Results tagged “parachurch” from Reformation21 Blog

Keeping the Para- in the Para-Church


I benefit from a number of para-church ministries, and I'm grateful for those who serve as leaders and volunteers of those groups for the sake of Christ and His kingdom. Over the years, however, I have become increasingly aware of my generation's low-committal, take-it-or-leave-it approach to the local church and have wondered about the actual biblical basis for many of these para-church groups that functionally usurp the ministry, worship, and fellowship of the local church.

While para-church ministries might have their place--and the perceived failure of the local church in reaching certain targeted demographics is not a justifying reason--the fact remains that those para-church ministries that do not intentionally and functionally come alongside the local church find little to no foundational support from Scripture. They are simply not the God-ordained, God-established institution here on earth called to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 3:12), the pillar and buttress of truth (1 Tim. 3:15), the bride and body of Christ (Eph. 5:23-27; Rom. 12:5), of which God has given overseers (Acts 20:28) and directives on worship and ministry (1 Cor. 14:26-40).

Some para-church organizations and ministries are great and serve a specific purpose. I'm thinking specifically about collaborative ventures, such as The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and Ligonier Ministries, or efforts to pull combined resources for larger targeted projects. While many like these have legitimate goals, I'm specifically targeting those para-church organizations that supplant or usurp the weekly ministry of the local church and its ministry. Functionally, they end up serving as a "replacement" for the ministry of the church.

Although many para-church ministries will often vocally support the local church, I would venture to say (from my experience over the years) that many are content to let their ministry practically replace the church. A number of youth para-church organizations do this quite often. We shouldn't get caught up in the false dichotomy between the church as institution and the church as people. Both are biblical, integrated, and are two sides of the same coin. In an age when people are strapped for time--due to sports, work, or home responsibilities--why steal more of their time for a ministry that fails in comparison to the local church? Why not come be a part of the local church, really and truly, to support what the para-church cannot?

I want to give you seven biblical areas that many para-church ministries do not practice and, thus, should not (and cannot) serve as a replacement for the local church:

  1. Weekly preaching in Lord's Day (Sunday) worship.Yes, many para-church groups have teaching and discipleship times, but they don't have the body of Christ meeting together to hear the Word preached in corporate Lord's Day worship. From creation, God has set aside one day in seven for holy rest. The fall (Gen. 3) didn't abrogate the idea of Sabbath worship. It has continued and now commemorates the triumph of Christ's victory over death as an ongoing one-in-seven day of worship and rest.
  2. Multi-generational discipleship and service.While para-church ministries have "leaders" and "directors" who (I hope) are older, wiser, and spiritually mature, they fail to have the plethora of spiritual fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers to disciple them (Titus 2) and bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). Moreover, they are not given opportunity to assist parents by discipling and leading younger generations as they themselves mature and grow in the knowledge and love for Christ. When you see scenes of worship and the community of faith throughout the Old and New Testaments, they are made up of people of all ages. The para-church simply does not functionally support such a biblical pattern.
  3. The spiritual and physical oversight by elders and deacons.This might be one of the clearest deficiencies of para-church groups. The Scriptures make it clear that churches are to choose qualified (Acts 6; 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1) elders and deacons as officers in the church to provide spiritual and physical oversight. Elders, in particular, are to shepherd the congregation, exercising oversight over the flock (1 Pet. 5:2), of which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers (Acts 20:28). Likewise, Christians are to obey their leaders in the church, submitting to their oversight (Heb. 13:17), and respect those who are over them in the Lord (1 Thess. 5:12), considering them worthy of double honor (1 Tim. 5:17). Para-church groups cannot practice the oversight of God-established elders to the same degree as a local church.
  4. Submission and obedience to church discipline.Closely linked with the presence of ordained elders in the church is the necessity of church discipline. For the peace and purity of the church, as well as the restoration of wayward saints, the church is to exercise discipline through admonition, barring of the sacraments, and--in some cases--excommunication (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:9-13). Para-church groups cannot exercise this sort of admonition.
  5. The participation of the body in the Lord's Supper. In His eternal wisdom, God has supplied the church with the perpetual and ongoing means of growing in His grace through the Lord's Supper. Not only is it a means whereby the Holy Spirit nourishes God's people, it is also a means whereby God's people commune with one another as Christ's mystical body. Para-church groups simply cannot biblically participate in this rightly administered means of grace. How would they fence the table? Who would approve of the partakers' participation if a local church's session didn't exercise oversight of those admitted to the Table?
  6. The joy and responsibilities of church membership.People today see few models of committed love, committed relationships, committed anything. In the church, people can (hopefully) witness a number of committed relationships between spouses, families, and church members, all which are lacking in most para-church ministries. Moreover, Christians have the privilege and responsibilities of joining a local church, pledging to support its worship and work, supporting it financially, serving through spiritual gifts, and practically placing him or herself under the ordained, God-given, leadership.
  7. An emphasis on family. In a fundraising plug, one young man spent nearly thirty minutes outlining how he wanted to reach teenagers through a para-church ministry. When he finished, I looked at him and said, "In your entire presentation, you did not mention the local church or family. Why?" He didn't know, and he is not alone. You would be hard pressed to find much about the importance of family--honoring father and mother, preparing to be good fathers, mothers, husbands, or wives, etc.--on para-church websites, during para-church meetings, or in para-church study groups. They are simply not set up to support the family.
I have seen and heard a number of positive examples of lives being changed in para-church youth ministries. But rather than using those examples to legitimize their preeminence over and against the local church, we should prioritize and pour our energies into the local church. Let's re-affirm the God-given, God-revealed, God-ordained institution of the local church--its worship, its discipleship, its leaders, its discipline, and its families. God's Word is sufficient.

Dr. Brian H. Cosby serves as senior pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, visiting professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta, and author of over a dozen books, including John Flavel: Puritan Life and Thought in Stuart England.

Statism and Parachurchism

Several weeks ago I re-read J. Gresham Machen's pivotal, early twentieth-century work Christianity and Liberalism in preparation for giving the final lectures of a seminary course on modern church history. Having originally read the work more than a decade ago, I had forgotten how much political commentary lies scattered throughout the book -- commentary which, it seems to me, remains just as relevant as Machen's stinging critique of Protestant Liberalism for our time. At several junctures in the work Machen highlights the danger of an ever-increasing statism in his day, particularly as such manifests itself in the state's encroachment upon the rights and responsibilities of parents in matters and decisions related to their children's education.

"Personality," Machen writes early in his work, "can only be developed in the realm of individual choice. And that realm, in the modern state, is being slowly but steadily contracted. The tendency is making itself felt especially in the sphere of education. The object of education, it is now assumed, is the production of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it is assumed further, can be defined only by the will of the majority. Idiosyncrasies in education, therefore, it is said, must be avoided, and the choice of schools must be taken away from the individual parent and placed in the hands of the state."

However alarmist Machen's words on this score might have sounded in 1923, they seem prophetic now, as both traditional approaches to education (think classical) and more and more fundamental truths about human beings and the world we inhabit -- truths preserved in Christian doctrine -- assume the character of "idiosyncrasies" in western cultural perspective. Machen returns to this point later in the work in an aside about the "family" as "the most important of ... institutions" which "are not specifically Christian" (as opposed to, say, the Church). "The family," he observes, "is being pushed more and more into the background. It is being pushed into the background by undue encroachments of the community and of the state. Modern life is tending more and more towards the contraction of the sphere of parental control and parental influence. The choice of schools is being placed under the power of the state; the 'community' is seizing hold of recreation and of social activities. It may be a question how far these community activities are responsible for the modern breakdown of the home; very possibly they are only trying to fill a void which even apart from them had already appeared. But the result at any rate is plain -- the lives of children are no longer surrounded by the loving atmosphere of the Christian home, but by the utilitarianism of the state."

Machen, needless to say, is no anarchist. His whole argument, it seems to me, trades on a very positive view of the state as a common grace institution which -- "when reduced to its proper limits" -- serves and supports both family and Church as institutions distinct from itself. Properly conceived the state is a para-family institution. It is not inherently -- that is, by God's design -- opposed to the family; it rightly exists to come alongside of the family and support the family in those tasks (the nurture of children and others) properly entrusted to the family. Machen even goes so far as to highlight a praiseworthy motive on the state's part when it begins to overstep its boundaries. The state sees "a void which even apart from [it] had already appeared." It sees, for instance, children suffering from parental indifference towards their well-being. But it offers a cure that is arguably worse than the disease. It seeks to fill the observed "void" by assuming functions of the family, thereby ultimately producing far more indifferent parents -- parents, that is, who take no active interest in nurturing their children's minds because they increasingly assume such intellectual nurture is entirely the state's responsibility.

Whatever one makes of Machen's worry about statism as reflected in western educational trends, it seems to me that the problem he describes provides a rather apt analogy for para-church organizations and the problematic posture they are susceptible to assume in the relationship they sustain to the Church. Para-church organizations, like the state in relation to the family, recognize "a void which even apart from them had already appeared." The "void" in question isn't difficult to discern. It's the "void" that will always be found in the Church militant; namely, members (both clergy and laity) who get it wrong in terms of doctrine and piety. The vast majority of para-church organizations exist, according to their own rhetoric at least, to educate the members of Christ's church and/or cultivate within them more fervent love for God and neighbor. Such, of course, is an admirable purpose. But. Just as the state in its capacity as a para-family institution seems prone to assume more and more functions of the proper family, para-church organizations seem unable to resist the temptation to assume more and more functions of the proper Church.

Even the briefest perusal of recent activities by the most prevalent evangelical and Reformed(ish) para-church organizations of our day seems to support this claim. No longer content with a straightforward task of providing resources (books, media, conferences) which (arguably) improve theological literacy and piety, we see, for instance, para-church organizations attempting to define the Church's doctrine, or even write her liturgy, by drafting (and, of course, heavily marketing) theological statements in creedal form. Or again, we see para-church organizations exonerating individuals, placing them on the conference-stage and touting them as "trusted," who have been disciplined and/or defrocked by entirely legitimate congregations/denominations, a task (restoration) that rather obviously belongs to the courts of those congregations/denominations.

Of course, one could, with a view towards Machen's point regarding statism and schools, take this critique even further and ask if para-church organizations aren't actually aggravating the fundamental problems they seek to redress -- problems of theological illiteracy and lukewarm love -- by their most basic efforts to raise theological awareness and bolster piety. After all, it is the Church's task to catechize her people and cultivate, through discipline (properly defined), their piety. Employing the logic of Machen's observation, it seems likely that the Church will only grow more lax, indifferent, and inept in fulfilling those tasks properly entrusted to Her by Her Lord the more that para-church organizations assume those tasks, regardless of their initial motive in doing so. Is it possible that para-church organizations are a significant cause of the very disease they purport to cure?

At the risk of sounding rather dooms-day-ish, then, I think we need to wake up to the danger of parachurchism (vis-à-vis the Church) in our day, a reality corresponding to that problem of statism (vis-à-vis the family) which has, of course, only increased since Machen's day. Notice how well Machen's words critiquing the state's assumption of tasks properly entrusted to the family can be employed to summarize the trend of para-church organizations assuming tasks properly entrusted to the Church: "It may be a question how far these [para-church organizations and their] activities are responsible for the modern breakdown of the [Church]; very possibly they are only trying to fill a void which even apart from them had already appeared. But the result at any rate is plain -- the lives of [believers] are no longer surrounded by the loving atmosphere of the [Church], but by the utilitarianism [read 'impersonal and unregulated "ministry"'] of the [para-church institution]."

But if the danger of parachurchism is real, Christian consumers of para-church services must shoulder their share of the blame. Who, after all, wouldn't prefer at times the impersonal "care" and "ministry" offered by the para-church to the very personal, imperfect, and at times seemingly invasive (albeit God-ordained) care of the local church?

[Editorial Note: We have edited our posting above to include a section of the original post that we had removed. It is our sincere desire that this will help serve the force of the argumentation of the post as a whole.]