Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Church Alternative Virus

by Dave Harvey:

In my part of the world–maybe in your part, too–we once had a phrase, which, like all good phrases, got totally overused. It has since been laid to rest, yet lives on in vocabulary heaven with other worn-out phrases such as “Feelin’ groovy” and “Keep on truckin’”. The phrase was, “Don’t hear what I’m not saying.” I resurrect this phrase now to appeal for careful listening as we turn our attention to the subject of parachurch ministries. As I mentioned earlier, few Christians these days have a full and clear understanding of Scripture’s teaching on the church. Perhaps the most widespread and perplexing result of our ignorance has been the parachurch phenomenon: the rapid emergence of ministries, agencies, and other organizations which conduct Christian ministry entirely dislocated from the local church. Some of these groups actually believe they must remain separate from the church in order to be effective. Not only is this puzzling, but it is profoundly confusing for the Christian who wants to live Biblically.

Today, new Christians are confronted with a priority crisis. In what context should they express their commitment to God? Who will provide care for their soul and direction for their zeal? Perhaps, they think, Christianity is like a department store. Emotional problems are handled by the Christian Therapy Department. The “missions itch” is scratched in the Evangelism Ministries Section. You can tune into the Teaching Ministries of the Electronics Department (TV or radio…you choose!). And fellowship is found in any one of the dozens of specialized Fellowship Groups up on the third floor. Is this really the New Testament pattern?

Now, please, remember that phrase: “Don’t hear what I’m not saying!” There is no disputing the well-intentioned efforts of parachurch leaders or the fruit that these ministries produce. (As a new believer, my first experience of fellowship was in a parachurch ministry which is still in operation today). However, it is absolutely essential to realize that these ministries exist largely because local churches have fallen short of thier biblical mandate. Truly, parachurch ministries are evidence of the unpaid debt of the local church. Unintentionally, many of these ministries have ignored the New Testament pattern and become an “alternative” to the local church. Where that is the case, a ministry has become a dangerous virus, regardless of intention–or even success. Our respect for these ministries should not keep us from holding them accountable to biblical criteria. Specifically, I see four areas in which parachurch ministries can, in effect, usurp the church’s God-given role:

They can create an alternative authority. When personal issues spring up in a believer’s life, there is no substitute for the anointed and discerning care of a pastor who has been entrusted with that soul (1Pet 5:2-3). However, in a world of television ministries, Christian counseling centers, and mission agencies, we can easily forget that God has called pastors to be our primary source of spiritual oversight. If a parachurch organization fails to recognize the priority of the local church, it will minimize the importance of pastoral authority and care. One pastor I know was put in an awkward position after counseling a member of his church. Though he had encouraged this individual to accelerate her spiritual growth by getting involved in service opportunities, a Christian counselor ignored the pastor’s advice and urged her not to serve. Such collisions are inevitable when the local church is deemphasized and its authority diminished by alternatives.

They can create an alternative structure. The local church is the New Testament structure for care, discipleship, and missions. Nothing can replace it. It is a mysterious institution, ordained by God as a means of grace for our growth. Where it is upheld and built, you will see a growing people capable of experiencing New Testament Christianity. Where it is overlooked or marginalized, you tend to find immature, unconnected believers with shallow a understanding of the Gospel. I find no examples in the New Testament of ministries that operated independently of the local churches. Though conference ministries, radio programs, and on-line fellowship can certainly supplement the church, they are most effective when operating under a church’s direction and accountability.

In his seminal critique of contemporary evangelicalism, David Wells sees the parachurch explosion as another indication of how “the consumer culture has infiltrated today’s evangelical church.” He notes that the most profound effect has been on the “structure of evangelicalism” and says it “represents a remarkable transformation and decentralization of the evangelical world since the immediate postwar years.” What has the “consumer culture”–as reflected in many parachurch ministries–decentralized us from? Nothing less than the primacy of doctrine and centrality of the local church. Where either of these fall, the other is sure to follow, creating many “good” alternatives which in fact wage war with God’s best.

They can create an alternative testimony. The local church is an awesome concept. Confounding the pundits, it can unite people who are diametrically opposed in their passions, preferences, and cultures, creating a brilliant display of unity from diversity. Somehow, our “unified diversity” reflects God’s unified diversity; becoming a testimony to our culture of the power of God. But does parachurch work portray the same testimony? Usually not. The greatest strength of parachurch ministries–their primary forces on one or more specific needs–is likewise their greatest weakness. Specialization keeps them from experiencing the diversity that characterizes the local church.

To Paul, diversity was a strength. Be it gift or function, preference or passion, Paul taught that diversity created interdependence–a need for one another’s differences (1Cor 12:12-26). It would be unimaginable for Paul to encourage any group, whether businessmen or bikers, to establish an identity independent of the local church. Christianity was never meant to be split into “teaching ministries” or “soup kitchens” or “special-interest fellowships.” We are the local church, beautifully diverse and powerfully effective.

They can create an alternative storehouse. If you have ever attended a Billy Graham crusade, you have probably heard a statement like this when the offering was collected: “Please don’t give any of your tithe to this ministry. That belongs to the local church!” What motivates this commendable and all-too-rare practice? An awareness that the local church–not a parachurch ministry–is God’s designed “storehouse” (Mal 3:10). I don’t object to sponsoring a needy child or contributing to hunger relief. However, parachurch programs frequently divert resources (both tithe and time) from the local church. Such appeals lack biblical support. In fact, it is interesting to note that when the Jerusalem church became needy, Paul rallied local churches to give sacrificially. He didn’t establish an independent Christian relief agency. Resonating throughout the New Testament is this principle of resources “flowing through” the local church.

Over the years, parachurch ministries have served many useful purposes. Our church has learned and benefited from them. But their effectiveness should not keep us from asking some questions. Should we enthusiastically support organizations that have no precedent in Scripture? Is the New Testament pattern, with its emphasis on the church, no longer sufficient? Should we assume that the past effectiveness of parachurch ministries validates their future existence? If we will answer these questions biblically rather than sentimentally or pragmatically, the conclusions we reach may surprise us. Where capable churches exist or emerge, parachurch ministries should recognize the Scriptural legitimacy and primacy of the church. After seeking to equip the local church from their expertise, they should gradually reposition themselves to function under church leadership. To many, this will be a radical suggestion. But when the simple pattern of Scripture seems radical, we may be certain the church has drifted.

What could happen if God married the heroic zeal of parachurch ministries to a theological conviction for the local church? The church would be revolutionized…and the world might never be the same!

Evan May.


  1. Thanks for this post on the parachurch. I've linked it here

  2. I'm just getting plugged into this blogging arena and I'm really enjoying the exchange of ideas this allows. But I'm not new the church/parachurch discussion. I've been full-time senior staff in several parachurch organizations as well as at local churches.

    I think you are asking good questions. I would like to respectfully ask a question in return: What do mean, specifically, when you use the word “church”?

    I wholeheartedly agree with your foundational claim that the church is God’s chosen vehicle to change the world and usher in the kingdom of God. But I wonder about whether we are so trapped in our cultural perspective that we end up saying that only our particular expression of the church is a legitimate or biblical church.

    You opened your blog by rightly saying that one of the keys is a “full and clear understanding of Scripture’s teaching on the church.” I think that if you look closely at what the New Testament church looked like, it would not be identical to our modern American expression of being the church. I’m NOT saying that what we have are not actually churches—I think they have fulfilled the biblical roles. But I am suggesting that the way in which we fulfill those roles is a way we made up and, though not wrong by any means, not THE biblical way, either.

    It seems like we have just made the assumption that if it does not take the shape and form we are accustomed to, it cannot be a church. My radical thought—that I am exploring the biblical truth of—is that some of the parachurch ministries we are frustrated with could actually be fulfilled all of the biblical functions of a New Testament church. Certainly, some are not doing so, but some seem to be.

    What of a ministry that has meetings where—on a regular basis—worship songs are sung, a message from the bible is given, where believers donate money (which is used to fund staff and help those in need), where the leaders were sent out with prayer by other Christian leaders, unbelievers are told the good news of Jesus, and involved believers are discipled? There are more than one or two parachurch ministries which could fit that description. What makes them not a church?

    You raise four ways that the parachurch ministries can be a “virus” weakening the church. I’d like to offer a different perspective on each one:

    “They can create an alternative authority.” The central point, as I read it, is that “pastors” are to be the primary spiritual authority figures. As a pastor, I ask: What makes me a pastor? Someone recognized my gifting and passion to minister to others and agreed to give me money and authority to make decisions in their organization. To finalize this, I was give a formal blessing in a special service as existing church leaders laid hands on me and prayed over me. So, if I were to do the same—as an existing church leader, along with other ministry leaders—but instead sent out the man I was praying for to do ministry not in a traditional setting, is that man not a pastor, but I am? Or am I a pastor because my pulpit time is on Sunday morning and his is in the inner city on Friday night, or with kids on Tuesday mornings? Further, don’t pastor in other church contradict each other? Or even pastors within a church? (I know I’ve seen it happen all too often.)

    “They can create an alternative structure.” In many ways, this is the point I am making, but in a postive light. What we might be witnessing is the emergence of a new wineskin that contains all the necessary biblical elements of a church. The central point of this paragraph seemed to rest on the assumption that our structure was the only biblical structure for church. Not only does this make some broad assumptions, I wonder how the structure question applies when you look at different denominations. There are some pretty big differences in authority and organization in the “recognized” Christian denominations in America alone (not to mention the international church).

    “They can create an alternative testimony.” First, it seems that your assumption is that all parachurch organizations are highly specialized. While most do claim a particular focus, a detailed look at those ministries reveals that some—certainly not all—provide a broad range of ministry services to their target population. It is not unlike a missionary picking a specific people group and then providing the ministry of the church to that population. Second, I think you point about Paul is missing a crucial thought: Paul himself existed as a specialized ministry apart from a particular local church. He was sent out with the blessing of the church in Antioch, but his particular ministry was to many different local churches. He did not fulfill all the functions of the church in himself, but focus his efforts (and those with him) on preaching and converting people to belief in Jesus Christ. In many ways, Paul’s ministry looked much more like Billy Graham’s ministry than a local pastor. We would probably call Paul a parachurch apostle, by today’s terminology. And so, Paul’s teaching on diversity, matched by his own example, seems to encourage the idea of diverse ministries as well as diversity within a single ministry.

    “They can establish an alternate storehouse.” First, if the money gets to the people who need it, what does it matter that the local church as we know it was the middleman in that deal or someone else? Second, as I mentioned, Paul himself was a independent Christian relief agent. He saw needs outside of the reach of the local believers he was talking to, asked for their donations, and took the money to those in need. Third, I think it comes back to the definition of the church. Certainly, the resources are to “flow through” the church. But I think that a truly biblical defintion of the church is the believers in Jesus Christ who gather together and work together to make more and better disciples of Jesus Christ. The bible places few rules in place on how to organize the people of God, except to say that “elders/pastors/overseers” were established through the laying on of hands and to give guidelines for who should be “elders/pastors/overseers.”

    And it comes back to my question: What do you mean, specifically, when you use the word “church”? I’m coming to think that we are seeing the beginnings of a new shape for the timeless functions of the church, that maybe the parachurch ministries of yesterday will grow into the new “typical” structure that is recognized as the local church.

    Thinking hard,

    Scott Wozniak