The Programification of the Church

I know, “program-ification” is not a real word. One of our Vibrant Faith Coaches, the Rev. Erik Samuelson, made that up. On our team, we all like it. And we know that you know what we mean when we say it. 

We’re curious—has Christian faith formation been mixed up with schooling models, where absorbing information ABOUT being a Christian, delivered through the conduits of programs and curriculums, becomes our primary focus? How did we get to a place in the church where we believe our “survival” is driven by programs designed to attract children and youth? Take that in. Faith Formation ministries have become the economic engine of churches, because people want to be part of a successful church with lots of families and kids, even if those families with kids aren’t the biggest donors. 

The hard question we need to answer: Is this system about following the way of Jesus, or something else?

Why do conversations between people who lead children’s and youth ministires in churches quickly focus on curriculum? Before the late 1800’s, there were NO Sunday schools or youth programs in churches. They were born first in England and then migrated to North America—the goal was to teach reading and writing and Scripture. Eventually, the model flowed into public education. But for the many centuries before this “innovation,” faith was passed on from generation to generation relationally, from parents (and people who are like parents) to kids. Historically, people have committed to following Jesus through the powerful impact of relational discipleship, a kind of heart-to-heart, deep-impact influence.  

Christians have adopted daily life and communal practices ever since they began meeting after Pentecost. These practices—such as worship and prayer and hospitality and caring for the least of these—are the outward expressions of those who follow of the way of Jesus. These ways of living set Christians apart from the cultures around them for centuries. As believing adults live in relationship to Jesus and the church, they pass on that faith to their children—because people have been practicing “The Way” from that first outpouring of the Spirit to this day.  

Catechisms were developed along the way to give families simple ways to talk about their faith in Jesus in their homes. We also know there were some who tended to the reading and passing on of Scripture more than others—and that we are privileged to have access to reading and sharing the story of Jesus in ways that our ancestors in the faith did not.  And yet?

We often hear ministry leaders assert that our formation programs are the carrots for families, and the vehicles through which relationships can be built. But what do we do when that doesn’t happen? What happens when the programs, bit by bit, are no longer the glue that holds people to the church? We KNOW that faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit through personal, trusted relationships, often but not always in homes.   

How do we harness the power of relationships in our churches? Well, our first priority is to find ways to maximize purposeful relational time between parents, other parents, and their kids…

  • This may mean we find ways to invite them to read and learn Scripture in pairs or triads, rather than groups and classes.
  • This might mean pairing kids with adults who are willing to walk and pray, and talk about Jesus with them. 
  • This might mean knowing the spiritual, physical and emotional needs of each family. 
  • This might mean helping your people feel comfortable with the daily lives of people and their spiritual development as the actual curriculum.  

Let’s wonder together about how this could work… “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and blind them on your foreheads” (Deuteronomy 6:7-8).

Dr. Nancy Going serves as the Director of Research & Resource Development for Vibrant Faith. Nancy lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband Art, an Anglican priest, and they have launched two new families from their children.


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