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Volume 9, Issue 5: Africanus

Beside-the-Church Ministries

Csaba Leidenfrost

World evangelization today is largely being done by mission agencies. Another name often used for such structures is "the parachurch organization." They are so numerous today that off the top of the head anyone could name at least a dozen. While they are playing a major role in carrying out the task of world evangelization, they are not a biblical ideal. The fact that God has used such organizations over the years is not adequate to establish a theological justification for their existence. Missiologists that argue for the legitimacy of the parachurch organization generally would like to forget the word "parachurch" with its connotation of "outside the church" and talk about the "local form" of the church and the "mission form." They see the parachurch organization as another expression of the universal church.

Most of us would agree that Matthew 28:18-20 is the local church's biblical mandate--going "therefore," making disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey His commands. That much seems clear. But what is the mandate of the "parachurch" organization? Scripture is not clear. At best the Apostle Paul's missionary band can be likened to such an organization, but nowhere does Paul call his group the church. The word `para-church' means `beside' or `along side' the church. And that is how most parachurch organizations function in practice. They are generally not under the guidance and direction of a local church, but operate separately, relying on local churches to support their endeavors and/or finance their members. They tend to specialize in a certain area of ministry.
One may be a medical mission. Another might do evangelism and Bible studies among unreached university students abroad. These organizations share at least one thing in common. Their members are chosen from the body of Christ and screened in accord with the organization's `mission' statement. Some are accepted and others are rejected. So far so good we might say. Why not specialize? After all, the local church cannot be expected to specialize in all areas of Christian ministry today! That is not the problem. The problem is with the belief that the parachurch organization sits at the same level of authority as the local church. One of the proponents of the parachurch structure is Ralph Winter who wrote a seminal article in 1974 defending a "two structure theory for God's redemptive mission."[1] He maintains that both structures, the local church and the parachurch organization, are valid expressions of the universal church. Is this true? A recent article by Bruce K. Camp[2] aptly argues against Ralph Winter's defense of the parachurch structure on the grounds that the universal church requires the acceptance of all true believers. Parachurch organizations, however, are by nature restrictive. He says,

While it is inappropriate to exclude any believer from an expression of the universal church, it is not unscriptural to exclude a Christian from a specific ministry within the expression of the universal church. For example, elders in a church cannot be new believers (1 Timothy 3:6). [3]

Parachurch organizations exclude certain kinds of believers--those that do not have the qualities or skills that match their specialized task. Thus, they cannot be an expression of the universal church. Anyone interested in the debate should get and read these two articles. While Scripture does not give us a prescriptive absolute on the nature of the parachurch organization, it does for the Church.
This leads me to my main point. Who has primary responsibility for world evangelization? Scripture makes clear that it is the Church. In the context of the local church's biblical mandate, division of labor and specialization are good things as long as they do not undermine the local church. Unfortunately many local churches and parachurch structures do not function in this manner. This has resulted in much confusion over the years. For example, when the parachurch organization does not uphold a local church's discipline of a church member who is also a member of the second organization. The problem arises from a weak theology of the Church and its mission. The parachurch structure must serve the local church, not the other way around. As we try to think biblically about this issue, many practical aspects of the way we send and care for missionaries will need re-examining.
Some questions to start us thinking might include: What should missionaries do on their furlough? Who disciplines them when they fall into sin? Whose job is it to make sure they are fellowshipping with the saints, or spending enough time with their family (wife, children)? Should the local church support 20 missionaries at $100 per month, or fewer at a higher level per month? What are the ramifications of token financial backing? Many missionaries are "owned" by everyone in general but by no one in particular. The parachurch organization realizes that the missionary needs the financial backing of the local church or churches and encourages "partnership development" across the country in hundreds of churches. The local church views the missionary candidate with suspicion (he is not known well enough) and pledges a token amount. Token accountability follows. If the local church has the mandate and authority to do world evangelization, it is time we apply our belief to her relationship with the parachurch organization and bring our policies in line.

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