybody else – decently and in order, of course. We even set time aside throughout the year to only pray for the whole service! Can you imagine!? And whenever we finish a book of the Bible, we take the next week just to sit and enjoy a meal together, to goof off, to build each other up, and fellowship.

Let me tell you that the first time we did extended corporate prayer, we were all challenged! The silence we experienced while waiting on someone to pray was deafening. The time seemed to drag on because nobody was used to sitting in quiet meditation, waiting upon the Holy Spirit to prompt us to prayer or praise. It turns out that even those go-getter Christians who set time aside to go to the mid-week service aren’t really used to a dedicated amount of time in prayer and meditation.

 But now, a few years later, that time we have together is perhaps the most fruitful, stirring time that we have as a church body. Is it perfect? No, of course not, but part of what makes our time together so rich is the humanity of it all.

And for what it’s worth, since our moment of “un-programming,” we have experienced a solid turnout on Wednesday evenings – the little ones and teenagers are all right there watching and learning from Mom and Dad! There are multiple families who drive an hour just to be there. I am in awe of what Jesus has done for and through our simplified mid-week service.

Prioritizing the Important

My prayer for you, loved one, is to feel free to hit delete on our programs, live with God’s people in reality, and serve in whatever way the Lord leads rather than trying to fit into any one particular model. I hope you will find as much joy and unburdening in un-programming as we have.

Finally, I leave you with this meditation in hopes that it spurs further consideration of the subject— “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.5

Anthony Rea is the chief servant and Pastor of Living Water Christian Fellowship in Dothan, AL. His heart is to faithfully teach the whole counsel of God, equip the saints for the work of ministry, and to love others like Jesus.
Anthony has published ,several books, is a Master of Divinity candidate with Moody Theological Seminary, and places a high-priority on faithfully teaching the whole Bible verse by verse, chapter by chapter, beginning to end in order to fan the flames of affection for the Scriptures and increase Biblical literacy. He'd love to hear from our readers! You can email him at anthony@livingwaterdothan.com

  1. See Mark Dever’s book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church for a good treatment of all of the decisions and assessments people make when choosing a church.
  2. “Un-programming” – I use this language because it is the language we commonly use to communicate what is going on with all of our various church “programs.” This should not be confused with the nonsensical “deprogramming” that has become popular in some relativistic Emergent theology.
  3. Eph 4:11-12
  4. Acts 2:42
  5. Rom 12:9-13

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