By Steve Manskar

Program-itis is a made-up word that I use to describe a condition that diminishes the church and inhibits its mission. It is the dependence upon programs that are produced by denominational publishing houses, para-church organizations, and mega-churches. These programs promise pastors and Christian educators that they will help their congregations to be on the “cutting edge” of cultural relevance, attract new members, and increase participation in church ministries. Over the past 50 years church leaders have been well trained to look for, purchase, and use the latest programs if they want to be effective and grow their churches.

We United Methodists are very good at producing and consuming excellent programs. They all have characteristics in common: they must be purchased, leaders must be recruited and trained, a limited duration (a few days, four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, thirty-four weeks), they are designed, written, and produced outside the context of the local congregation, and they lead users to purchase the next, “sequel”, program.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying there is anything wrong with programs or that congregations should stop using them. I believe they can have an important role in congregational life and mission when they are part of an intentional curriculum of Christian initiation, education and formation. Therein lays the problem.

The problem, as I see it, is that programs have replaced basic practices of Christian formation. Congregations are caught up in what Jacque Ellul calls the “device paradigm” that is always looking for, and counting on, the “quick fix.” If you watch television at all you can see this played out every day. Marketers send the message in advertisements that if we purchase their car, soft drink, drug, laundry detergent, computer, or any other of a multitude of products then our problems will be solved and we will be happy and fulfilled. The culture trains us to believe that we must look outside of ourselves to find the right “device” or technology to meet our needs and to make us whole. We are told over and over and over again that we do not posses within ourselves the means to become fully human. This is the lie of the “device paradigm” that fosters our dependence upon techniques and technology and the quick fix. Congregations are not immune to this. This is why we have succumbed to the device paradigm and now suffer from “programitis.” We need to realize that, while programs have a role to play, we have become far too dependent upon them to do the work of Christian formation.

Because the church has invested so much of its resources and ministry in a variety of programs we have neglected the basics: the teaching and proclamation of gospel of Jesus Christ contained in essential Christian doctrine, the disciplined practice of the means of grace (works of piety and mercy), and self-denial. In other words, we have put the church and church growth ahead of Christ and his gospel of the reign of God. Our dependence upon programs and quick fixes has formed into church-centered rather than Christ-centered people.

The Methodist movement that is the forebear of The United Methodist Church never developed or used programs. Their primary resources used for equipping people for living as disciples of Jesus Christ in the world were: the Bible, various collections of hymns, the Book of Common Prayer (worship book), and the sermons and teachings of John Wesley. Certainly publishing was important to the movement, but there was no need to create programs to convince people to read the Bible or think about becoming a follower of Jesus Christ. Much of the publishing was sermons, tracts, and pamphlets such as “The Character of a Methodist” intended to remind the Methodists of their identity and to interpret Methodism for the dominant culture.

The integrated system of small groups (classes and bands), the Methodist rule of life (the General Rules), and the discipline and pastoral care provided by class leaders, stewards, and preachers (all of whom were laity) all functioned as a “disciple-making” system designed to “reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land.”

Covenant Discipleship is a contemporary effort to restore the disciple-making foundation that is missing in most contemporary United Methodist congregations. It is important to understand that Covenant Discipleship is not a program. It is a foundational, systemic means of forming leaders in discipleship for the church in the world. Covenant Discipleship is designed to be a continuous process of intentional, missional Christian formation. It is an essential component of any “disciple-making” system that can be adapted and applied in any context.

Covenant Discipleship does not compete with church programs; it forms the leaders needed to run programs that help the church to live out its mission with Christ in the world. It is also important to acknowledge that many programs are good preparation for participation in a Covenant Discipleship group.

“Programitis” is a disease from which the church can recover. The cure begins be recognizing the affliction. The next step is to step back and make an honest assessment of the programs currently being used to determine how they may be organized into a coherent curriculum for Christian initiation and formation. The key shift that must be made is to focus the congregation’s resources and energy on preparing members to participate in Christ’s mission in the world.