Missions and churches
Missions is not simply evangelism; it necessarily entails planting local churches. Consider: in every city where Paul preached, he established local congregations of believers. The New Testament, as has often been pointed out, does not know of “lone wolf” believers; its authors simply assumed that all believers are parts of local congregations. Nearly all of the New Testament letters are written to churches; those that are written to individuals are nonetheless written to individuals deeply embedded in the affairs of local churches.
When we consider the task of modern missions, then, it is clear that we should not just focus on evangelizing. We must also see to the second task: building healthy churches. I praise God that the last several decades have included a clear acknowledgement that we cannot simply lead people to Christ and then leave them. We are called to a much more thorough process of disciple-making, in which we lead people after Christ not simply in a single moment but for their whole lives. We have not always recognized, however, that this task cannot be sensibly accomplished outside the context of local churches.
The last few centuries saw an explosion of missionary zeal in the United States (following in the footsteps of earlier missions movement such as those pioneered by the Moravians and many English missions). These were largely church-planting movements. Men such as William Carey and Hudson Taylor went to other nations preaching the gospel, and then building up the churches that sprang up from the Spirit’s work. This was as it should be.
Another need, another solution
In the 20th century, responding to a perceived lack of evangelistic ministry and training on college campuses, a number of parachurch organizations sprung up in the United States, including the Navigators, Young Life and Campus Crusade (now named Cru). These ministries aimed to lead people to Christ and help them commit to basic spiritual disciplines, from prayer to memorizing Scripture. They generally understood their role to be one of reaching and equipping young men and women to serve in their local churches.
Broadly speaking, I think these sorts of ministries can be and have been enormously beneficial as long as they keep their priorities straight. As a dear friend on staff with InterVarsity commented, parachurch ministries are fantastic, as long as they remember they are bridesmaids, whose only job is to make the bride – the church – look good. As soon as they try to be the center of attention, everything turns into a giant mess. (I have written at greater length on the relationship between churches and parachurch organizations elsewhere, if you’re interested.)
As noted, these organizations initially focused on spiritual training for young adults. Over time, however, their ministries broadened. Cru, for example, now has ministries ranging from college campuses to marriage conferences (Family Life) and long-term missionaries embedded in other cultures. Many of these newer ministries are fantastic – things that churches would be hard pressed to accomplish, and potentially very beneficial to local churches. When Cru or any other interdenominational parachurch ministry heads into unchurched areas and starts doing missions work, though, I see trouble brewing.
These organizations’ greatest strength in churched contexts is also their greatest weakness in unchurched contexts: they are interdenominational entities supported by a variety of churches and denominations. In a place with many churches this allows them to support and partner with existing communities of believers and fulfill their primary function of making the Bride look good. In unchurched contexts, however, this is a permanent liability.
What sort of church, exactly?
Again: the task of missions goes beyond evangelism; it also entails planting churches. Believers are not meant to be converted and then exist in some nebulous post-conversion state in which they perhaps know a few other believers but do not have a church. We desperately need the commitment, leadership and community uniquely available in a local church, with its elders and deacons and a congregation that meets together regularly. Local forms of church may look very different, but that we meet in churches is a fixed expectation from Scripture.
And exactly what sort of church would Cru, for example, plant? Its staff and its supporters hail from nearly every conservative Christian denomination conceivable. Its long-term workers are not and cannot be empowered to plant churches, because any church they planted would be a source of strife or conflict with of their donors. When your organization is supported spiritually and financially by Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Bible churches, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and right on down the list, it is impossible to plant a church. Too many distinctives have to be decided up front, from leadership structure to practice of the ordinances (and even whether they are ordinances or sacraments).
So while Cru and other parachurch organizations’ long-term embedded missions seem like a good idea at first blush – after all, who would say that spreading the gospel to all nations is bad? – on closer examination, I think they’re a recipe for trouble. What converts they do make (and praise God that they are leading people to Christ in places where He is not known!) will be left adrift in one of the most important ways. Yes, they can receive some discipleship from parachurch ministers, and yes, they may potentially find some community with other believers converted the same way. But they will not have the one thing they need most: ecclesia, a church, a spiritual home.
Don’t stop doing missions; do them smarter.
Good intentions are not enough. I pray that parachurch organizations, with their clear love for Christ and passion for the gospel, will reconsider how best to use their resources in spreading the gospel where it is not known. Make no mistake, these ministries can make a difference with unreached people group. However, to be most effective, it will not be parachurch ministers on the ground. It will be with spiritual, emotional, material and logistical support for church-planting (whether denominational or not) missionaries on the ground.
Many missionaries could use this kind of support badly. While missionaries from denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention have backing from large missions agencies like the International Missions Board, many others are sent from individual churches; they raise their own support and rely on what resources are freely or inexpensively available to them. Many of them labor without the backup that parachurch ministries may be perfectly poised to provide, if only they recognized how vastly more effectively this approach would be in advancing the gospel.
Believers need churches, so missions must always include planting churches. Interdenominational parachurch ministries cannot plant churches. But they can support the men and women are able to plant churches. May God lead these ministries to refocus their efforts, and may he bless their work richly!