Editor’s Note: This is the second of three blogs on the demise of a robust understanding of “church” in modern evangelical life. To read the first installment, click here.
The word “parachurch” is built off of two words: “para,” which means “alongside of” and, of course, the word “church.” As conceived, the parachurch is meant to serve “alongside” the church - not in place of the church or in competition with the church.
One could easily trace its roots to the early monastic movement and countless subsequent ministry endeavors since. Originally embraced as a way to enlarge the boundaries of God’s work beyond the traditional church, it has often become a substitute entity; sometimes competitive, and occasionally antagonistic.
The role of the parachurch has loomed so large in certain circles that it has led some to speak of the “potential” partnership of the church and parachurch, as if it might be a nice option, which speaks for itself as to the devaluation of our ecclesiology.
Suffice it to say, there are many, many legitimate and even strategic parachurch ministries.
But there are also many that are not.
When a parachurch group does little more than replicate what local churches are already doing,
...when they serve at the invitation of churches for a season but then, when the church proper is prepared and ready to invest itself, refuse to close up shop and move elsewhere,
...when they do not truly serve “alongside” any church, but rather show up with an announcement that they have arrived and a request to “pay, pray and get out of the way”,
...you do not have a healthy parachurch enterprise.
Yet this is precisely what you have with countless parachurch efforts.
The free-market response is, of course, to point to success. It is all too common to point to results alone and from that claim biblical justification. This is no stronger of an argument than citing the amount of money raised for ministry during the telethon in Clearwater, Florida led by Jim Bakker on the day of his sexual tryst with a secretary.
Though the Bible says to make judgments based on fruit, it is a common misinterpretation to assume this means legitimacy. In truth, the Bible’s call to judgment is about individuals, not enterprises, and the “fruit” in mind has to do with the fruit of the Spirit. The reality is that some parachurch groups are justified in light of this relationship with the church, and some are not, success notwithstanding. But whether “legitimate” or not, parachurch groups are not the church, nor should they become a substitute for the church.
So where is the church today? When do you know the church is truly present? Is my campus group the church? Is my small group the church? As a pastor, such matters are far from academic. Knowing what is and is not the church is often at the heart of daily life:
...the energetic young man who makes an appointment, casts a vision for a parachurch marketplace ministry, and wants the church to support his efforts and platform his seminars;
...the small group that asks if they can take the Lord’s Supper together;
...the homeschooling family who asks about “home-churching”;
...the father who asks about taking it upon himself to baptize his son in their backyard pool;
...the opportunity to offer satellite campuses with video teaching throughout your city, and even around the world;
...the volunteer who is interested in leadership, but does not want to become a member.
It is precisely upon these questions – knowing when we do have the church and are being the church – that we must strengthen our grip.
The word “church,” from the Greek word “ecclesia,” literally means “the called-out ones.” It was a word that was used in Jesus' day for any group that was gathered together for a specific purpose or mission. Jesus seized the term to speak of a group with a very specific purpose or mission, setting it apart from every other group or mission.
This is where “ecclesiology,” which is the theological term for the doctrine of the church, finds it origin. The church of Christ, however, is anything but a man-made organization, but instead was founded and instituted by Jesus Himself (Mt. 16:18).
In the Bible, you have three primary understandings of this church, the body of Christ: the local church, the universal church as she exists around the world, and the church as she exists throughout time and history - incorporating all of the saints that will one day be gathered together in heaven.
Without question, the dominant biblical use is in reference to a local church or collection of local churches as defined bodies of believers that were gathered with both intent and order. Think of how the letters of Paul were written: “To the church of God at Corinth;” “To the churches in Galatia;” “To the church of the Thessalonians;” and at the beginning of John’s Revelation, “To the seven churches in the province of Asia.”
This church was to serve as the ongoing manifestation of Christ Himself on earth, being called His “body,” an idea of profound significance throughout the New Testament. As the apostle Paul wrote: "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We each have different gifts according to the grace given us" (Romans 12:4-6).
And later in the New Testament, we read Paul reiterating this idea: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (I Corinthians 12:27). And if the point hadn’t been made clearly enough, Paul writes the following words to the church at Ephesus: “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:22-23; see also 5:23; Colossians 1:18, 2:19).
Beyond the interconnectedness this suggests, it means that the church is the locus of Christ's activity and He works through the church now as He worked through His physical body during His 33-year life. In the New Testament there is no ministry outside of the church, or at least its umbrella.
But what is this “local” church that functions as the body of Christ?
That is for the next post.
James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.