Rick Meigs had a great post a little while back about the false dichotomy we often create between church and parachurch organizations. I have been putting some thoughts about this together for awhile now, but with our responsibilities at our church now moving into college ministry this is becoming a very present reality for us (there are a number of universities in close proximity to our church).

It is a well-worn phrase spoken by many pastors: the church is not a building, it is the people. That is, until their local congregation is challenged by a campus ministry, mission group or some other parachurch organization. Unfortunately, the perception of many pastors is that these organizations are competing with them for finite resources — whether human or financial — and that these groups exist for the benefit of their church.  At best, such a relationship would be characterized by tolerance; at worst, suspicion and/or hostility.  Even the language itself suggests that the local church congregation is the legitimate expression of the body of Christ, while the parachurch is “close” or “near to” it.

When my wife and I sat down with our senior pastor to discuss the future of a college ministry at our church, his underlying attitude was basically that we needed to plug students into a “real” church. Certainly, there are significant benefits for college students to be plugged into a local congregation. There, they can find a diverse, multi-generational community. They can benefit from the wisdom of their elders. They might find a family who will open their home during that Thanksgiving break where they are stuck on campus.

Unfortunately,  many college students find their local church experience lacking.  Maybe the energy or vitality is missing.  Others find that there is no real place for them; they end up in a strange kind of ministry limbo — ready to move out of the kids’ table, but not finding a place at the adults’ table.  Sometimes, they wait so long for “their turn” to lead and serve that their time eventually passes.

I believe in the institutional church.  After all, I am a pastor at one.  I love the idea of being connected across geography and time through our denominational affiliation.  I believe in the accountability structures the institutional church provides.  But I see a pressing need for church ministers to develop  more robust ecclesiology. Viewing parachurch ministries as competition, or as something less than “real” church, only weakens the wider body of Christ.  The picture out there is way too big for any single ministry to fill in all the blanks.

The church has so much to learn from parachurch organizations. I have encountered many people who, after graduating from college, really struggle to find a church community to call home.  In part, this is due to a lack of close-knit community.  I don’t mean that these churches don’t have small group ministries and the like; rather, people actually living in close enough proximity to one another that they could walk over for a visit.  These environments, as Joseph Myers might suggest, create the possibility for genuine, organic relationships to arise naturally.

So many Korean American churches are basically commuter churches.  While many first-generation believers were willing to make a thirty or forty minute drive in order to find the community that they could not find anywhere else, many second-gen believers find that getting together once or twice a week is not enough to build deep, meaningful friendships.  They might have time to get an executive summary of how their friend is doing over donuts during the fellowship hour on Sunday, or time enough to get through the discussion questions during their mid-week small group gathering, but not enough time to cultivate genuine friendships.

In addition to the importance of close-knit community, parachurch ministries can model a sense of adventure or calling to local churches.  All too often, despite what the Sunday bulletin says, the vision of the church is to keep the ship afloat.  How amazing would it be to find a local congregation as passionate about reaching out to the lost, lonely and hurt as many campus ministries are?  What if churches could create a sense of wonder in our gatherings, that life is open-ended and filled with possibilities?  The local church can leverage its assets (e.g., its roots in the community, multi-generational setting, etc.) to set this passion and wonder in the context of the rhythm of everyday life — work, family, etc.

We need each other.  God’s purposes are much too large for any one church, parachurch, ministry or model to fulfill.  As Rick Meigs writes:

…some expressions of the church have a narrow ministry focus (sodality) and others have a broad ministry focus (modality). Each needs the other and each is a part of the whole. We should honor and respect what God is doing through his people regardless of the label we put on it