I don’t think the ideal or realistic scenario is for all Christian ministry to take place within local churches or be formally managed by denominational oversight. But this does not mean that parachurches are free to ignore to the special importance of local churches in God’s kingdom. If we proactively work together, we can hope for a better outcome not only for the local church and the parachurch, but for the advance of the kingdom of God.
“Stay in your lane!” is a popular phrase at the moment. It is a rebuke to those who presume to take on too much, step outside their proper role or expertise. Parachurches need to be regularly reminded to stay in their lane.
My recent article ‘Think Beyond Your Local Church in Ministry Training and Recruitment’ focussed on encouraging churches to work with one another and their denominations in raising up the next generation of leaders. The article’s headline and pull quote (“If your ministry training was entirely local-church-focussed, it’s more than likely that your mature leadership patterns will be similarly insular”) gave the wrong impression to many that the article was about the superior benefits of parachurches as a place for training and recruitment. It thus became something of a Rorschach test for people’s ministry experiences and complaints. A good reminder that much discussion of articles shared on social media revolves around what people who haven’t read the article think it is about!
The issues raised in these discussions around negative patterns of parachurch ministry were significant and relatable. So in this article I will address the very real issue of the presumptuous parachurch. It is common for parachurches to gain more momentum, finances and enthusiastic support than surrounding churches. If they are not careful, they can leverage these advantages in a way that undermines rather than strengthens local churches and denominations—even other parachurches. There are both theologically principled as well as big-picture practical reasons why such presumption should be reined it.
Principled Commitment to the Local Church
A baseline commitment for my argument is the special importance of the local church. The local church is an earthly manifestation of the universal church, specially entrusted with the preaching of the gospel in word, baptism and Lord’s supper; and the discipleship and discipline of God’s people (Matt 18:15–17; 1Cor 5:4–5, 11:17–26, 12:14–31; Eph 4:1–16; 1 Tim 3:15). I am assuming here that the local church is something more formal than simply any gathering of Christians around the word of Christ. I am also assuming that however valuable the many kinds of ministry and good deeds that Christians engage in beyond the local church, that these activities are not best described as some equal and complementary ‘mode’ of church.
If local churches have a special place in the outworking of God’s purposes then other Christian organisations, especially those which gather in regular local fellowship—organisations like chaplaincy, AFES, City Bible Forum, Christian Surfers, Navigators, Scripture Union and theological colleges—should affirm a commitment to the local church. They should find ways to uphold the special importance of local churches in practice. Parachurches should determine not to explicitly nor functionally take the place of local churches; not to double as quasi-crypto local churches.
Parachurches do well to articulate the value of the local church in their key strategic documents, such as their mission, strategy and values. They should consider where their policies and practices should express this commitment. But values which are only found in formal documents can easily become hollow ideals. They need to be diligently implemented.