There are some who may think we are drifting away from the New Testament pattern when we talk of the "program" of a local church. The dictionary defines a program as a plan of future procedure, an outline, or arrangement providing for an orderly, systematic performance of a human activity looking to an objective. While the word "program" is not in our English Bible, we are certainly justified in thinking and talking of some plan or arrangement for the work of the church. God expects us to; and has commanded that all things shall be done "decently and in order."
Now the primary work of the church is to seek and save the lost. That is our objective. The church has other things to do, other responsibilities to discharge; but her supreme mission is to save the lost. One of her responsibilities is to feed the hungry; another is to clothe the naked; but when she lets any of these things cause her to cease or lose sight of her real mission, she has lost her way in the world. The purpose of Christ was to seek and save the lost; and that is the commission he gave to the church. She is to carry on the work which he came to do.
Christ did other things, of course, while he was here. He fed the hungry multitude miraculously, not primarily to satisfy their hunger, but to demonstrate to them that he was come from God. He healed the sick, performing many wonderful miracles. But these were not primarily to benefit mankind physically, but rather that all might see in him the Savior of the world, the promised Messiah, the Son of God.
So the church, like Christ, may perform works of mercy and benevolence; but her primary task is, and will ever remain, to seek and save those who are lost. How the church shall do this, what plans she makes, what "program" she undertakes in accomplishing that end will largely determine her worth as a congregation of Christ.
The elders of a congregation in seeking to carry the gospel to "every creature" in their own neighborhood will ordinarily provide for regular preaching from the pulpit of the local meeting house. There is no substitute for preaching All great movements or causes have been propagated by preaching. Sinners have been startled, aroused, and brought out of sin by the power of the spoken word; Christians have been aroused from indifference and carelessness by the same power. Preaching has been, and will continue to be the prominent agency for calling of sinners to repentance and for stirring the sleeping Christians into action. Pulpit preaching has many advantages; the preacher is brought face to face with his audience; he can reach hundreds of people with one discourse; there is power in the very physical presence to stir people. All these things add up to the credit side. Some little top-knots have tried to spread the idea that the day of gospel meetings is over. They say we can't have good meetings any more; that pulpit preaching has lost its power. They only reveal their own ignorance and lack of faith in God when they speak in such a way. For God has planned "through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe."
But while preaching from the local meeting house has many advantages, there are certain distinct disadvantages as well. Vast multitudes who ought to hear the gospel will never go near the meeting house. All the advertisements that the church may put out will not entice them in. Many congregations have partly met this problem by sustaining regular radio broadcasts of the gospel. Thousands and thousands of people can be reached by means of the radio who can never be reached at all in the local meeting house. As an advertising medium the radio has few equals.
But here, too, there are disadvantages. Religious programs on the radio are not wanted by most station managers. People turn off the radio and refuse to listen to any program, no matter how good. The networks over the nation are gradually getting rid of their religious programs; and as time goes on gospel preachers are going to find it harder and harder to preach any kind of a distinctive gospel over the air. If they get on the station at all, they will not be allowed to preach anything except the most common and simple lessons on morality and non-controversial subjects.
Many congregations are increasingly spending money for the preaching of the gospel by means of the printed page. The power of the printed page in spreading the truth has long been recognized. No man can estimate the power of our gospel papers in the cause of truth. But as they can be instruments for good, they can be also instruments for evil. False teachers have learned the power of literature, and they are using it to the full of their abilities. Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others have grown to great size as religious bodies in the United States largely by the use of literature. They hold few meetings like we do, but they scatter books, tracts, pamphlets by the millions. They have their religious journals and periodicals. And millions of people have been and are being deceived by their propaganda.
Elders of many congregations have planned for church bulletins which are not only "news" sheets, but which also teach the gospel. Some congregations are sending gospel papers to all new members that are baptized; others are sending some fine paper on first principles (like Ancient Landmarks, for example) to their whole prospect list, sometimes five hundred or a thousand families. These methods of teaching have been immensely successful. The distribution of tracts through tract racks in public places as well as by hand from door to door has been tried by an increasing number of congregations.
All of these methods of reaching the surrounding area are helpful, but none of them alone is enough; nor are all of them together sufficient. For the most powerful single factor in reaching the unsaved is the personal contact of the members of the congregation. The elders should make some sort of plan ("program") for seeing to it that every single person who is a member of the church is doing what he can as an individual to preach the gospel of Christ. We know the power of godly living; and we recognize the force of teaching that is backed up by such living. Peter and John were held in awe and respect because their enemies recognized that they "had been with Jesus." Paul carried about his body "the marks of the Lord Jesus."
Jesus was a personal worker. He prepared himself for his task. The great sermon in John 3 was delivered to one man; the matchless teaching in John 4 was delivered to one woman. Philip preached the sermon in Acts 8 to one earnest student. The example has been left us from all these early disciples of the Lord. They went "everywhere" preaching the word—in the temple, at home, in the market-place, wherever they could find some one person to listen.
When the elders of a congregation plan this kind of a program, they will see the church grow and develop, and fulfill her mission.