The latest edition of the newfrontiers magazine came out recently, and it touches on what could prove a very controversial subject. Basically it sets out to criticise the existance of parachurch organisations, arguing that they fulfill ministries better provided by local churches. I’ve collected together a few of my disorganised thoughts on this subject below. I’ll start with what I thought was good, and then offer a few criticisms…
Points of agreement
Training in the context of the local church
Why is it that when someone wants the practical and theological training for (usually full-time) ministry do they find that their local church has almost nothing to offer? So they are sent off to Bible college, which may be a good environment for academic learning, but is likely to lack the “on-the-job” training aspect that a local church can offer. For example, spending time working with and caring for the elderly would be better than writing a 10,000 word essay on “The Issues and Challenges that the Over-Sixties Present To Churches in a Post-Modern Context”.
Overseas minded people handed over to other organisations
Why is it that when someone declares that they have a heart to preach the gospel and demonstrate practical Christian love overseas, do we give them the phone number of a missionary society? It makes for an all to convinient detachment for the local church. We send some money, they send prayer letters which make us have a warm feeling that we are “doing our bit” for world evangelisation.
There are exceptions acknowledged…
The magazine does seem to be awareness of at least one criticism. What about specialist organisations? Mission Aviation Fellowship and Wycliffe Bible Translators are listed as examples. It is unlikely that an individual local church would have the expertise and specialised resources to provide the services that these organisations do.
…but not enough exceptions?
But could that not be said to a lesser extent for almost all parachurch organisations? For example, a local church may well be able to provide many of the services that an organization like UCCF do. Getting involved in a church cell may indeed be preferable to simply fellowshipping with students. But though a Christian Union can and should never replace a church, does that mean it is not necessary? CU’s do a work of discipling and evangelising students on a scale that even the most well resourced local churches are not likely to be able to match.
Is the divide that great?
And how true is it that parachurch organisations are doing the work that local churches should? Many missionary societies, bible colleges, student movements etc are making great efforts to ensure that they work in partnership with local churches, offering themselves to provide specialised training, and ensuring that those in their organisation are fully active in local church life.
The church universal
Are we guilty of creating too great a distinction between the church local and the church universal? If people from a load of different churches get together and work together, does that make it any less “the church”? After all, newfrontiers very own “New Day” event will gather thousands of young people from different churches, and pool the resources for an evangelistic effort. It is hard to see how this is substantially different to UCCF mobilising students from many churches for a combined mission.
How are parachurch organisations formed?
Doubtless there are different ways that these organisations come about, but I suspect that many are borne out of a local church ministry that grew big. Whether this be a local evangelist who goes itinerant, or a small ministry to the poor that acquired property and a charitable status, or even a training program that started attracting attendees from further afield. If newfrontiers continues to grow, who is to say that in 20 years time there won’t be more parachurch organisations springing up from those within the local church who have a passion for a unique ministry and joining people in other local churches who have the same burden.
Are we ready to take over?
Finally, what would happen if the directors of Bible colleges and missionary societies read this magazine and decided to close down their organisations? Would missionaries be served and supported as well solely by the members of their sending church? Would those wanting training find anything that really equips them for ministry? At the moment, I doubt it.
Newfrontiers is big on church planting, something I wholeheartedly am behind. But this means many churches with small memberships. There is no way that they can sustain a fully comprehensive set of ministries. This means that inevitably, they will need to look to other churches or parachurch organisations for help in some areas. Newfrontiers already do much Bible, worship, and children’s work training at certain large well-resourced churches.
I agree that the existence of so many parachurch organisations is indicative of at least some failure on the part of the local church to support the diversity of ministries needed by its membership. We need to step up to the challenge of meeting these needs ourselves, and being humble enough to learn from the expertise of these parachurch organisations. Personally, I think that we will never be without the need for groups of Christians working together with common goals across local church boundaries, and because of this, there will always be organisations that in some sense will be “parachurch”.
Anyway, I’ve rambled enough now. I would be interested to know what others think on this issue. Would we be better off without parachurch organisations?