The modern church has no shortage of programs. It's a virtual buffet of options.We've got programs for children, youth, young adults, regular adults, senior adults, singles, married, and divorced. We have music programs, motorcycle programs, discipleship programs, addiction programs, prison programs, visitation programs, evangelism programs, shut-in programs, summer programs, winter programs, holiday programs, and so on. Programs for the grieving and for those who are rejoicing.
In-reach, out-reach. You name it, we've got it.
Did I miss your favorite program? Would you leave a church because they did not have it?
I am not trying to be silly. This is serious.
People attend and leave churches because of programs. Even when a local church has a program, it is constantly in danger of losing people to a better program down the road. Many of the growing churches are growing by transfer growth, not conversions of nonbelievers.
The buffet of programs seemingly exists everywhere we look. Well, unless we're looking in the New Testament.
Paul planted churches that had incredible impact. They reached their regions with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Disciples were made. But Paul did not attempt to build churches by establishing thriving children’s ministries. Never do you read of Paul exhorting believers to hire dynamic youth pastors or to spend their resources on an excellent VBS program. Paul never encouraged these churches to make sure they had dynamic pastors with degrees from accredited universities who could give eloquent and passionate talks. Paul never mentioned the importance of talented music ministers.
Today, we seem to emphasize programs. But what did Paul emphasize?
He made an amazing statement in 1 Corinthians 4:16-17,
Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church.
Paul taught this everywhere. In every church. This should grab our attention.
Paul didn't establish program-driven churches. He never took surveys of the felt needs of the community. We have no record of his using resources to create fun, no-strings-attached programs to appeal to the unchurched. Instead, Paul explained his program in the opening chapter (1 Corinthians 1:17-25),
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void. For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.' Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Christ didn't send Paul to establish programs. Christ sent him to preach the gospel.
Paul knew what the Jews wanted. Signs. He knew what the Greeks wanted. Wisdom. What was his response? He preached a crucified, resurrected, and exalted Messiah.
This gospel message was the power and wisdom of God to those who believed. This same message was foolishness to the rest. He didn’t give them what they wanted or felt they needed. Paul chose to give them what Christ said they needed. He didn’t give them the best programs he could built with the material resources available to him and upon the backs of volunteers. Paul instead gave them the pure gospel built on the power of God.
Despite modern ideas, God’s power does not rely upon programs, methods, or resources; it does not rely on hiring a dynamic speaker, someone with a PhD, or being culturally “relevant.” God’s power and wisdom are found in the gospel.
Due to the sheer number of problems he was addressing in Corinth it is easy to miss Paul’s little statement about imitating his ways, holding firm the traditions, and the reality that he taught this in every church. Paul practiced what he preached. Paul consistently went to strategic places to proclaim the gospel. First to Jews, then to Gentiles. Afterward, Paul encouraged and strengthened these churches, trusting they could sustain the same ministry of faithfully proclaiming this message to others.
When Epaphras did this to his hometown of Colossae, Paul rejoiced. He wrote to this community, which he had never met, with confidence they were sharing in the ministry of evangelizing the world. That is God’s program. Paul wrote to them assuming they participated in the same ministry program he did.
We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me. (Colossians 1:28–29)
Paul included these saints in Colossae in the ministry of proclaiming Christ, admonishing and teaching everyone with the purpose of presenting them in Christ before the Father. The Colossians participated with Paul in the same labor, in God’s power.
The believers in Colossae were doing what was right. In contrast, the believers in Corinth were getting distracted. Paul was careful to remind the Corinthians of the truth of the gospel in chapter 15. Paul discussed some important theology regarding the resurrection. We must not miss what he wrote in verse 34:
Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame.
Paul revealed the primary reason for his desire they should stop sinning. It was not because their sinning was making them unhappy. It was not for some self-interested reason.
Instead, Paul told them they should have been ashamed of themselves because there were some who had no knowledge of God. Their sin was distracting them from their primary duty as Christians: spreading the knowledge of God through the gospel and the testimony of the church.
Paul returned to this theme in 2 Corinthians as he once again described his apostolic ministry.
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? (2 Corinthians 2:14–16)
Paul sought to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, to do all things for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God, and to do all things for the edification of the church. Paul was single-minded in pursuing these things. That single-minded devotion was why Paul described his thanksgiving even in the midst of difficulty knowing God always leads Christians in triumph in Christ and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Jesus everywhere.
At least, God does this when we become sober-minded and stop sinning.
Sin can detract us from our God-ordained purpose to manifest the knowledge of God. But when we are walking in accordance with His will, God works through us for that purpose. It is why God saved us.
It's possible that our buffet of programs is aimed at manifesting the knowledge of God. It's more likely that our programs become a distraction from our real purpose as Christians. We are not called to build a social club. We are called to manifest the sweet aroma of the true knowledge of Jesus.
This program of God using His children to manifest the knowledge of who He is in the world is in line with the theology of the church as described by our leading theologians. It was no small theme in Paul’s writings.
In the epistle to the Galatians, Paul wrote of his astonishment that they were turning from the gospel they had received to another gospel, which was no gospel at all. Paul also used the strongest language possible when he declared that those preaching a different gospel were to be accursed with everlasting condemnation in hell. In the process of turning to a different gospel, the Galatians were turning away from the person of God. Paul urged these Christians to walk with the Spirit of the living God because they knew God and were known by Him.
To the saints in Ephesus, Paul wrote of the glory of God’s plan to give to His children a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. Paul prayed that they would be unified in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.
Paul prayed that the believers in Colossae would be filled with a knowledge of God’s will so they would walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, please Him in all respects, bear fruit in every good work, and increase in the knowledge of God. Paul expressed his desire for these saints to have a full assurance of understanding that would result from a knowledge of Christ.
Paul explained to the believers in Thessalonica how their knowledge of God led to their sanctification. This was in contrast to those who lived in accordance with their lusts because they didn’t know God.
Similarly, Paul warned Titus of the empty confession of those who claimed to know God but whose deeds demonstrated they did not.
He further warned the Thessalonians of the dreadful consequences coming upon those who did not know God in contrast to the glorious hope for those who did.
Paul wrote to the saints in Rome that God’s judgment was upon the unbelievers because they suppressed what was known about God in their unrighteousness.
Paul understood that the world was not able to come to know God on its own, so God was pleased to have people come to know Him through the proclamation of the gospel. Since the knowledge of God was manifested through Christians, Paul took the proclamation of the gospel seriously. He sought to tear down anything that was raised up against the knowledge of God. This included admonishing those in sin because sin in the lives of believers caused them to lose focus on God’s program of manifesting the knowledge of Christ in every place.
Paul wrote to Timothy of God’s desire that all be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. A knowledge of the one mediator between God and humanity and what people must do to receive Christ as Savior. Paul encouraged Timothy to remain faithful on the basis of Paul’s knowing Jesus personally and knowing Jesus was faithful not just to Paul but also to Timothy. Paul encouraged Timothy that this “knowledge” wasn’t one-sided. Jesus knows those who are His.
Paul was not content simply to manifest the knowledge of God to others, or to pray that believers would know God better, or warn of the consequences coming to those who did not know God. Paul was not shy about professing to the Philippians his desire above all else to grow in his knowledge of God. Paul viewed this as having a value greater than anything else.
Are you getting the picture?
Paul was consumed with the knowledge of God. He wanted to know Christ. Paul wanted others to know Christ. He wanted to destroy anything that would hinder people from coming to know Christ. He did everything so the knowledge of Christ could increase. He thanked God that even when his own circumstances were difficult or seemingly contrary to the good, the knowledge of Christ was expanding and that was a reason to celebrate.
In light of this, how do you think Paul would react if the Corinthians had told him about their plan to hold non-confrontational potlucks so the church could get to know members of the community? Do you think Paul would respond favorably to outreach and evangelism methods that prioritized human relationships horizontally over pointing people to the Savior so they could have a right relationship with God vertically?
Many outreach and church-growth strategies recognize that the more we magnify Jesus, the reaction of death to death is still how those who are perishing react. However, if we prioritize our programs that cater to the various lusts and impulses of the flesh and the general brokenness of this present world and desire to numerically grow those who sow into our own ministry, diminishing Jesus and emphasizing felt needs becomes a reasonable strategy.
Not biblical. Reasonable. To put it another way: it is walking by sight, not by faith.
We can justify this strategy because the people we supposedly want to reach seemingly respond much better because they are willing to participate in the programs we’ve created to minister to their felt needs whereas they do not respond with pleasure to the preaching of the gospel.
Let's return to what Paul said to the Corinthians.
Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:16–17)
Imitators of Paul. Who sought to proclaim boldly, faithfully, and lovingly the gospel of Jesus.
Imitators of Paul. Who lived to know Jesus and to make Him known.
Imitators of Paul. Who lived to tear down anything that hindered a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Not only this, but to understand that such a ministry is pleasing to God and pleasing to those who are being saved but is displeasing to those who are perishing.
Paul knew that persecution was waiting for him everywhere he went. Not simply because he was an apostle. Because this was the nature of Christian ministry. If we do it well and manifest the knowledge of God, persecution awaits us, too.
Paul was not kidding when he warned young Timothy (2 Tim 3:12),
Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
Not might be. Will be.
When we cater to the flesh and stop seeking to make Jesus known in all His fullness, persecution is not necessary. No one persecutes Christians for having nonconfrontational potlucks.
We should be alarmed that we have found a way to “share Jesus” with people without it either being an aroma of life to life or an aroma of death to death. We have so modified the program of God, watered down the message of the gospel, and hidden the knowledge of God that ambivalence is a normal response. Christians are not being persecuted in the United States as they are in other places. It is not because we are a Christian nation. It's because we've deviated from God's program and agenda to pursue our own programs and agendas.
We have substituted the program (singular) God intends for His church to follow programs (plural) that appeal to the flesh of nonbelievers and immature Christians. We spend more time trying to get people to know each other than we do urging them to truly know God. In many cases, people are preaching and teaching caricatures of God that skew the character of the living God revealed in the Scriptures and who walked the earth in the person of Jesus Christ; the God who is coming again in glory to gather a people to Himself from every tribe, tongue, and nation and to crush His adversaries under His feet.
Do you know God? Are you making Him known?
God’s love in us should compel us to proclaim the good news to everyone on earth.
As we grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, we should likewise grow in our understanding that we exist to manifest the knowledge of God everywhere.
Get with God's program. For His name's sake.
(This article is adapted from chapter 5 of The Forgotten Officer: Restoring The Fullness of God's Design by Joe Kohler. You can purchase the book here.)