Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Thursday, February 07, 2008


The United Methodist Church suffers from an acute case of programitis.

Programitis is inordinate dependence upon programs developed by the UM Publishing House, GBOD, Alpha, EcuFilm, and other parachurch organizations. These resources are well-intended and high-quality. They teach people in the church about the Bible, theology, spirituality, and discipleship. Church leaders offer them and teach them in the hope that filling heads full of information will lead to hearts turned toward Christ and serving with him in the world.

However, this approach to Christian formation is backward. The people of the early Church knew that learning does not lead to faithful behavior. Rather, they knew instinctively that behaving leads to new ways of thinking and learning. They knew that being a Christian is more that knowing and agreeing with a set of doctrines, propositions and creeds. They knew that Christianity is a relationship with the living God who became one of us in the Jew from Nazareth named Jesus. Living that relationship in a community of others seeking to live the Jesus way, leads to faith and new ways of thinking; not the other way around.

Dependence upon programs gets the church trapped in a cycle of consumption. As soon as a program is completed the people ask “What’s next?” They immediately look for the next program to keep them interested and entertained. A prime example of this dynamic is Disciple Bible Study. It is one of the most powerful and excellent resources ever produced by the United Methodist Publishing House. Disciple has changed countless lives and helped many congregations. However, because of the way it has been developed and marketed Disciple has propagated programitis in the church. When a group completes Disciple #1 (the best of the bunch) the church encourages them to take Disciple #2 and then Disciple #3 and then Disciple #4 and then Jesus and the Gospels and so on and so on. The insidious nature of programitis is that it convinces the church that studying and learning about the Bible, theology, spirituality and discipleship is the same as living as a disciple of Jesus Christ in the world.

Imagine a group of people who love music and want to become musicians. They go to a community that promises to help them fulfill their dream. The community then gives the music-lovers a series of classes in which they learn about the fundamentals of music, music theory, notation, and arrangement. They listen to recorded music and watch videos of great musicians performing. In the end their heads are filled with knowledge about music but none of them have ever actually picked up an instrument and learned how to play. While they completed the study about music, in the end none of them are actually capable of making music. Consequently, many of the music-lovers become frustrated and disappointed with the community because they know that knowing about music is not the same as being a musician. They are ready to begin the hard work and discipline required to move from being a music-lover to becoming a musician.

Programitis is a problem because it allows congregations to avoid the hard work of discipleship. Programitis is one more way the church dispenses what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace:”

“Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that teaches this doctrine of grace thereby confers such grace upon itself. The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for it sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be set free. Cheap grace is, thus, denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God” (Discipleship, page 43).

Programitis, like any other disease, if undiagnosed and untreated will kill the patient. While the patient may appear to be alive, it is dead on the inside. That’s the way programitis works. It eats away at the heart and kills from the inside-out. Programitis is insidious because when the church realizes how sick it really is, it will look for the right program or set of programs that will restore it to health.

To be clear, I am not saying here that programs are inherently bad. I am saying that the way most congregations use them and become dependant upon them is the problem. We tend to use programs in place of leadership and to find a quick fix to problems like declining membership and giving.

The cure for programitis is to look to the places in the world where the church is most vital today: Africa, China, Latin America. These are churches populated by mostly poor people who live with hunger, violence, and oppression as daily realities. Their only resources are the Bible, Christian tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation and their relationships with one another. In other words, these congregations have essentially the same resources used by the early Church and by most Christians up until the advent of the 20th century.

We can also look to the Wesleys and the early Methodists. The only resources they had were the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the General Rules, the hymns of Charles Wesley and the writings of John Wesley. Their only program was regular meetings for accountability and support for discipleship. The Methodist societies were focused on the formation of Christians. They did this by initiating people into a way of life, guided by relationships with mature Christians, Scripture and the General Rules. In the course of learning how to live the new way of life people learned theology, spirituality, and Scripture. The focus was on holiness of heart and life.

The future of The United Methodist Church will depend upon how well it can liberate itself from its dependence upon programs. We need to shift our focus from offering pleasing and entertaining programs to people to a new way of living centered in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this excellent post. I think programitis is linked to another major threat to the United Methodist Church - consumerism. It seems that we often believe we can consume our way to becoming disciples, and we programs are our favorite thing to consume.

2:08 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

After giving you trouble for not updating for so long I thought I should comment. Your last three posts have been very strong, and I agree almost completely. I believe that our problems in the UMC can be traced to the fact that we have lost our sense of mission. Another book to add to your list is Christianity for the Rest of Us by Diana Butler Bass. Her ideas about renewal and transformation are needed in most places that I look.

Take care

3:36 PM

Blogger Richard H said...

I have a bad habit of reading things wrongly at first glance. My first thought was that you were writing against "Pragmatitis" - the habit of always looking for what "works." While different than Programitis, I'd suggest it as another of our ailments.

10:29 PM

Blogger Andrew C. Thompson said...

Just an excellent post, Steve, and considering the place from which you are writing, a courageous one as well. I particularly hope the General Conference takes note as it prepares to convene in Fort Worth. Too often, GC's and AC's try to address the church's ills with new layers of programming and bureaucracy.

7:05 PM

Blogger Jonathan Dodson said...

for an alternative you might check out my recent article, missional discipleship at

8:41 PM


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