Local Churches and Parachurch Ministries

Local Churches and Parachurch ministries have a long history of struggle. One can even broaden this to other Modality (community-based) versus Sodality (purpose-based) structures. Jesus and his ministry band was often in conflict with the temple and synagogue system. One might be quick to side with the ministry band, and be against the temple and synagogue. but that is not really the point. The early church ministered at and even through the temple and synagogue, and the church is modeled after the synagogue. Neither structure was problematic— the relationship was the problem. boxing_6_lg

There are several ways the church and parachurch can relate:

  1.  Competition. Competition is the most natural relationship, but who is to say that what is natural is always the best. To put things in the most brutally unkind way, churches are greedy and parachurches are parasitic. Parachurches need human resources as well as financial resources. Human resources for parachurches come from churches, but churches don’t always want their people serving in these parachurch organizations rather than in the church. Parachurches get a considerable amount of their finances from church members; and church members often give more to such organizations by giving less to their own churches. Of course, it works the other way as well. Many churches strongly discourage their members from working with other churches or parachurches. And many churches like to make the argument that “bringing ones’ treasure to the storehouse” can be interpreted as “give all your gifts to God to and through your local church.”
  2. Negation. I don’t know of any parachurches who have tried to negate or invalidate churches, although some have at times been quite critical. There have been churches that invalidate parachurches. the Anti-Missions movement of the 1800s was not simply against mission organizations, but other sodality structures, suggesting that the local church is the only valid religious institution.
  3. Control. Some relate from a position of control. A church can run a parachurch. In some cases a parachurch have even established a church. Salvation Army would be one example of that, but I have a friend who was part of a parachurch organizaiton that decided to establish its own church. In that case, it appeared to have been done for control… of the volunteers in the ministry. There is nothing inherently wrong with one controlling the other. However, churches are driven by different priorities than parachurches. That difference can be difficult. I have also seen where a parachurch group being within the church structure can lead to a “church within the church” or an elitist sub-group.
  4. Cooperation. History has shown that churches and parachurches can work together, each working to their own strength– Parish and Monastery, Church and Mission Society. A positive collaboration is ideal… but is challenging.

Much of the problem is that Christians often struggle with the Unity and Diversity of the church, and the Universality and Locality of the church. The conflict between churches and parachurches come from this confusion. Denominationalism and competition between churches comes from a similar place.

Self-Reflection, Part II

Women's Missionary Union Pamphlet ND
Lottie Moon. Great, and sharp-tongued inspirer of churches to greater mission involvement and support. Image via Wikipedia


I have a job in a missions organization (administrator of a Christian Counseling and Training Center). I also have had a role as missions director in more than one local church. I found myself drifting away from doing good work as missions director. Why? Because the churches had relatively little interest in missions as a group (at least compared to missions organizations I have been involved in). Sure there were a few people, but they were a small missions core in a much larger congregation. I tended to feel the church was selfish because they focused on member care most, with some interest in church growth (increase numbers in OUR church), little in classic missions (growth of God’s Kingdom, with little to no direct effect on our church).

However, I had two major realizations:

1.  Maybe the churches were selfish… but so was I. A church that sends money, people, or resources to the other side of the world gets no real tangible return on their investment. Doing things “for the Kingdom of God” is pretty abstract for most church members. But as a missionary, I get credit for everything. I get credit for what I do in church… I get credit for what I do outside the church, on a local level… I get credit for what I do that creates change far away.  Maybe churches are selfish (they are made up of people, and people are selfish), but I can’t be so sure that I am not selfish either. Would I invest in things joyously that I could not, on some level, claim credit? Perhaps my lack of effort in the church demonstrated my own selfishness, not willing to invest time in something because in may not result in something good (something I can take credit in).

2.  Perhaps more than just being selfish, I was being lazy. A major role of the missionary is to reproduce himself. I believe the reason that so many churches in the Philippines (for example) have little to no cross-cultural missions interest is that they were trained up by missionaries. The missionaries did not instill in these churches an excitement for cross-cultural missions because this form of missions “is the missionary’s job”.  Often the greatest missionaries were those who could inspire people and churches to missions who, otherwise, would not have. Missionaries often like to work in missions groups, because the members of these groups are already motivated, already wanting to learn, and already desiring to do great things in the world. Missionaries don’t have to go through the difficult and unreliable task of motivating and training those who don’t share this burden and passion.

A good missionary does more than organize a coalition of the willing. He inspires churches and church members to join God in His mission (Missio Dei).

So I intend to make some changes. We will see how this goes.

The Uncomfortable Missionary in Church

Image by slack12 via Flickr

I have to confess this a bit. I really enjoy missions work much more than church work.  I am not alone in this.

<I will put my confession in a follow-up post.>

The Monastic movement in the early churches (Orthodox, Coptic, Nestorian, Roman Catholic, Celtic and Abyssinian… at least) was a rejection, in part, of the spirituality of churchlife. Although Monasticism sounds selfish, a majority of missions was done by monasteries sending their people into the world. Many of these monks would refuse, or accept most grudgingly, positions in the church because of its lack of spirituality and lack of mission.

In recent times, there is still a lot of tension between church structures (a “modality” structure) and mission organizations (a “sodality” structure). Some church denominations even started as a parachurch mission movement. Some missionaries/missiologists have chosen to reject churches in their work. Some parachurch organizations discourage their staff and disciples from being active involvement in churches.  This includes J.C. Hoekendijk, a missiologist who sees the secularization of missions, or the removal of missions from the church (an entity not capable of being missional).

I am not against parachurch or missions organizations. I feel like those who believe that such organizations are wrong or ungodly are simply expressing a bias that is not Biblically grounded. The Old Testament had the school of prophets. Jesus formed a group of at least 70 who worked outside of the temple, synagogue, and (obviously) church structure. Paul, Barnabbas, Apollos, and others served God sent out by the church but working generally independently of the church. So to consider parachurch organizations as “man-made” and the church as “God made” seems to be without justification.

HOWEVER… unrighteous antagonism exists between local churches and missions groups.  Evidences:

1.  The common definitions for missions (such as in Perspectives of the World Christian Movement) pretty much deny that local churches can do missions in any substantive way. More inclusive definitions of missions (such as that used in the Missional Church movement) tend to be rejected, and even attacked.

2.  Mission groups most often interact with local churches only through fund-raising (using church resources) and people-raising (using church people).

I understand and, on a certain level, even agree with the mission group problem with local churches.

a.  Most local churches are not missional. Most have little interest in missions (on any level). Why waste time with a group that does not share your passion, when you can work with a sodality structure that (by its very nature) shares your passion. Churches are a gathering of the faithful, not the gathering of people of common passion. Because of this, the role of the church is broader than missions, and the interests of its membership are broader than missions.

b.  Most local churches are basically… well… selfish. Let’s face it. It is hard to get a local church to put money into missions. Even when they do… it is usually for “own church growth”. When one talks about reaching the world, there is an unspoken (and frankly, often spoken) question— “What’s in it for us.”

The time for war between parachurch organizations and churches needs to end. Churches should accept the parachurch as a valid structure (it is). The parachurch must recognize the broader, and yet still valid, calling of the church. The job is too big to be done alone.