youth ministry Zimbabwe

Making Youth Ministry More Programmatic, Again

The Programmatic Approach of World Vision on Full Display
The Programmatic Approach of World Vision on Full Display

I’ve been unable to shake two things about my trip with World Vision from an organizational perspective.

  1. Locals lead everything. I’m sure there are Americans working for World Vision Zimbabwe, but we didn’t meet many. This completely surprised me. I expected the lowest level volunteers, those overseeing food distribution and looking after child sponsors, to be locals. But every role in the organization seemed to be filled by someone local.
  2. Clarity in program purpose. I can’t tell you how many times I heard people rattle off the 5 program purposes… we even heard forms of it from families who were benefiting from the program. I expected to heard that articulated in the offices, but I didn’t expect it on the field. But, everyone knew what the World Vision program did and didn’t do.

Perhaps You Need to Get More Programmatic?

There’s a lot of angst about the word “program” in ministry circles.

It’s become a bit of a hot potato as no one wants to call what they do running a program. A church doesn’t have programs, it has ministries. A church plant is anti-programmatic in its approach. Go to leadership conferences and people say the word program as if its a cuss word. I could go on but you get the point.

The assumption is that a program can’t possibly be good enough. And so we’ve made the word program the enemy of “good” ministry.

Shut up. 

No, seriously. We need to stop playing semantic games, call stuff what it is, and run our programs to the benefit of those we are called to serve.

When I think about the anti-programmatic-semantical-olympics so many do I think it boils down to pride. We don’t want to be known as program managers… we want to be known as something sexier. (As if running a program that changes lives is something to be ashamed of.)

Imagine the upside of fitting your role into a programmatic mindset.

  1. It’d have boundaries. You could tell someone, “I’m sorry, our program isn’t built to meet that need.” Gasp, boundaries. 
  2. It’d have measurable outcomes. You could produce an annual report donors could understand. “16 individuals completed the program, 45 are in the program, and 25 volunteers have been trained to lead the program.” You might even get a raise.
  3. You could articulate what you do to your mom. “I run a program which develops 4 areas of a teenagers life.” You laugh but this is a big problem… people in your life need to be able to explain what it is that you do!
  4. You could recruit and train volunteers to specific roles. We’re getting really crazy now. But you could narrow down volunteer training to human-sized portions.
  5. Everyone in the program could know what the goal is. One of my favorite questions to ask in youth group is, “Why do you come here?” Imagine if the answer were so obvious anyone could rattle that off.
  6. You could make the program better over time. One of the frustrations we face in ministry is that we can’t see our impact. But when you narrow your role down to managing a program, that helps you frame what you are doing and how you are impacting the program.

Actually, I’m not seeing any downside. Instead, I think we’d find our ministries better funded, better staffed, and have more measurable outcome.

Speak up! Why do you think those in youth ministry are so afraid of the word “program?

By Adam McLane

Adam McLane is a partner at The Youth Cartel, co-author of A Parent's Guide to Understanding Social Media, blogger of 10+ years, and a fan of all things San Diego State University Aztecs.

21 replies on “Making Youth Ministry More Programmatic, Again”

I have never understood this whole conversation and aversion to programs. Honestly, I don’t even know what it means. What’s the difference between a program and a ministry? I really think it is all semantics. At my church the people who do educational and music ministries are called program staff. We don’t sit around thinking about that term, we just get to work and love the people we serve.

It’s hard for me to read into the aversion. I can only speak for myself… and I think it comes down to pride. We don’t want to limit our role to that of “program manager” as we know we’re doing something that “seems so much more important than merely that.” The flipside is that, as a result of our semantic games, people don’t really know what we’re trying to do… and it gets lost in not trying to be a program to the point that it’s a blob of nothing that’s doing a lot of something. (How’s that for a Dr. Suess play on words!)

When I read this, I was reminded of Reggie Joiner and his work on “Strategy” and individuals who get worked up about that word. I think that it goes hand-hand with what you are mentioning here. I also think that many times, we have set up to camps and those camps are people / program and do not see how they can/should be hand-hand.

I think the problem comes when we view the “program” as an end itself and not a means of reaching an end. I don’t believe any ministry has a problem with programs but when putting on a program is more important than the contents in which the program should up hold. I know that may still seem like semantics but how we view things is how we live in those things.

At first I thought you were going to suggest we have youth programs available every day. But I see that you mean “more programmatic” to mean making everything higher quality: clear, concise, specific, evaluated, etc.

I don’t mean higher quality. (Quality of ministry is so rarely an issue.) I mean finding your identity in creating a clear, concise, specific, evaluated PROGRAM. LIke… “This is our youth ministry program. Our goal is ____ and this is how we do it.”

In a lot of ways, that was what made the old Purpose Driven Youth Ministry stuff so great as it fully articulated the program so everyone knew what it was and participants knew where they were in the program.

Clear as mud? 🙂

Great thought. I’ve run up against a lot of newer youth workers who fight the “Program” vs “Relationship” battle and again and again feel like I need to tell them that more often than not it’s our “programs” that lead to relationships so we can’t try to separate the two. In fact in most cases we need the programs to open the door to students coming and finding their place where relationships can happen. We are all programatic it just varies to what level you are willing to be shaped by that language. I chose to use it and say we need programs and if we aren’t offering them we miss out.

Part of me just wonders if it’d be healthy to create a program people can buy into. As funny as it sounds, I liked the simplicity of things like the Navigators wheel. Was it everything? Of course not, it never claimed to be. But when you completed a section you had a pretty good idea a student knew that stuff and you could move on. The other side of it is constantly trying to meet felt needs and having only tiny things to grasp onto as measurables.

Maybe we should swing the pendulum back a bit? Not quite as far as Awana, but there’s something to creating a program people can complete.

I couldn’t agree more, the purpose of our Wed night program is to get students involved in small groups where they can connect relationally with their small group leader. The program is the vehicle to drive the relational ministry.

Healthy program = being intentional.

Sure, when programs become the end instead of the means, or build rigidity over time and refuse to be changed, then they’re unhealthy. But a lack of a program usual means a lack of intentionality. To answer your question, Adam, I think we’re afraid of the word in youth ministry because 1) many of us in our tribe don’t actually know how to create a healthy program, and our inability frightens us, or 2) we’ve experienced (read: been hurt by) enough unhealthy programs to leave us jaded to the whole idea.

I think pride really is a big deal in this. We all want to be seen as a guru and not “just a program manager.” The flip side is hilarious… “just a program manager” is able to run a program, meet goals, and go home. A guru? Well, they are never happy.

Adam, I think people are afraid and against programs when they become the Gospel. Someone, I think Marko actually in YM 3.0 talks about this.

So weve created a version of programs thats really the same as non-denominational church movement (which is now its own denomination anyway). Its the anti-program mindset.

But on the pro of this, the things you talk about are awesome for a non-American church, but I am skeptical that it would work in our culture with our expectational attitude.

Hey…somebody kidnapped Adam and is posting stuff on this blog!

Here are a few random thoughts as to how (in my mind) the word “programs” came to be taboo among the younger youth worker generation:

– “Generational Rejection”: A younger generation almost always rejects what the older generation developed, created, etc. It makes sense that young youth workers would look at models developed and utilized by older folks and veer their own direction in order to blaze their own, unique, trail. Not good or bad….it just is.

– Pride: You and others have hit on this. I think what I mentioned above is natural, but can quickly become wrapped in pride when there is a refusal to acknowledge any of the good that came out of the efforts of those who walked before us.

– Jealousy: This one might get me in trouble. But I think that many of the churches that were highly programatic/strategic/process minded also happened to be highly successful (depending on how you measure success, of course). Success breeds jealousy, and pride won’t let you emulate something you’re jealous of. So you have to shoot holes in their methodology (in this case, their programs) to justify why you don’t want to follow their example.

– Skepticism of mega churches: I know this isn’t purely a mega-church issue, but almost every mega church is highly programatic/strategic/process minded in its approach. So I think people skeptical of mega churches (and there is a lot to be skeptical about…) threw out the baby with the bath water.

– A misunderstanding/misreading of what this generation of unchurched people want: I think it’s possible we’ve misdiagnosed some of what today’s unchurched people are attracted to. Because some of us were pushing back against programs, we projected those same feelings onto the unchurched. But the problem is…the unchurched have no idea of our history, our struggles, our pride issues, etc. Most of them will be attracted to authenticity and life change, and if that happens best through programs and strategy, they have no qualms.

– Give “The Man” the finger: This one sums it up, in my mind. Simply put, programs, organization, strategy etc. are perceived as our little ministry world’s version of ‘The Man’….and youth workers often want to flip him off.

Kurt…to add to your list…how about…”I’d rather just ‘hang out’:” I wonder if there are a lot of youth pastors/workers who really want to just “hang out” with kids and not have to do the “work” of ministry, as well (not that relationships aren’t the work of ministry). It’s a lot easier to be anti-program. Then one can move in and out of relational contact with people…in the name of ministry, discipleship, or even outreach… without any real expectations of outcomes, the constraints of having to “get things done,” nor accountability to another person’s requirements.

But I don’t want to sound too jaded, either. I wonder, too, if many just don’t know how or are ill-equipped with the ability to develop the systems and strategies of an effective “program.” Unfortunately, instead approaching it as a learner, they just become “anti-program.”

“Gasp,boundaries!” favorite line in the whole post. You mean we aren’t supposed to try to be everything to every student who lives in our area code? I had a mentor in a parachurch ministry I worked with in college who taught me about the importance of boundaries. He said that “God has given our ministry this purpose. A lot of people will want to come in and try to add their good ideas to our purpose. In the end it just overwhelms us and waters down what God put us here for” Boundaries are CRUCIAL! Great post.

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