When Did Programming Become the P-Word?

By Jonathan McKee Posted on February 07 2012

Have you noticed that “programming” has become a bad word in many youth ministry circles?


Don’t get me wrong, I love the push-back against those of us who have become so program-focused that we lose sight of why those programs were created to begin with. Sadly, I’ve seen way too many youth ministries running a Wednesday night program for all the kids that are dropped off by mom and dad. Relational ministry trumps this kind of programming any day of the week, an argument I support throughout my book Connect.

But when did “relational ministry is important” morph into “programming is ineffective?” Does one have to replace the other? How far do we have to swing the pendulum away from programming?

When did programming become the p-word?

Where Programming Missed the Mark
Before the year 2000, youth ministry had admittedly become pretty “program focused.” Evangelism had become a priority, but it was often accomplished by bringing people to “our stuff.” I think it’s commendable to invite people to church and outreach events, but if that is the only evangelism arrow we have in our quiver, we’re going to miss a large number of people.

Both outreach and discipleship were happening through programming. Reach people through outreach events. Help them grow by bringing them to church, worship events, or amazing youth group programs.

The youth ministry world got used to lights, smoke machines and fast paced videos. But people were falling through the cracks.

In the last decade people began noticing this trend towards programming with all its problems. They asked intelligent questions: “What about the kids who don’t want to come to our stuff? How do we reach them?”

The pendulum began to swing away from programming towards relational ministry. Books, articles, videos, and entire philosophies emerged discussing how programming missed the mark. These were great conversations to have. “Programming alone” did miss the mark. But the pendulum kept swinging… and soon “programming” became a bad word, altogether.

An Awkward Silence
Now I’ve heard youth ministries talking about how they don’t do programming any more. “Programming doesn’t work!”

Again. Really?

So what are we to do now?

And that’s where the blogosphere grew awkwardly silent. You’ll find an abundance of people talking about what “doesn’t work,” and very few of the same people talking about what does.

Shouldn’t we be careful to recognize the nature of the pendulum? Sometimes people become so focused on what they are against; they don’t know what they stand for.

The fact is, in my travels, I get to see 20 to 30 “programs” a year that are reaching people and helping them grow in their faith. Perhaps we should be careful being so critical of something that makes such an impact. Perhaps some of us haven’t really thought through the whole thing.

In a recent conversation with a youth pastor, he told me, “I don’t do programming any more.”

I decided to play along. “Cool. So what do you do now?” I asked.

“I just love kids.” He replied confidently.

“Awesome.” I pressed on. “What does that look like?”


I repeated my question. “What does that look like? When you love kids—what does that look like?”

He stopped and thought for a bit. “Well… I try to hang with kids on their turf.” (It’s funny how people often have adopted nice little sound bytes of what they believe, but when asked to explain, they have trouble articulating it.)

I pressed on. “What does that look like?”

He looked perplexed again. “You mean… where do I do it?”

“Sure,” I responded. “Where do you hang on their turf? How often?”

“Oh,” he replied. “I go to their football games and sometimes their school activities.”

“Nice,” I affirmed. “So… how many kids have you led to Christ at a football game?”

His forehead wrinkled a bit. I think I was pressing his buttons by now. “I’ve just been doing this for a little while now. It takes time.”

The conversation went on. I asked him what else he did with his time. He struggled moving from philosophy of ministry to real life application. In other words, the philosophy of loving kids sounds really nice, but what that looks like? He was still trying to figure that out. After all, the main premise he was working on right now was, “Programming is bad, so I don’t want to do that.” So he was spending a few hours a week hanging out with kids, and doing very little of anything else.

The struggle I find with the extremists who are abolishing all “programming” to just “love kids” is that they haven’t really thought the whole thing through. I’ve discovered this through numerous conversations with anti-programming people who really have no idea how to reach kids. I continue to ask questions like “What’s that look like?” and Dr. Phil’s favorite, “How’s that working for ya?” Pretty soon they don’t have any answers. They just insist that “programming doesn’t work.”

Seeking Community
Here’s a question for the anti-programming circles? What happens when “loving kids” actually works? What happens if we love kids, tell them about Jesus and then they put their trust in Him? Do we disciple them? What does that look like? Should every aspect of discipleship and spiritual growth be done one-on-one? (Remember, I’m a huge advocate for one-on-one) Or might we eventually want to gather together with others?

Here’s where this gets interesting. As big as a fan as I am of “one-on-one” ministry, I would never try to put all my eggs in the one-on-one basket, especially in a world where kids really are seeking community.

What about fellowship?

When the church in Acts was exploding, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, prayer, the breaking of bread, and fellowship (Acts 2:42). Are fellowship and breaking bread done alone? Are they done in a park or in a coffee shop? What if 5 people want to break bread together? What if 10 people want to study the Bible together? What if 20 people want to go do something fun together? These all sound like positive venues. When do these venues become… the p-word?

Here’s what I’ve noticed. Good one-on-one evangelism and discipleship often leads to venues where people gather for the purpose of outreach, growth, or plain ol’ fun. Notice that I said the word “venues.” Why? Because I know that if I used the word “program,” people wouldn’t listen.

Here’s my point. Call it what you want, but “venues” where people gather can be beneficial:

  • If you love connecting with kids that happen to love basketball, you might find yourself playing a weekly game of basketball in a park with 10 to 20 kids. This kind of “venue” could open all kinds of doors for ministry.
  • If you connect with kids on campus regularly, you soon might begin seeking a place where you can have more serious conversations, like the coffee shop across the street? Before you know it, you might find yourself connecting with 5 to 8 kids at a coffee shop each week. What a great “venue” for deeper conversations. Plus, off-campus, you probably have more freedom to talk about God.
  • If you introduce several teenagers to Christ and they want to start studying God’s word and meeting other believers. Soon you might find yourself meeting at someone’s house once a week to explain the scriptures. These bible study “venues” are great tools for spiritual growth.

See what I’m getting at? The above “venues” are pretty effective. Most “anti-programming people would probably have no problem with them… as long as we call them “venues.”

So I don’t care what you call it. The fact is, we need venues where people can meet together. Venues like this can actually open the doors to incredible ministry. We need church—whether in a home, or a building. Some people will even come to Christian venues like this when invited. (Heaven forbid!)

Programs, under the disguise of “venues,” still work.

So let me subject myself to my own question: What does this look like?

How do we make actually make disciples?

  • Don’t cancel youth group. Youth group can still be a place where kids hear the truth, connect with others and grow in their faith. Use youth group as a tool for ministry… just not the only tool.
  • Mobilize a team of volunteers to help you. Recruit them with the understanding that you want them to connect with kids and programming is just a tool to help you do that.
  • Develop students who will help you do ministry, reaching out to their friends on their turf and at the same time, not being afraid to invite them to Christian venues.
  • Use programs as a venue for first contact. Programs can be a great tool when you know their purpose and their limitations. Don’t just do Wednesday night youth group because “we’ve always done a Wednesday night youth group.”

Programming isn’t a bad word… but stagnant is. Don’t let your ministry become stagnant by overreacting to anti-programming hype. Instead, find the nuggets of truth in the anti-programming criticism, and use them. Don’t allow your program to become the focus. Discover venues where people connect… and God changes lives.


Jonathan McKee, president of The Source for Youth Ministry, is the author of numerous books including Ministry By Teenagers, Connect: Real Relationships in a World of Isolation, and the award winning book Do They Run When They See You Coming? If you enjoy this article from Jonathan, you’ll also enjoy the call to purpose he demands in his book about programming outreach events, the award-winning book, Getting Students to Show Up. He speaks and trains at camps, conferences, and events across North America, and provides free resources for youth workers internationally on his website, TheSource4YM.com.



Picture of Donna

From Donna on February 08, 2012

I totally agree.  Having been in youth ministry for a number of years I have witnessed the pendulum swing and the criticism of the ‘new leaders’ who think they have all the answers.  The bottom line is ‘go and making disiciples’.  Not all students are the same but they all need a relationship with Jesus.  So we let the Holy Spirit do His work in our hearts and theirs in a plethora of programs/venues.  The truth is, about every program/venue ever used has impacted lives for the kingdom.  Their is no magic program/venue that is going to change the world.  Even Jesus - the greatedst venue/program - gave His life and mutlitues still choose NOT to follow Him.

Thanks for defending those of us who are called to give our lives to impact students.

Picture of Jonathan McKee

From Jonathan McKee on February 08, 2012

Thanks Donna. For those of us who have been in youth ministry for years, it is interesting to see this pendulum swing.

Picture of Kurt J

From Kurt J on February 08, 2012

Great insights, Jonathan!  Sometimes the pendulum has to swing too far one direction in order to grab our attention and help us realize that truth/health is often somewhere in the middle ground.

And for that, I’m thankful.

Picture of Jonathan McKee

From Jonathan McKee on February 08, 2012

Good point Kurt. Extremes sometimes are the slap in the face we need. They are the Tony Campolo saying a curse word to get our attention about poverty. Hopefully those extreme voices make us ponder and even readjust our methodology… not throw out effective ministry venues on a whim!

Picture of Robert

From Robert on February 08, 2012

i find churches do what the world does and go to extreme’s with changes.  the bible has not changed and it identifies Jesus meeting in the marketplace, in the temple, and one-on-one at the well, and so forth.  Jesus used a variety of methods and so should we.  we may have volunteers who are good in certain ministry areas and we need to capitalize on their skills/abilities/talents while they’re with us and that may mean more programming for a couple years than one-on-one. no worries.  God is still in control… always has been and always will be.  =)

Picture of Jonathan Hale

From Jonathan Hale on February 09, 2012

Very well-written, well-articulated article.  I think you were very fair to both sides, while emphasizing the importance of community, which almost always is done through a venue of meeting together on purpose.  Thank you for taking the time to collect your thoughts and write this article.

Picture of Doug Watson

From Doug Watson on February 09, 2012

Great stuff, Jonathan.  Call it what you want, we all “program.”  Those of us who have been around a while in this ministry have seen terminologies come and go—but the key elements required to reach and disciple students remain the same.  And, I certainly do recommend your website and materials!

Picture of Jonathan McKee

From Jonathan McKee on February 09, 2012

Thanks Doug! Keep up the good work.

Picture of Jim Candy

From Jim Candy on February 13, 2012

Thanks Jonathan - programs are really just a place where relationships that lead to discipleship happen.  I see the anti-programming attitude on the larger church level too.  Without discipling venues where relationships happen, we are just dispensing information.

Picture of Tammy

From Tammy on February 14, 2012

Love this article. I definitely have a realtional philosophy of ministry but I see programs as an opportunity to meet youth and develop those relationship. My Sr High girls “small” group has exploded in numbers but they don’t want to split because it is about the relationships they have developed there. We study the Bible and pray and care about eachother. This is a weekly program - and they don’t like if it gets cancelled for a week. I also have students who came to our Friday night youth events with friends, joined small groups, started coming to Sunday services, were baptized, and even became youth leaders. Programming can be a great tool for relationship - as long as it doesn’t stop there.

Picture of Jonathan McKee

From Jonathan McKee on February 14, 2012

Great comment Tammy. That’s the key. “As long as it doesn’t stop there.” Programming becomes a problem when it’s the ONLY ministry we’re doing. But as one tool in the belt, I think it can be effective for what it’s created for. Hopefully youth workers are continuing to develop those other tools.

Picture of Gary Adams

From Gary Adams on March 28, 2012


Thanks so much my friend.  I am in my 28th year as a YP and “hopefully” through it all, I have kept my mind and heart open to change in student ministry.  I agree with Kurt J. that there needs to be a healthy balance of relationship & programming in our ministries.  I believe they are inter-relational with each other… one needs the other.  Hope that makes sense?  God bless you brother.

Picture of Becca

From Becca on July 12, 2012

I agree, and it’s a little heartbreaking. Programs come with structure, and without structure, everything falls into chaos.

Another word that has turned into another _-word is “Training”. Training suddenly turned into the T-word, especially when it comes to equipping youth members to volunteer and serve. Training is meant to help people become prepared to do God’s work by their calling. It’s sad to see people look at it as “excess work” or a “lecture” that they have to sit through, when it’s meant to help them.

Thanks for sharing, Jon.

Picture of James Hoope

From James Hoope on April 11, 2013

Thanks for the post. I know this was dated a year ago but have been under scrutiny for “running a program”. This was some good affirmation and it helped my articulate what has been on my mind and heart. Thank you. I also know you’re in my area, would love to connect. (Folsom/Rocklin/Roseville)

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