Our church supports missionaries who work both in local churches and in parachurch organizations. I often use parachurch organizations for help on particular issues, but some Christians have resisted any acknowledgement of parachurch organizations deeming them unbiblical. Some Christians have loved parachurch organizations so much that they have used them to replace the church. Is the differentiation between parachurch and local church important? The answer is a resounding, “yes.”
Perhaps we should start with definitions.
Parachurch – Organizations that exist to support the church in particular areas, and particularly as the church attempts to fulfill the great commission.
Local Church – the local visible manifestation of the church that gathers as a family of regenerate believers to work as members of one body as they represent Christ in this world and seek to fulfill his great commission.
There is much to be said about the local church and perhaps a one sentence definition is not sufficient. Even so, it should be said that all through the New Testament we find explanation of the church in its local representation. We do not find discussion of parachurch. Does this mean that parachurch should not exist at all? I would submit that this would be an argument from silence and an unnecessary viewpoint. We should, however, recognize that it is the local church that is given responsibility to uphold doctrine and to fulfill local and global mission. The bible gives clear responsibility to each local church (and particularly the elders) to be responsible for any instruction to the church body (Heb 13:17, 1 Pt. 5:1-4). If a parachurch ministry ever steps foot inside a local church, they must acquiesce to the authority of the elders in that church.
In our day, parachurch organizations have become more prominent as technology has opened the doors of communication on an immediate and global scale. We live in the age of Christian radio, podcasts, television, blogs, movies…and the list goes on. Celebrity preachers and teachers fill our screens and parachurch organizations are continually vying for your attention and support. It is all too easy for some organizations to side step the authority of local church elders to directly impact people in their pews. We must all respect the God ordained structure of the church even when we think the leadership is wrong. Some parachurch organizations have insisted on their staff being members of local churches so to respect local church authority. This is a great start and this respect for local church authority should also been seen and heard in the rhetoric and actions of parachurch ministries.
Like I said previously, our church does support some parachurch ministries. We think they can be helpful in strengthening and supporting the local church in specialist areas. We support parachurch ministries when they know that they can only ever have a support role. We support them when they hold a high view of the local church as they offer support as an act of love for Christ’s bride. A good example of one parachurch ministry that we support is a bible college in Africa who help to equip potential pastors as they minister the word in local congregations. This bible college even teaches these potential pastors that God’s mission to the world is fulfilled in Christ and spread through the means of local churches seeking to build more local churches. A great biblical example of this is found in Acts 13 and 14. At the beginning of Acts 13, we see a local church in Antioch sending missionaries for the sake of the great commission. At the end of Acts 14 we see that the fulfillment in this mission was found in elders appointed in the local churches that were formed as a result of the original sending from a local church. Clearly, God has given the local church the responsibility for mission that results in more local churches. If he hasn’t, then evangelism and mission may result in a disembodied church. This is never God’s plan.
As you see how the bible holds a very high view of the local church in mission and discipleship, it may be time for you to consider your own view of the local church. If we say we love Jesus, we must passionately love the church (Eph 5:25). We are to see the church through the eyes of God who looks at the church through a beautiful Savior. We understand that the church is messy and this side of heaven it is filled with redeemed sinners. Like it or not, God has given churches the responsibility to uphold Scriptural truth (1 Tim 3:15), maintain holiness (Matthew 18:15-20), and fulfill the great commission by making disciples (Matthew 28:18-21, Acts 13-14). Therefore, this is the way we need to assess that mission and discipleship are the chief domain of the local church. If parachurch seeks to take the reins of evangelism and mission, we must reject it. Sometimes parachurch organizations overstep their boundaries and claim an authority not their own. We must reject it. At the same time, I can be immensely thankful that there are some organizations to help us in areas of expertise we don’t have. We must always remember that God is building his church (Matthew 16:17-19). My confidence remains in a God who is on mission through his people.
We all need to put things in the right perspective. Our main focus for serving God in mission must happen in and through the local church. Therefore, this is the priority for our time, resources and focus. If along the way we want to support another organization helping us in a certain aspect of our mission, great. Let’s keep in mind that the best parachurch organizations are the ones that acknowledge their support role and who show their main aim is one to help and serve the church to fulfill its God given role and responsibility. Let’s keep in mind that local churches send missionaries who go and make disciples, appoint elders, and plant local churches.