Are Church Programs the Problem?

twinkies-150x150If I were  to eat a box of Twinkies each week, would you be surprised if I gained weight by the end of the year? I would think not.

What would you think if someone shot and killed a teller in the midst of robbing a bank and then pleaded in court that the gun shot the teller, not him? Most people would rightly consider such a claim as lunacy.

Twinkies don’t make people fat and guns don’t kill people. In both cases, the Twinkies and the gun are merely passive tools in the hands of a heart that is seeking to use those tools for its own selfish ends, rather than the glory of God.

And, so, with that introduction we take a look at church programs.

Blame the Program
It seems that much of the debate these days about the dire condition of the church and home centers on church programs. In the eyes of some, the very real problems of youth rebellion, parents divorcing, singles feeling like second-class citizens in the church, etc., etc. are laid at the feet of these programs—or lack of these programs.

Making the programs the issue is a tragic distraction from the real issue that continues to miss our attention.

Programs Don’t Transform Hearts
Our hearts as church leaders, as parents, as children, as brothers and sisters in the Lord are desperately in need of transformation. Jesus tells us that heart transformation is not an outside-in pursuit, but an inside-out pursuit that is the ongoing work of the application of the Gospel in our hearts every day.

Church leaders can add/change/delete programs all they want, but if the heart is not the focus and the Gospel not the means it makes little difference. When I speak of church programs, I speak mainly of youth ministry, children’s ministry, men’s ministry, women’s ministry, singles ministry, and senior ministries.
Definitely Examine the Programs
At the Institute, we support each church’s examination of church programs to see how they are helping/hindering the work of the Gospel message applied to life through relationships.

Programs are commonly abused when people rely on them to do the work that they should be doing in their relationships. Examples include elders who don’t shepherd because they assume that the programs are meeting those needs. Same with parents don’t disciple their kids at home and husbands and wives who are not living in an Ephesians 5 way.

Another abuse occurs when the people who run the programs give little thought to the role of God-ordained relationships in the lives of those who are served by the programs. For example it is not uncommon for parents to be overlooked. Or worse, some of these ministry leaders consider parents as counter-productive to what they are seeking to accomplish in their ministry.

Relationships are More Important
In my 20 years of working with church leaders I have seen churches where real, gospel-centered heart-level transformation is taking place and programs are a real help—as they should be. But this is because it is clear in the minds of leaders and members that relationships, particularly those in the home, are more important.

I have also seen churches where the leaders have concluded that programs were “not biblical” and acted quickly to get rid of them. This action caught unprepared and ill-equipped households off-guard. In these cases, people were not given a vision for achieving greater heart-level transformation by the Gospel as the reason…because in many cases it wasn’t the reason. It was just that the programs were not specifically prescribed in scripture.

Keep the Main Issue The Main Issue
At the Institute, in coaching church leaders, we do not make programs the main issue because they are not the main problem. After laying the vision for transformation by applying the gospel to the heart through relationships then we help church leaders evaluate programs to see how they help or hinder this vision. We make recommendation as needed for how to modify programs so the programs remain servants, not usurpers of relationships.

Programs and relationships must work together. It has been my experience that when church leaders are successful in equipping the body to minister through relationships, programs can become superfluous and be discontinued. This will likely be good news for many church leaders who are burning out trying to keep the programs going. God’s plan is always best and the more faithful we are to follow it, the more fruit we should expect to see.

A Cure for Pastor Burnout Part 3 of 3

So far in our mini-series we have seen that the cure for pastor burnout is to equip others in the church to do what God says they are already called to do: minister to one another (Eph. 4:15-16; Col 3:16-17). Everyone, not just the pastor, is a minister who is responsible for doing the work of applying the gospel to people’s hearts. We also saw that relationships are a vital context for people to minister this way. Discipleship of this nature necessitates relationship because the truth that we speak to one another is to be integrated into life so that we are transformed and God is glorified (Eph. 4:1, 16-17; Col. 2:6-7).

As equippers, an elder’s commitment to relationships for his own equipping work is essential. I add that a focus of the elder on the head of household (who will take what he learns and apply it in his home) best leverages precious time spent.

Other elders committing to shepherding work is a HUGE cure for pastor burnout.

Today in the third and final installment, I want to address two challenges felt by some elders who seek to follow this shepherd-like approach to equipping. Note that while I am addressing elders, the issues really do apply to all of us in the church!

The first challenge is: “I don’t know how to do it!”
There are two aspects to this that are very closely linked. The first has to do with a feeling of inadequacy in relationships. Deep relationships are not usually high on a man’s priority list! Let’s face it, it’s easier to talk about the NFL than our heart struggles. The second aspect is a lack of confidence in helping people examine their hearts and how to apply the gospel where correction and growth are needed. Consider that this aspect of the challenge is more a reflection of the professional, academic model that prizes forensic skill than it is a reflection of an elder’s ability (1 Tim. 3:2, 5) to apply the precious gospel truths in relationships.

As Collin Marshall reminds us in his book, The Trellis and The Vine“…the effect of tradition and long practice is not always that some terrible error becomes entrenched; more often it is that our focus shifts away from our main task and agenda which is disciple-making.

The elder’s work is hard, but not rocket science. It involves knowing the gospel and being able to apply it to the heart by faith. But it is very difficult to do this at least to any meaningful degree outside the context of relationships.

Jesus’ model as a shepherd helps us understand how elders can do this relational work.
For instance, in John 13 Jesus said that he knew his sheep. So, how hard is it to get to know someone? Isn’t it a matter of simply spending time with them? Isn’t it a matter of taking an interest in them and getting to know who they are? What they like or dislike? What troubles them and what gives them joy? These interests and many others are not too difficult to figure out in a relationship.

This personal knowledge is important because it reflects the heart of the person. To understand the heart is to know the reasons why they do what they do. It’s about helping them discern whether their actions flow from a desire to glorify God through obedience or to glorify self through the worship of an idol. If the motivation is idolatrous, then we need to be able to show how the gospel defeats the idol and re-directs the person back to God’s glory. Helping people become skilled at going through this cycle is the daily, ongoing work of sanctification.

A good place to start doing relationships is by simply selecting four men and committing to have coffee, breakfast or lunch with one person, one day per week for the purpose of getting to know them so as to bless them with the gospel. It may be challenging at first but it works if one chooses to make it work. This leads to the second challenge that I want to address.

A second challenge is: “I don’t have time to do it.”
Time is a real issue especially for those who have unusual job demands. But time duly taken into consideration, this is still an issue of priorities. Is there no time anywhere in the week to reach out to someone in a way like I’ve described? Practical issues aside, this is where our own hearts as elders need to be overcome with the gospel!

The gospel working in us will create a desire to serve others. We serve best not out of duty, but out of an overflow of the love that we have received from Christ. If it’s a priority that God wants, and we ask him to show us how to make it happen, it’s amazing what He can do. Even if an elder is only able to make one or two connections per month, that’s one or two more connections than would have been made otherwise!

It is worth the effort to work at making practical, relational eldership work. Through it people’s lives do change. It allows us elders to give a good answer when God asks us to give an account for the sheep under our care (Heb. 13:17). And it provides a cure for pastor burnout because more people are involved in doing the main work which is the heart work in their relationships.

A Cure for Pastor Burnout Part 2 of 3

manhandchin-150x150My last column ended with the question, “What does equipping look like?” In a word, it looks like, relationship.

I wrote that a cure for pastor burnout was to equip more “ministers” to do the main work. What I’m talking about here are church members who are fully capable of helping each other with the deep work of transformation. Transformation is greater conformity to the image of Jesus Christ which enables one to live more and more to the glory of God (Rom. 12:2; 1 Cor. 10:31; 2 Cor. 3:18). While it is the Holy Spirit Who does the actual transformation, God’s plan is to use us in each other’s lives as a vital part of the process. We are all to speak the truth to one another in love (Eph. 4:15), we are all to teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16), we are all to restore brothers and sisters who are out of fellowship with God (Gal. 6:1-2). All of this simply is another way of saying, “discipleship”!

Discipleship of this nature necessitates relationship because the truth that we speak to one another is to be integrated into life so that we are transformed and God is glorified (Eph. 4:1, 16-17; Col. 2:6-7). Classroom training can help, but it is limited and too often stands alone without any designed connection to relationship. People rarely learn how to apply truth to life by sitting in a classroom. Information (while important) is, by itself, not transformation. And Jesus was after transformation. Are we reminding our congregants of this?

Jesus’ model for equipping the disciples was relationship. His disciples learned by watching him minister to others. (In similar fashion, Paul exhorts us to imitate him and to follow his example in Phil 3:17; 2 Thess. 3:7,9; 1 Tim. 4:16, 1:12; and 2 Tim. 2:2). It’s like the Law of Biogenesis at work spiritually.

A few weeks ago, my son Jared changed the oil in one of my vans for the first time (see picture). It was a proud moment for him and for me. He had learned a lot about how to change the oil just by watching me do it over the years and I was impressed with the skill and care he demonstrated. When I began to give instruction he said, “Dad, I know how to do this, I’ve seen you do it a thousand times.” Are our relationships with one another strong enough to command that kind of response?

Imagine a church where the following (or something similar) is normally heard: “Fred, my wife and I are struggling but I’ve observed how you relate to your wife. I’ve seen how you work through conflict and I know what I need to do.”  

People need to be able to see what you are equipping them to do, especially when it comes to heart transformation. 

The main work is the soul work and the soul work is not “turn-key”. It is not simply a matter of telling people what is true and expecting that they will be able to translate that into life. Soul work: discipleship, focuses on the heart where deceitful desires are at war within us (Eph. 4:22; James 4:1-2). So, watching someone have a discussion with another person (or them telling you about it) that plumbs the depths of the heart is very helpful to learning how to do the work yourself.

I’ll never forget learning how to share my faith. My friend, Eric, taught me how to share my faith through a combination of classroom teaching and weekly meetings where we would pray, talk about life, and then go out and actually witness together. Normally, we would go to George Mason University to engage students in spiritual discussions. Eric modeled how to share his faith even with the many antagonists that we providentially encountered. There have been a number of times that I have consciously thought back to those experiences and drawn from what I learned by watching Eric.

So how do we get equipping like this going? Here are several meaty ideas.

First, this will take time. So, it begins with a commitment. Church leaders must see this as mission-critical and not allow tyranny of the urgent, or various fears, to consume it.

Second, it involves the leadership of the church rolling up their sleeves and doing it themselves. Church leaders can begin to regularly meet with people one-on-one. This may require some level of freeing them up to have the time to do this. When small groups are led by elders it provides a natural way for elders to know who they are responsible to equip which also ensures that everyone in the church is actually equipped. This simple connection also helps to establish relationships in a much more natural way.

Third, consider the strategic importance of church leaders developing a primary, not exclusive, but primary focus on discipling the heads of household. I believe this honors the biblical role and responsibility of the head of household and leverages the time and effort of the church leader by focusing on one person who already has the express responsibility of equipping other people, namely and primarily those in their homes, including wives and children.

Fourth, consider giving the Sunday and Wednesday night youth and adult activities a rest for 12 weeks. Gather everyone to go through Paul Tripp and David Powlison’s Changing Hearts, Changing Lives curriculum available from This curriculum features twelve videos and individual workbooks. This would be a great way to emphasize the necessity of everyone seeing and learning how to be a minister.

Fifth, consider having the Institute come and present a weekend, church-wide seminar! Building Church Communities of Gospel Transformation is for everyone: youth, singles, couples, and families in the church. When trying to emphasize/re-emphasize something important, it sometimes helps as part of the effort for people to hear it from a different person. We also have a simple and fun 12-week curriculum for families to use in the home after the seminar.

Now, perhaps all of this still sounds impractical? You might object, “This will never work at my church!” Or you may question, “Who has time to equip someone this way?” I will answer these and other objections next.

Continue on to part 3 here.

A Cure for Pastor Burnout Part 1 of 3

jared-150x150Do you change the oil in your car, mini-van, Porsche… or Maserati? I still change the oil in my 1999 Plymouth Grand Voyager and my 2003 Dodge Ram Van.  I guess that there’s so little that I feel capable of doing on my vans that changing the oil is something I can do to save a little money.
I rarely change the oil by myself. Most of the time, Jared (my second of four sons) can be counted on to lend a helping hand. He has a natural bend toward grease, dirt, and anything that allows him to have his hands around a car engine—and the dirtier, the better.

Jared (pictured above) brings me the oil pan. He hands me a wrench. He brings me paper towels when the oil gets all over my hands and arms. He hands me the new filter. But he does not actually crawl under the van on his back, put the wrench on the oil pan drain plug and turn it. He does not remove the oil filter. Certainly, the things he does help and I am grateful for his enthusiastic assistance. But he’s not really doing the most important work.

This serves as an interesting metaphor for church ministry. People help! They set up the chairs. They bring a snack for the kids. They collect the offering. They may actually pray during Sunday School or the worship service, or teach a class. Make no mistake, all of these are important; they can even represent small steps toward more significant involvement, but that’s often where it stops.  These and similar contributions are not the main work.

The main work involves transformation: conformity to the image of Jesus Christ which enables one to live more and more to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). While it is the Holy Spirit Who does the actual transformation, God’s plan is to use us in each other’s lives as a vital part of the process. For example, we are all to speak the truth to one another in love (Eph. 4:15). We are all to teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16). We are all to restore brothers and sisters who are out of fellowship with God (Gal. 6:1-2).

God’s covenantal blueprint calls for transformation to be a community project. Church and home are united in purpose and they are more effective at outreach and evangelism when this is understood and pursued.
The problem, however, is that many people don’t really see themselves as ministers with this responsibility. If they do have a sense of it, many don’t know how to do it. Nor do they necessarily look at the role of church leaders as being primarily their “equippers” for this specific responsibility.

Church leaders have a specific job: equip the saints for the work of ministry. To equip simply means to “supply with the necessary items for a particular purpose.” Speaking the truth to one another in love (v.15) is the fundamental work of each Christian and they need to be equipped to do it. If we are equipping people to do this work, then we will have people who are able to minister to others. This is God’s design and it provides the reciprocal benefit of relieving us of what we were never called to do to begin with; namely, doing all of the main work ourselves.

But equipping—for this level of ministry—will provide the relief that church leaders need. 

So, what does equipping like this look like? What are the implications for current ministry activities? We’ll take a look at this next…

Continue on to part 2 here.

Family-Integrated Church, an Interview

Examiner’s Shawn Mathis interviews Eric Wallace.

“Shawn, I read your three-part article on FIC [family integrated church, ed.] and I would like to set a time to speak with you. Please understand that I have no pugnacious intentions. I agree wholeheartedly with your concern about FIC. Thank you, Eric Wallace.”

After reading the email on my smartphone between appointments, I wondered if this was the Eric Wallace—the one who “started it all”—that movement in homeschooling circles which denounces the typical youth ministries and Sunday schools.

So, like a moth drawn to the light, I set up my phone interview with him, oblivious to the surprises to come.

Read the full interview here.