Question: What if we thought we attended church every Sunday morning when in fact we attended a meeting of a parachurch organization?
Many good Christian works are accomplished by parachurch organizations. My wife and I contribute financially to many of them, and she serves on the board of one such institution. Examples of parachurch organizations are: Christian schools, colleges and universities, mission and service organizations, community Bible study organizations, hospitals, different kinds of fellowships and support groups, campus ministries, apologetic organizations, and Christian homeless shelters. The list is endless. Much of the good work Christians do in the world is done through these organizations. And that is good.
So what is a parachurch organization? It is para to the church, which means it exists “alongside” the church. As an institution, it does not claim to be the church. But it sympathizes with and supports the church’s mission, and the people that constitute its membership are Christians and in some way participate in church itself. Its mission and many of its activities overlap with the mission and activities of the church. That’s what makes it related to the church in a “para” way.
What marks the difference between a parachurch institution and the church? The differences are marked by how parachurch organizations are constituted, what they add to the church’s organization and mission, and by what they cannot do in their own names. Parachurch institutions are created by Christians for ministries about which they are passionate. They are usually organized as legal entities with non-profit status, establishing thereby a relationship with the federal, state, and local governments. Their missions are usually narrowed to one type of good work, education, evangelism, apologetics, healthcare, homeless shelters, etc. But there are also some things parachurch organizations do not do in their own names. For example, you do not become a member of a parachurch institution by confessing Jesus as the risen Lord and submitting to baptism.
What is the church? The church is the people of God and the body of Christ. It is constituted on the divine side by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ through the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Faith is created through the preaching of the gospel and the working of the Spirit, and those who believe respond with repentance, confession, and baptism. The church’s mission is to speak, live, and embody the gospel of Jesus Christ in a covenant community. It witnesses in the present age to the reality of the coming reign of God. As a people, as the body of Christ, as a covenant community it exists in the world as a visible unity of many. And from the beginning, this necessitated meeting together to participate in the spiritual realities—one God, one Lord, one Spirit—that have the power to maintain the scattered people as one. When the church gathers, it listens to the words of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles. It remembers the death and resurrection of Jesus by sharing in the Lord’s Supper. The community invokes God in prayer, and everyone is encouraged to live a life worthy of the gospel.
The church’s essence and mission are very simple, and accomplishing its mission requires few of the things we’ve come to associate with churches. It does not need money, land, or property. It does not need clergy or employees of any kind. Nor does it need scores of tired volunteers the “make things happen” on Sunday morning. It does not need accountants, bank accounts, or receptionists. It does not need a stage, a worship ministry, or microphones. It does not need to exist as a non-profit corporation. It need not have any legal entanglement with the state. Nothing in its constitution or mission requires any of these things.
But most of the “churches” we attend have all of these unnecessary things. Indeed we cannot imagine a “real” church without them. They have huge budgets, large staffs, and expensive properties, which force them to organize themselves like businesses. To fund this enterprise, church leaders need to spend lots of energy on financial matters, planning, accounting, and fund raising. Staff must be managed and paid. Because their meeting places are designed to accommodate over a hundred people—and some a thousand or more—many of these churches are staged-centered and focus on the few people running the show. This creates a celebrity atmosphere where importance and visibility are identified. There is little sense of the unity of the many or intimacy of community or accountability. In analogy to a concert or political rally or a lecture hall, the unity is created by focusing on the speaker or singer. The meeting includes people who are present for a variety of reasons. Many feel like strangers, and some suffer silently for years without anyone else knowing their struggles. And all these extras were added on the supposition that—even if not necessary—they would be helpful in carrying out the mission of the church. But hasn’t it turned out to be the opposite? Doesn’t this stuff get in the way? Hasn’t the means eclipsed the end?
Perhaps the churches we attend every Sunday are really parachurch organizations? They are devoted no doubt to good works and activities that overlap with the church’s mission. They are founded, funded, and for the most part populated by Christian people. They include some activities essential to the church, and the church is present somewhere in all the busyness. But they are not just the church, not simply the church. And because they are not simply the church, the essence of the church is obscured and its essential mission is neglected.
As I said at the beginning, many parachurch organizations serve the mission of the church in admirable ways. I do not reject the legitimacy of parachurch churches. So, I shall be attending a parachurch church this Sunday…but I do so with some uneasiness…because I long for the simple church, stripped of unnecessary baggage, devoted single-mindedly to the original mission.
Challenge: Make a list of the things your church is, has, and does that are not essential to the church Jesus founded and the mission he gave, things that if you removed them the church would still exist. Next ask yourself which ones of those things cause the essence of the church to shine forth and help it accomplish its mission and which ones obscure its essence and hinder its mission. After you’ve done that why not work in your church to reduce the number and significance of things that keep your parachurch church from being simply the church?
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Absolutely right and I’m sick and tired of the commercialization of our Church. I believe it as such that The World Hated me because of YOU.
We are very interested in beginning a dialogue with you and any others regarding the concepts put forth in this post. I am sure we will be friends of yours in the future.
We had a wonderful time at the birthday celebration today for Kelle! Kelle and Marshall are two of our favorite people. Kelle has told us a bit about you. Sounds like we have a lot in common on many levels.
I would love to hear your perspective on these issues. I spent 10 years in full-time ministry and 22 years as an elder in an institutional (para?) church. My frustration was always about how modern churches make complicated and expensive and labor intensive something that should be pretty simple. And in all the fuss neglect the most important things!
So happy to finally make your acquantance and I hope we can continue our conversation; and sometime soon meet in person!
Thanks for your perspective on this. I have been having a conversation with myself about the same issues for quite some time, and cannot seem to sort it out. Shared on facebook at Jesus House Western Maryland.
I think there are many people who, like you, are wondering whether the dominant model of church can embody fully the essence of the church or do a good job of carrying out its mission. For me, I don’t want to deny or undermine the good things traditionally organized churches do. And some traditional churches are small and possess much of the simple, family structure that house churches possess. But I wish that every believer, even if they feel the need to participate in traditional churches, could also be part of a small group where church really happens, where embodying the simple essence and actions of the church are the exclusive goal. And if a group of believers desire to make a house church their church home, I believe they should try to stay in communication and fellowship with the whole, world-wide church as much as is feasible. Blessings.
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I found this post several years ago. I referred to it a few times in various blog posts I wrote. A few months ago, I discovered your book, Rethinking Church, and recently began discussing it bit-by-bit/chapter-by-chapter on my blog.
Right now, I have 3 of us from the churches of Christ background, one Lutheran pastor, a Catholic friend, and another Sunday School teacher (don’t know her specific church heritage). Some of us have Bible education, others not. All of us bought your book and find it worth our discussion.
I particularly am very grateful for this book. Count me among the perplexed and disillusioned.
You have already blessed us, and I want to return the blessing by letting you know we are reading your book and chewing on it. If you want to see our blog discussion, come to fatbeggars.wordpress.com and find the recent series all entitled “RC: [with various subtitles].”
If you choose to join our discussion, we will be grateful to have you and count it a blessing and a joy.
Fat Beggars School of Prophets
Lubbock, Texas (USA)
Thank you for letting me know about the discussion. I am pleased to learn that my little book is sparking a good conversation. As is clear in the book, I do not presume to offer a one-size-fits-all solution for the challenges we face in attempting to embody the church today. In our efforts to share and live the gospel, however, it helps not to confuse the essentials with all sorts of nice but non-essential things. I will check out your blog. Blessings, Ron
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Where Hospitality and Rethinking Church connect:
see the comments here
RC: CHAPTER 4 (ORGANIZATION & GUIDANCE) | Fat Beggars School of Prophets (wordpress.com)