It is time that I remind readers of my objective in writing this series. I am not writing a church history or a complete survey of church doctrine and practice. There are many related questions that I cannot address if I am to stick to my original plan. My aim is to reexamine my place in churches of the type I have attended all my life. It is the type my students and friends attend. These churches hold with varying degrees of intensity to evangelical theology and piety. They are mostly non-denominational, or at least they have a great deal of local control. I believe that many others find themselves in similar situations and are also in the process of reexamining the ways they embody their Christian faith in church life. Hence my hope is that others will benefit by thinking along with me.
Cards on the Table
I have come to believe that most organizations that call themselves churches are really ministries of the church or parachurch organizations. They are inspired by the New Testament vision of the church as the body of Christ and motivated by its mission of witness to Jesus. They do much good work—ministry to families, children, teens, singles, and seniors. They provide large meeting places where hundreds or thousands of believers can meet to experience worship and teaching at the same time. They establish homeless ministries, teach English as a second language, create prison ministries, provide daycare for working parents, and much more. But in many cases, the church’s essential nature, activity, and mission are obscured by concerns that could better be dealt with through parachurch organizations devoted to these matters. And by adding these features to their agendas and organizing themselves in the ways necessary for accomplishing these tasks efficiently, churches transform themselves into parachurches.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no objection to the existence of parachurch churches. In fact, I believe they have an important place, and I support their existence. But I object when these institutions claim to be identical to the essential church and imply that to participate fully in the people of God you must join this type of organization and give lots of money and time to it. This is not true. You do not have to join a parachurch church to be a good Christian and participate fully in the body of Christ. A church can be everything that the church is supposed to be, do everything it is supposed to do, and work effectively toward fulfilling its mission with a few believers meeting in a home or under a tree. This type of church needs no common treasury, no employees, no property, no government entanglement, and no professional clergy. I do not want to idealize the small house church as purely and simply the essential church, acting only in the essential ways, and having no goals other than the essential goal of witness. However I am clear that it is closer to that ideal than the complicated and expensive organizations that we usually call churches.
Many big, parachurch churches realize that meeting in very large assemblies, though having many advantages, cannot facilitate the intimacy, friendship, and deep community that can be created in regular meetings of small groups. But parachurches tend to view their “small groups ministries” as adjuncts to the larger church. My dream is to see this priority reversed. You do not have to be a member of a parachurch to be a faithful Christian, but if you want to do so, think of it as an adjunct to the small church where community in Christ really happens. This reversal would of necessity require parachurches to repurpose themselves as organizations designed to facilitate small churches getting together periodically to encourage each other and cooperate on larger projects. This reversal is unlikely to happen, I understand, but from now on I plan to treat the parachurches I attend in this way.
Next Time: The Church and Money—A Very Sad Story.