Monthly Archives: August 2017

Is Your “Church” a Parachurch Organization?

Question: What if we thought we attended church every Sunday morning when in fact we attended a meeting of a parachurch organization?

Many good Christian works are accomplished by parachurch organizations. My wife and I contribute financially to many of them, and she serves on the board of one such institution. Examples of parachurch organizations are: Christian schools, colleges and universities, mission and service organizations, community Bible study organizations, hospitals, different kinds of fellowships and support groups, campus ministries, apologetic organizations, and Christian homeless shelters. The list is endless. Much of the good work Christians do in the world is done through these organizations. And that is good.

So what is a parachurch organization? It is para to the church, which means it exists “alongside” the church. As an institution, it does not claim to be the church. But it sympathizes with and supports the church’s mission, and the people that constitute its membership are Christians and in some way participate in church itself. Its mission and many of its activities overlap with the mission and activities of the church. That’s what makes it related to the church in a “para” way.

What marks the difference between a parachurch institution and the church? The differences are marked by how parachurch organizations are constituted, what they add to the church’s organization and mission, and by what they cannot do in their own names. Parachurch institutions are created by Christians for ministries about which they are passionate. They are usually organized as legal entities with non-profit status, establishing thereby a relationship with the federal, state, and local governments. Their missions are usually narrowed to one type of good work, education, evangelism, apologetics, healthcare, homeless shelters, etc. But there are also some things parachurch organizations do not do in their own names. For example, you do not become a member of a parachurch institution by confessing Jesus as the risen Lord and submitting to baptism.

What is the church? The church is the people of God and the body of Christ. It is constituted on the divine side by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ through the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Faith is created through the preaching of the gospel and the working of the Spirit, and those who believe respond with repentance, confession, and baptism. The church’s mission is to speak, live, and embody the gospel of Jesus Christ in a covenant community. It witnesses in the present age to the reality of the coming reign of God. As a people, as the body of Christ, as a covenant community it exists in the world as a visible unity of many. And from the beginning, this necessitated meeting together to participate in the spiritual realities—one God, one Lord, one Spirit—that have the power to maintain the scattered people as one. When the church gathers, it listens to the words of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles. It remembers the death and resurrection of Jesus by sharing in the Lord’s Supper. The community invokes God in prayer, and everyone is encouraged to live a life worthy of the gospel.

The church’s essence and mission are very simple, and accomplishing its mission requires few of the things we’ve come to associate with churches. It does not need money, land, or property. It does not need clergy or employees of any kind. Nor does it need scores of tired volunteers the “make things happen” on Sunday morning. It does not need accountants, bank accounts, or receptionists. It does not need a stage, a worship ministry, or microphones. It does not need to exist as a non-profit corporation. It need not have any legal entanglement with the state. Nothing in its constitution or mission requires any of these things.

But most of the “churches” we attend have all of these unnecessary things. Indeed we cannot imagine a “real” church without them. They have huge budgets, large staffs, and expensive properties, which force them to organize themselves like businesses. To fund this enterprise, church leaders need to spend lots of energy on financial matters, planning, accounting, and fund raising. Staff must be managed and paid. Because their meeting places are designed to accommodate over a hundred people—and some a thousand or more—many of these churches are staged-centered and focus on the few people running the show. This creates a celebrity atmosphere where importance and visibility are identified. There is little sense of the unity of the many or intimacy of community or accountability. In analogy to a concert or political rally or a lecture hall, the unity is created by focusing on the speaker or singer. The meeting includes people who are present for a variety of reasons. Many feel like strangers, and some suffer silently for years without anyone else knowing their struggles. And all these extras were added on the supposition that—even if not necessary—they would be helpful in carrying out the mission of the church. But hasn’t it turned out to be the opposite? Doesn’t this stuff get in the way? Hasn’t the means eclipsed the end?

Perhaps the churches we attend every Sunday are really parachurch organizations? They are devoted no doubt to good works and activities that overlap with the church’s mission. They are founded, funded, and for the most part populated by Christian people. They include some activities essential to the church, and the church is present somewhere in all the busyness. But they are not just the church, not simply the church. And because they are not simply the church, the essence of the church is obscured and its essential mission is neglected.

As I said at the beginning, many parachurch organizations serve the mission of the church in admirable ways. I do not reject the legitimacy of parachurch churches. So, I shall be attending a parachurch church this Sunday…but I do so with some uneasiness…because I long for the simple church, stripped of unnecessary baggage, devoted single-mindedly to the original mission.

Challenge: Make a list of the things your church is, has, and does that are not essential to the church Jesus founded and the mission he gave, things that if you removed them the church would still exist. Next ask yourself which ones of those things cause the essence of the church to shine forth and help it accomplish its mission and which ones obscure its essence and hinder its mission. After you’ve done that why not work in your church to reduce the number and significance of things that keep your parachurch church from being simply the church?

Ron Highfield

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Two Hundred Reasons to Celebrate Four Years of Ifaqtheology

On August 08, 2013, I made the first post to Ifaqtheology. Since that time, I’ve written and posted over 200 theological essays for this blog. That works out to about 180,000 words. I’ve published many of these essays in revised form in four books, which I’ve listed below. You can find them on Amazon.com.

  1. The Thoughtful Christian Life (2014)
  2. Christianity–Is It Really True? (2015)
  3. A Course In Christianity (2016)
  4. Four Views on Women in Church Leadership (2017)

Thank you for reading these essays and sharing them with others. And thank you for your thoughtful comments on the blog and on Facebook.

I look forward to writting another 200 essays for this blog. If even only one of them proves helpful to another person, I will consider it worth my time.

Ron Highfield

 

Why I Envy the Homeless—They Don’t Hear That “Little Voice”

My wife and I spent part of Monday at the Ventura County Fair. The fair grounds are adjacent to Ventura Beach and about a half a mile from the Ventura Pier, so after a few hours touring exhibit halls, looking at farm animals, and watching a pig race, we took a walk on the beach. As we walked, we passed several homeless people. Some were asking for money, others were sleeping under the palm trees, and still others were conversing with their friends. I felt something I often feel when I see homeless people: envy. No, I don’t envy everything about their condition, and I know that my envy is based on a superficial understanding of their condition. I envy their apparent carefree attitude.

Here is what I imagine it’s like: They don’t have to report to work or worry about a superior’s evaluation. The clock doesn’t control their lives. It doesn’t matter what time of day or what day of the week it is. The tasks they need to accomplish are simple. They are not obsessed with building a career or pleasing clients or producing a product. They are not burdened with social, family, or professional responsibilities. The expectations of others do not trouble their minds. They don’t seem to be worried about their appearance. The prospect of success or failure doesn’t shadow every move they make. Most enviable of all, I imagine that they do not experience this little voice inside their minds that never stops whispering, “Aren’t you supposed to be doing something? Have you fulfilled your responsibilities? What have you forgotten? Couldn’t you accomplish more? Have you done anything today that matters?”

Of course, I don’t really want to be homeless, and I would not trade places with them. I have what most people consider the marks of success: financial security, a job I love, good friends, professional respect, a wonderful family, a nice house, and reliable cars. And I don’t want to give these things up, and I don’t want to be irresponsible. And yet—here is why I am envious of the homeless–I have to admit that I have not learned how to deal with that anxious voice I mentioned above. It doesn’t want me to relax. It sets unrealistic expectations, and it keeps moving the bar. No matter how much I do and no matter how well I do it, the little voice is never satisfied. It never says, “That’s enough for today.”

Does anyone else experience the oppressive little voice? I’ve tried to deal with it by reasoning with it. I tell it that it expects the impossible. No human being can do every good thing imaginable and do it all perfectly! You need to find a healthy balance between work and recreation. “Good enough” is good enough! Things don’t have to be perfect to be effective. As reasonable and persuasive as these arguments sound, they are not completely effective in stilling the little voice…because the little voice doesn’t get its thoughts from reason, so it doesn’t listen attentively to reason. The little voice always finds a way to evade reason. It can always reply, “How do you know when you’ve done enough? Where is the “balance” between work and relaxation? When is it good enough?”

If reason and common sense fail to still the little voice, perhaps reason informed by faith can succeed? As a Christian thinker I am driven to explore the resources of my faith to deal with this problem, and I believe I find help there. But first we have to consider whether faith may actually contribute to the problem. What I mean is this. I am totally convinced by Paul’s argument that because of God’s grace shown in Jesus Christ we are accepted by God on the basis of our empty-handed and humble faith in Jesus. As far as I am aware, I am not trying to be good enough to earn God’s love and forgiveness. I know this is impossible.

But I do believe I am obligated to use my life, my energy, opportunities, my talents, and my time to do God’s work in the world. And the little voice won’t let me believe I am actually doing a good job of this. Perhaps, the little voice doesn’t accept Paul’s teaching that we are saved by faith and not by the works of the law. Or, it may fear that if I begin to think I am doing enough and doing it well enough, I will become proud and self-righteous. Or, it may think that if I relax I will become lazy and presumptuous.

In the coming weeks and months, I want to explore the teachings of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament for help with this problem—my problem. Here are some ideas that may be relevant: (1) We are responsible to God only for the assignments he gives us, and God does not give impossible assignments. (2) We may need to stop trying to evaluate ourselves. Instead, we need to keep our eyes on Jesus. We are not good judges of ourselves. (3) God does not depend on me (on us) to accomplish his will. God will not fail just because you forget something. (4) Don’t expect to see the final result and value of your work in this life. Leave that to God. (5) God gives us work to do on a daily basis. Don’t expect God to lay before you a detail plan for your life’s work. It’s amazing what new and unexpected opportunities arrive with no advanced notice!

Yes, I envy the homeless for the carefreeness. But their carefreeness seems to be the result of their abdication of all responsibility. And I don’t envy that. What I really want is a carefreeness based on trust in God’s grace and power, a carefreeness in work and recreation, in friendships, in the routine business of life, and above all in acts of love for others.