Like Families and Soccer Teams: Church and Parachurch

Editors’ note: 

An earlier version of this article appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of the 9Marks Journal, “Church and Parachurch: Friends or Foes?”

“I give and give all week. I just want to come to church to be ministered to and fed.” Perhaps you’ve heard a friend who works in a parachurch ministry say something like this.

Perhaps you’ve said it yourself. Those who work for a parachurch ministry, like me, are often inclined to believe that their (Christian) vocation exempts them from meaningful involvement in a church. We must resist this temptation.

If you work for a parachurch, let me persuade you that your work doesn’t replace meaningful membership in a local body. If you have a friend who works for a parachurch yet remains uncommitted to a church, use what follows to encourage him or her.

The gospel is the good news that sinners like us can be reconciled to God through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (Eph. 2:1-10). Being reconciled to God also means we’re reconciled to God’s people (Eph. 2:11-22). Becoming a Christian means being adopted into God’s family, and joining a local church is like showing up at the family dinner table.

Working for a parachurch ministry, on the other hand, is more like playing for a soccer team. Team members are selected, and then they gather to play soccer. They don’t gather to receive math tutoring, to brush their teeth, or to care for the elderly. They gather for one purpose and for a limited season: to play soccer.

But a family is different. It’s broader and deeper. Whether you’re adopted or born into one, your family is responsible for your entire nurture, growth, and education. Your family is the group of people you live with and learn to love. The relationships are permanent and all-defining. Though you might be disappointed if your soccer league dissolved, you’d be devastated if your family disappeared.

10 Reasons Parachurch Staff Should Be Active Church Members

With this comparison in mind, let me offer several reasons why parachurch staff should be deeply invested members of churches.

1. I’m guessing your organization’s leadership requires or expects you to formally associate with a local congregation after beginning your assignment. At least they should.

2. Church membership allows you to cast vision among your fellow members for how the gospel is at work in the world through your ministry. You have opportunities to see what others can’t because you get a firsthand look at your organization’s strategic mission efforts or large-scale projects. You can uniquely refresh or encourage your congregation through updates on how the gospel is advancing outside their immediate area.

3. Church membership allows you to invite members of your local body to participate in your work and be strengthened by it. It enables you to invite others to join in the work of your ministry. Other church members can pray, give, help strategize, or volunteer to help you in your work.

4. Your robust involvement in a church will model Christian love and maturity to those to whom you’re ministering in your parachurch work. Especially if you’re involved in an evangelistic ministry of which new converts constitute a large part, your formal commitment to the local church will serve as a model to these young Christians. They are watching you.

5. Church membership offers accountability and a corrective to parachurch groupthink. One of my colleagues believes that parachurch staff need the accountability of a church even more than typical church members do, since we often have greater opportunities for gospel influence. We need a congregation to provide both formative input and gentle, corrective words.

6. Church membership offers continuity and stability for the Christian life. The constancy of a church’s fellowship might be God’s enabling grace for you to minister long-term at your particular assignment or location. Furthermore, on whom will you lean should you need to leave your parachurch ministry or need counsel when it hits a crisis?

7. You can bless a smaller congregation. Smaller churches often don’t have access to lots of resources or opportunities. Through your work in the parachurch ministry, you might have developed operational skills, discipleship material, evangelism training, communication experience, or overseas partnerships that your pastor would love to see threaded into the congregation’s ministry.

8. You will cultivate love in its many forms and expressions. Your work may focus on HIV, malnourished orphans, teens contemplating abortion, or a Bible translation for pygmies in Southeast Asia. Even so, remember that God has sovereignly placed you in a church family with men and women from a broad cross-section of life, who, though at times may seem mundane, no less urgently need your care and love.

9. Church membership might even allow you to cultivate your support base. Submitting your life to a church allows people to know you and trust you, and, I hope, to make you trustworthy. In other words, Christians should be able to give their money to people they know and trust, and your formal commitment to a church allows this to happen.

10. You will experience the ordinances as Scripture intends. With the exception of missionary contexts in which no church exists (as in Acts 8), Scripture always places the practice of the ordinances in the setting of the local church. The Lord’s Supper and baptism should be practiced among a community of believers who have covenanted together under the preached Word and discipline. In some ways, this point is the culmination of the others above. We should share the bread and cup of communion with those who are alike and different from us—-those whom God has brought together—-so that we might corporately declare his death until he comes again (1 Cor. 11:17-34). Communion among affinity groups can cloud the universal and inclusive nature of the gospel.