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.

A Burst of Light and a Gentle Fading Away

I have been teaching Missions History this term in Seminary. Since I live and teach in Asia, I like to focus on missions history in Asia. Frankly, there is a lot more missions history in the East than the West anyway. In the first millennium, the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Edessa spread the faith throughout Mesopotamia, Arabia, India and Persia. Later the “Nestorians” spread it through Central Asia to China, Korea, and beyond. The second millennium has the Russian Orthodox sweep across northern Asia, and the Protestant and Roman Catholic moves into Southern and Eastern Asia. Finally, with the dawn of the third millenium is the incredible reversal with 2/3 world (global) missions going into Asia and coming from Asia. But a good question came up as I was talking about the “Nestorian” (or Church of the East) missions in the first millennium.

Why did the greatest missionary effort (prior to the 1800s perhaps) result in so little long-term gain?

Of course, it is popular to blame Islam, or xenophobic Chinese emperors. But neither truly answer the question. The Coptic church in Egypt has survived (and often thrived) with persecution (of varying degrees). The church has even grown miraculously under persecution (such as in 20th century Maoist China, and in the 3rd century Roman Empire). Some argue that the outreach never really went beyond the Trading centers (perhaps a valid point). Some argue that there was a lack of contextualization and indiginization of the faith regionally (perhaps true in some locations… but not in others). I don’t have a good answer… but always willing to suggest a good theory. I would like to think that there may be a wee bit of truth tucked away in it. Nestorian missions at its height, such as from 628-643 under Patriarchate of Yeshuyab II, was quite organized with a wholistic outreach at cities along the overland route of the silk road. Among the structures that would be set up include:

  • Monastery     (meet sociospiritual needs)
  • Church          (meet sociospiritual needs)
  • Trading post  (meet economic needs)
  • Hospital   (meet physical needs)
  • School (meet educational needs)

The Nestorian missions points were, so I am led to understand, centered on the monastery: Nestorian 2The Nestorians were not the only ones to do this. The Celtic missions movement of the first millenium was also centered on the monastery. But of course, they did not have to do it this way. They could have had the church as the center point. Nestorian 1If one looks at these diamonds, one sees a nice wholistic support system… educational, economic, physical, and sociospiritual. But one might wonder at the apparent redundancy of having two entities that were sociospiritual… the church and the monastery. But the two are very different. Some would describe the church as a modality structure and a monastery as a sodality structure. I guess, to avoid more fancy words, one could say that:

            Church   is centered on       People
            Monastery      is centered on     Purpose

A church exists as an assembly (and assembling) of local Christians. It exists for believers to worship, fellowship, support each other. A monastery is a handpicked group of Christians who have joined together for a specific purpose. For Nestorian missions… the monastery was a missional structure. What do we see when a missional sodality (or purpose centered) structure is the key? Very rapid growth of missions… a nice thing. We saw it in Nestorian missions and in Celtic missions. In fact, most missional movements were driven by sodality (purpose-centered) structures… at least at first. What do we see long-term when sodality structures remain the center? With the Nestorian movement, it eventually lost its missional vigor… and the movement faded (not disappeared… but faded). With the Celtic movement, it was swallowed up by the Roman structure (which was centered, ultimately, on the church, not the monastery).

So if this observation has any merit, what would that suggest?

Missions is driven (at least on the frontier) by sodality (missional purpose-centered) structures. However, to endure, the center should transfer to the church. The people (local people) are the key to longevity.