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.