Programmed to Death: Why the church calendar may be your church’s worst enemy!

Part of the Rethinking Church series

Dr. Randy White

If you were to search the New Testament for actual activity performed by the first century church, you wouldn’t find much.  Compared to today’s 24/7 church schedule, the first century church seemed to be quite devoid of programs.  I’m not referring to activities of first century Christians, but about activities of their churches, performed as a body and presumably organized by the body.

That first century church did do some things collectively, but not much of it could be found on the calendar, or in the programs, or, in some cases, even on the horizon of 21st century church activity.

What did the church do?

We know that the church was involved in discipline of its membership.  This is something that ultimately can only be done corporately.  Some of those disciplinary issues were laid out by the Apostle Paul to the church atCorinthin 1 Corinthians 5:1-6:8.  In a future article in this series, we will discuss this issue more fully.

Another action of the church as a body was the sending of missionaries.  In Acts 13, the church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabus as their missionaries to far-away places.  While one believer might be able to do this task, it would be very rare.  Most often, the sending of missionaries has to be done on the church level.  John gives the church instruction to receive and care for those who go out with this missionary task (3 John 6-8).

Another activity of the first century church was to solve theological disputes through congregational representatives.  This is the plot-line of Acts 15 and what has often been called the First Council of the church.

Teaching was clearly an activity of the early church.  In fact, one could argue that it was the premier and foundational activity of the church.  Numerous scriptures, like Acts 2:42 and 11:26, 1 Corinthians 4:17 and 14:19, and Colossians 1:25-29 and 4:16 highlight the teaching ministry of the church.

Prayer, what we often term “corporate prayer,” was an activity of the church.  When Peter was about to die at the hands of Herod, “prayer was made for him by the church” (Acts 12:5).  Prayer, then, also seemed to be a foundational activity of the first church.

The first century church was clearly involved in serving and edifying one another.  While this is, in many ways, an individual activity, the church was so organized around this value that Paul instructed the church to gather an offering for another church (2 Corinthians 8-9).

Care for widows, in a much different manner than happens today, was a program of the church.  Even in the earliest form of the church there was a very important program ministry of feeding the widows (Acts 6).    In 1 Timothy 5, the Apostle Paul laid out a program policy for determining who was a “widow indeed.”

The Lord’s Supper was also a church activity, as seen in Acts 2:42 and 1 Corinthians 11.  From the earliest days, when the church gathered, it broke the bread and drank the wine “in remembrance of me.”

Fellowship was a final activity of the body.  From Acts 2:42 onward, there are numerous occasions when the church was together, celebrating its koinonia (fellowship).  It occurs often enough that it appears to have been an agenda item on the church’s calendar.

These activities—discipline, sending missionaries, solving theological disputes, teaching, prayer, service, caring for widows, and fellowship—appear to be the totality of church-based activity.  How different from the world today!

What would the consultants say?

If a panel of church consultants were to make a site visit to analyze the ministries of the first century church, what would their report say?  Obviously, I can only speculate.  But based on what is considered of greatest importance today, I think they would have three questions:

Where’s the Music Ministry?

Music has become the front door of the church.  Many people today use music as the primary qualifier in the selection of a church.  In fact, in today’s world worship and music have become synonymous.  For example, consider these quotes:

“How Worship Brought Our Church Back from the Dead:

Notice that the descriptors of how this church made worship its first priority were chiefly about music.

Here’s one from a church website that is typical of the modern church understanding of worship:

“Because the worship of God’s people is the first priority in our Mission Statement at Second Presbyterian Church, we hope to offer music that will not only enhance our worship, but also enrich our souls and lives in meaningful ways. We hope you will be blessed by the concerts and worship services we offer. Pray for us as we aim to give God our best in all these endeavors, and mark your calendars so you won’t miss a single event!”  (Second Pres. Church,Memphis,TN.  Emphasis mine)

Notice that since “worship” is priority, the church will offer music, concerts, endeavors, events, and other things that belong on the calendar.

Rich Nathan, a Pastor of aVineyardChurch, has this to say about the importance of worship:

“God is in the building business, and he’s building His church.  A look at His blueprint, the Bible, shows us that He intends for the foundation of His church to be worship. Worship is our prodigal, radical, extravagant, emotional, whole person response to being touched by God.  It is what cures barrenness and creates a community of believers. It is what we were created to do in this life; it is what we were created to do for all eternity[2] (Emphasis mine).

These kinds of statements are so typical they have become the norm in the church today.  Worship is “the foundation of His church” (we worship worship?).  Worship “is what cures barrenness and creates a community” (the Balm inGileadis worship?).  Worship is “what we were created to do in this life” and “for all eternity” (something God failed to mention in Genesis 2 when He gave instruction to Adam!)

This fixation on worship in the modern church is a modern idea.  In fact, the puritan colonies ofNew Englandwere very opposed to what is today considered the foundation of His church.  Drama was strictly forbidden, as were many kinds of poetry and most kinds of religious music!  The Puritans believed that music in worship would create a “dreamy state” that was not conducive to learning God’s Word.

Adam Clarke, a Methodist theologian, wrote about instrumental music in churches toward the end of his life (1832):

“I am an old man, and I here declare that I never knew them to be productive of any good in the worship of God, and have reason to believe that they are productive of much evil. Music as a science I esteem and admire, but instrumental music in the house of God I abominate and abhor. This is the abuse of music, and I here register my protest against all such corruption of the worship of the author of Christianity. The late and venerable and most eminent divine, the Rev. John Wesley, who was a lover of music, and an elegant poet, when asked his opinion of instruments of music being introduced into the chapels of the Methodists, said in his terse and powerful manner, ‘I have no objections to instruments of music in our chapels, provided they are neither heard nor seen.’ I say the same.”

Though Clarke’s words are specifically about instrumental music, we can see how much the church has changed.  Spurgeon also had strong words to say about anything other than unison congregational singing.  Complaining of the “theatrical prettiness” of quartets and organs, he said “we might as well pray by machinery as praise by it.”

There was, however, one preacher who pronounced the virtues of change in the music program.  Here are his words:

Without new measures it is impossible that the Church should succeed in gaining the attention of the world to religion. There are so many exciting subjects constantly brought before the public mind, such a running to and fro, so many that cry ‘Lo here!’ and ‘Lo there!’ that the Church cannot maintain her ground without sufficient novelty in measures, to get the public ear.

The author of these words was Charles Finney who was known for using emotionalism to coax people to “conversion.”  His words sound eerily familiar to the words of many church-growth proponents in the church today.

I find it interesting that even though worship is continually proclaimed to be the priority task of the church, I find very little in the New Testament about the church “worshiping” in the sense of how the word is commonly understood today.  Why is the New Testament strangely silent on this priority function?  Perhaps the reason is that we have made “worship” the priority where the New Testament does not!  This is especially true when worship is centered around music.  In fact, in searching the New Testament for Scriptures relating to music, I found only seven passages encompassing eight verses.

Where’s the Family Ministry?

Like music ministry, family ministry has also become central to the modern church’s purpose.  Like music ministry, the New Testament is tellingly silent.  I found four passages of Scripture—fewer passages but more verses than music—that were directly about family life.  But with this scant amount of information about family life, I’ve found that many churches spend what seems to be a majority of their preaching and ministry time teaching what the Bible has to say about family.  How does one develop so much teaching on family life when the New Testament simply gives a straightforward approach to family dynamics?  You make it up, that’s how!  You read psychology books, listen to Dr. Phil, and develop all the positive self-help philosophy you can muster, and package it into a finely crafted sermon with a proof-text taken out of context.

Was the New Testament concerned about families?  Certainly!  But family success is not rocket science.  The New Testament lays out the God-ordained pattern for successful family life.  If the church teaches that the Bible is our sole source of authority, and the member lives according to the straightforward teaching about the family, then family cohesiveness is all but guaranteed.

Where’s the Building?

Surely it wouldn’t be long until the church-growth consultants brought up building issues in the First Century church.  From all that we can tell, they had none.  They worshiped in homes, hillsides, river banks, and more.  Wherever they could meet, they did.  While I don’t believe that the lack of building is prescriptive for the 21st Century church, I do think the church can easily put far too much emphasis on its building.


The point is not that we should shut down our music and family ministries and sell our buildings.  The point is that we should “rethink” these ministries.  Has the church created a “wag the dog” syndrome?  In the next post in this series I will encourage the church to set its members free to do ministry outside the church.  If that goal is to be accomplished, we will have to rethink the ministries inside.


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Previous articles from the “Rethinking Church” series

Part 1:  Why Does the Church Exist?

Part 2: The Danger of Being a Doing Organization

Part 3: God-Ordained Leadership

Part 4:  Pastor-Centric Leadership

Part 5: When the Pastor Sins

Part 6: The Ministry of the Deacon