A conference championship was at stake on this chilly December afternoon as these two top teams squared off to see who would advance to a major bowl on New Years Day in front of a national TV audience. Seventy thousand rabid fans crammed into the stadium, a neutral site allowing supporters from both teams to attend. It was a hard fought battle with the outcome determined on the last play of the game. Being two points behind, and with a last ditch pass from midfield, the quarterback launched a long spiral toward the end zone. As time expired on the clock, both the receiver and defender leaped high to grab the ball, but instead, they smashed into each other and fell, along with the ball, to the turf. A split second later a yellow flag was pulled from the referees pocket and thrown high into the air indicating pass interference.
Time seemed totally suspended as the screaming fans waited to see which team was being called for the penalty; the answer surely producing the conference champion. At that precise moment a shocking phenomena took place that defies any mathematicians’ law of averages. One whole side of the stadium, along with the players, coaches, even cheerleaders all were yelling “offensive interference!” Amazingly, the other 35,000 fans on the opposing side of the stadium, along with their players, coaches, and cheerleaders were wildly chanting “defensive interference!” What an unbelievable coincidence! The odds must be 100 trillion to one that every single individual on one side of the stadium would interpret the play one way, while each and every person on the other half would interpret it exactly the opposite. Incredible!
Not so incredible, you might be thinking, because you and I have both been at athletic events where we find ourselves either cheering or booing the referee, dependent upon whether the call was made for or against our beloved team. If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that our mind was made up in advance of the game, predestining ourselves to applaud when something good happens to our squad, and protesting when a call goes against us. The reason? Before the contest even begins, we have chosen our allegiance, affixed our lens, and view every occurrence throughout the game based upon that bias.
The Games People Play
The only thing that raises our blood pressure to new heights of irrationality more than sports is theology! Whether it’s the divorce and remarriage issue, charismatic gifts, or stewardship, we tend to defend our position on many controversial doctrines based upon our upbringing and particular experiences rather than an objective, clear headed, inductive study of the Scriptures. Especially among believers who are in full time ministry, no topic seems to stir the emotions more than the church-para church discussion. And let’s admit it, if we have spent our years primarily ministering through a local church, that’s going to be the lens we have affixed to our perspective. Or if our spiritual growth or training mainly came through a para-church ministry, that determines the starting point (i.e. bias) for our evaluation.
So, if that stadium represented the Body of Christ and was now filled with Christians, what would we have? On one side the Pastors, Elders and Deacons might be yelling, “The church is God’s chosen instrument! He has given His authority to us! Christ died for the church, not the para-church! Your time, talent, and treasure needs to be given here, and no where else! Tell the para-church people to quit stealing money and people from our congregation! Now, back off!”
The other half of this stadium is full of para-church workers and participants pointing across the field and fervently shouting, “You’ve had your chance and blown it! We’re tired of your mediocrity and bickering! We’re the truly committed believers, you guys are just playing church! If this Great Commission is going to get accomplished, it will be because we gathered the resources and gumption to get it down! Now, back off!”
While both groups are busy trying to defend their position and criticize the other, the world is going to hell by the truckload. Every ten seconds, 23 people pass into eternity and an estimated 19 of those into a Christ-less eternity. While wasting time and effort spouting forth our petty prejudices and insecurities, a broken hearted God weeps, waiting for His children to quit attacking one another and turn our God given resources toward defeating the real enemy─Satan.
You may think I’m a spiritual schizophrenic when you hear my story. Growing up in a huge denominational church, I was later led to Christ by a para-church worker and was involved in both during college. I attended the largest denominational seminary in the world, as well as the largest non-denominational one. I’ve been a pastor of a denominational church, a founder of three para-church ministries, elder of a non-denominational church, trained and spoken to hundreds of different church and para-church groups, and to top it all off, I completed a doctorate in Church and Para-Church Executive Leadership several years ago! After all this, you want to know my conclusion? We’re all in this together! We think there are two sides to this fence, when in fact─there is NO fence!
God: A Computer Geek?
I believe the Lord is grieved by how we Christians have divided ourselves up into thousands of little categories, splitting and re-forming─many times over some of the most asinine reasons. How does God keep it all straight? He must have the latest and greatest Pentium computer to be able to track all the ever-changing, ever-growing branches and flavors of church and para-church groups. Working around the clock, cutting and pasting, I can hear Him exclaim, “O.K., this is a Bible Study here. That’s a new Community Group there. Oops, they’re calling themselves a Local Church now. Let’s see, that meeting there is just a Para-Church organization. Oh no, this is confusing. Now they say they want to plant churches! And what file am I supposed to put these denominational seminaries and student centers in?”
God does not divide the world up into rich and poor, black and white, democrat and republican or even church and para-church! No, in reality there are only two groups: those who are part of God’s family and those who are not. His energies are directed toward mobilizing His children to reach out to those are not yet part of His family. All other divisions are man made. You can parse your Bible all you want, but trying to drive a wedge in the Body of Christ by creating (and then disdaining) terms like “para-church” is thwarting the unity that God commands us to seek in Ephesians 4:
v. 2, 3: “With all humility and gentleness, showing patience and forebearance to one another in love, be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
v. 4, 5: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”
Then Paul tells us that all believers have been given spiritual gifts for a reason:
v. 12, 13a: “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the Body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith…”
To pit “church” and “para-church” against one another is a mistake. We are all part of His Church. There are countless little c’s (local churches) around the world and myriads of little pc’s (para-church ministries) that make up the one Big C (The Church). There’s no class A and class B Christians. Some think that God had a “Plan A” where He preferred to reach the world through the local church, but somehow they couldn’t get it done, so He had to resort to “Plan B”, bringing in the para-church ministries to fill in and finish the job. That view does not depict the sovereign, all powerful God I know, who set forth His decrees before the foundation of the world, and is carrying them out with absolute precision!
There’s Nothing New Under the Sun
Lest you think I’m oversimplifying the situation or trying to cover it up with sappy sports stories or computer lingo, let’s look at a couple of examples from the Scriptures. Some of these thoughts are taken from missionary and author Dr. Ralph Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, who deftly demonstrates how the Bible teaches us there are two structures of God’s redemptive mission here on earth, not just one, and that both of them borrowed heavily from their predecessors…
Jesus focused on function rather than form during His earthly ministry. As the apostles and first believers (who were almost all Jewish) struggled to create a form (i.e. modalilty) to launch and develop the Christian movement they knew of only one religious structure: the Jewish synagogue. Even the greek word for “church” is ekklesia, which was used many times to describe a non- Christian gathering or meeting (Acts 19:32,39,41; 7:38; Psalms 22:22). The apostles borrowed this concept and began to start “Christian synagogues” or meetings where new believers, be they Jew or Gentile, could be built up in the faith.
In Acts 2:41-47, they experienced a rude awakening at Pentecost, when after 3,000 responded to the gospel, they were forced to create some structure real fast. This instant crowd of 3,000 baby Christians were in immediate need of baptism, teaching, fellowship, prayer, not to mention room and board! The befuddled Apostles grabbed and tweaked the only model they knew to create tracks to run on─the Jewish synagogue!
These permanent bases of ministry were essential to nourish and strengthen all believers and were led by generalists, who could help direct and develop all aspects of the local effort. Later, in the Pastoral Epistles, Paul provided a number of guidelines how these local congregations were to operate.
Jesus and the apostles were fully aware that the Jews not only had stationary bases of operations, called synagogues, but also mobile teams of Jewish evangelists whose job it was to expand the movement. Jesus described in Matthew 23:15 how they would “travel around on sea and land to make a single proselyte.” Later, in Acts 15:21, Peter acknowledged that “Moses is preached in every city.”
These sodalities (i.e. organized societies) provided the model Paul drew from as he created his traveling missionary band in Acts 13. After the church at Antioch laid hands on he and Barnabus, they were “sent out by the Holy Spirit.” There was no mission board, policy manual, or weekly report to send in. They simply went from town to town, preaching the gospel, forming fellowships, selecting leadership, and recruiting workers. In other words, it was on the job training and they were figuring it out─as they went!
These more temporary efforts were mobile and pioneering in nature, going where the local churches could not, and were led by specialists─individuals who had a very unique calling, gifting, or ministry target. An example: Paul’s traveling team of missionaries was made up of seven men from four different locations, banding together to establish believing communities in unreached areas (Acts 20:4).
Just as the Apostles took their cues from the Jews, the Catholics, in subsequent centuries, tore a page from the Apostle’s playbook when creating their dioceses (modalities) to minister locally, and monasteries (sodalities) to extend the movement where it had not yet gone. Today, the Protestants have developed the concepts even more by producing a variety of effective local church styles, while continuing to produce new, more specific para-church ministries, pioneering the gospel in increasingly strategic ways.
Let’s Just Be Friends
My plea is that we work together as friends, not foes. Let’s create synergy by discovering and playing to each other’s strengths. We could do away with an incredible amount of duplication and “recreating the wheel” if we would lay down our pride and cooperate, seeking to draw the best from existing churches and para-churches out there. There’s no need to compete or compare. The local churches should seek to appreciate, support, and facilitate the work of para-church ministries in their area and around the world. Para-church ministries ought not to operate in a vacuum, but be linking their new converts to good local churches, where they can have a healthy, long term source of spiritual nourishment for them and their families.
The Lord of the Universe has called all believers to team up to complete His purposes on earth. Instead of squabbling over how it should be done (or what we are going to call it), our lives and resources should be aimed at accomplishing what is on the heart of God: giving every person on the planet an opportunity to join His family and forever bring praise and honor to His name. That’s something we can all unite around!
Here’s the bottom line. God gives us functions to fulfill, not forms to follow. One Western missionary, who was trying to figure out how to bring the gospel into a completely different culture, explained it this way: “We are seeking dynamic equivalence, not formal replication.” In other words, Jesus has given us marching orders to lead people to Christ, establish them in the faith, equip and send out workers to repeat that process around the world. Let’s find the best way to do just that in every nation, tribe, and tongue, not becoming slaves to traditional forms if they squeeze out the vital functions the Lord want us to carry out.
I believe God is not that concerned whether we call the form a church, simple church, para-church, cell group, or Bible study. He has a single over riding objective, “I will build My Church (big C!) and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” He didn’t come to take sides─He came to take over! The challenge will be to get our eyes off of building our little kingdoms and to give ourselves completely to extending and expanding His Kingdom here on earth. Know for sure that there is no limit to what a man can do if He doesn’t care who gets the credit.*
*I don’t know who first came up with this last statement, but I know it wasn’t me!
“The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission”—an article by Dr. Ralph Winter in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, published by William Carey Library, 1999
“The Local Church: Failure, Foe, or Friend in the Great Commission?”—a brochure written by Paul Borthwick for Caleb Project (go to www.takeitglobal.org)
Church and Para Church: An Uneasy Marriage by Jerry White, Published by Multnomah Press, 1983