These three posts track some of the things I’ve figured out for myself this year.
‘Parachurch’ refers to ministries that operate alongside conventional, local church structures: things like university ministries, Bible colleges, and overseas mission. Although I already considered myself a parachurch minister, I’ve had a range of questions. Does a parachurch even exist? If so, what is a parachurch minister? How would a parachurch minister relate to the local church? Tamie has already explored some of the workings of parachurch ministry; this is more about its foundation.
In the last thirty years, one particular perspective has been especially significant for how Protestants think about parachurch. Ralph Winter argued that there have always been two ‘redemptive structures’ in God’s plan: local church and missions. According to Winter, both of these structures were part of the pattern of New Testament Christianity and both have persisted since then. Given this historical pattern, says Winter, both local church and missions are equally valid and necessary structures, although distinct.
This discussion of missions has frequently revolved around Paul’s missionary teams (Acts 13 onwards) and whether these groups operated under local church oversight or in parallel. Two things are clear from Acts’ presentation of these missionary teams. Firstly, they are not loose cannons. Their goal is always the service of the church, and they seek to cooperate with rather than ignore local churches. Secondly, the missionary teams are not controlled by the church. They operate dynamically, not at the beck and call of a congregation, a council, or the like. The pattern in Acts is that mission groups work dynamically but interdependently with the church.
However, if we start from something like Winter’s approach, we tend to focus on how the church is organised and the question of who should be in charge of missions. Instead, the nature of the church must be the ground for any questions about its organisation. Before we can consider parachurch, what is the capital-C church? I think two aspects are significant. Firstly, the Church is the community of believers created, grown and empowered by God (1 Peter 2:9-10, etc.). The Church is a Body, inherently organic and social. Secondly, this Body is fundamentally local. A local church does not merely represent the whole Body but in some sense is the Body, as indicated in 1 Corinthians 12.
Together, these two aspects of the Church — as a local community — have some important implications, as Howard Snyder explores. While the Church is fundamentally both local and ordered, the Church is not an organisation or institution. This has the striking implication that all man-made structures, including denominations, are ‘parachurch’. Therefore the important distinction is not between the local church and the parachurch, but between the Church and all institutional structures, including denominations (see the diagram below). Because we recognise the localness of the Church, we often end up conflating the institutional church with the Church, which leaves us asking the wrong questions.
What does this mean? John Stott makes a caveat for parachurch work: ‘Independence of the church is bad, cooperation with the church is better, service as an arm of the church is best’.* Note, however, that the church in question is not an institutional form but the Church, the Body of Christ in local expression. Given that the Church is non-institutional, there is no basis for privileging denominational structures. This does not diminish the local church or its order and authority, but it does mean that ministry and mission does not need to be dependent on a denomination. However, while mission need not be controlled by the local church, mission must be in the service of the Church (locally expressed). The Church really is all-important — just not in the form we may previously have thought.
Here is the basis for parachurch ministries (in the conventional sense). The Church does mission and mission builds the Church, yet neither local churches nor denominations can control mission. Parachurch operates in the realm of mission unhinged from institutional constraints, geared towards nourishing the Church. Parachurch ministries inevitably develop their own governing structures, yet these can stay on target for mission if they remain dynamic and interdependent rather than static and denominational.
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* John Stott provides a comprehensive warning to both denominations and parachurches:
Here then are the two extremes to be avoided. The tendency of the “establishment” to control individual initiatives runs the risk of quenching the Spirit. The tendency of voluntary organizations to insist on their independence runs the risk of ignoring the Body. It is the age-old tension between authority and freedom. To quench the Spirit and to ignore the Body are both serious sins; they grieve the Christ whose Body and Spirit they are. It is, therefore, basic to our evangelical responsibility that in all our labours and relationships we should magnify Christ by seeking simultaneously to give honour to his Body and liberty to his Spirit.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.