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Are Institutional Churches and Denominations Really Para-church Organizations?

Posted by thethousandmarch on June 2, 2013 at 5:40 PM

What do I mean by “institutional church”, “para-chruch” and “Church”? There is only one Christian Church and it contains all those who follow Jesus the Christ. The members of Jesus’ Church assemble together for various reasons. We usually call these assembled group churches; we refer to the building in which they meet and the events they organize church. But these communities are properly called congregations and their gathering assemblies. These congregations are not independent entities; they are manifestations of the universal body of believers. Over the past two thousand years of Christian Church history these congregations have come to organize themselves into formal institutions, with legal covenants and contracts. These legal entities are not merely the communities they represent, and though they are meant to represent a community they are entities independent of their communities. These formal organizations are not the Church they are institutional churches. A para-church organization is an organization/institution which exists to come alongside of the Church to help it accomplish some aspect of its mission. A para-church organization is made up of members of the Church, and helps the Church accomplish its work, but though it is closely related to the Church, it is a separate entity. Examples of para-church organizations are Compassion International, World Vision, Youth for Christ, Thru The Bible Radio (with J. Vernon McGee), Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Multnomah University (a Bible college and seminary and my alma-mater).


Once this idea hit me it became clear that the institutions we so commonly call churches and denominations are really just para-church organizations. These organizations were formed by Christians to help the Church fulfill its work. They aid in providing formal/legal structures which provide a practical means of taking care of the administration of a Church communities business – such as owning property; managing funds; entering into contracts with others such as their paid staff; organizing events; and providing services. In the same way that the para-church organizations listed above where formed to help the Church accomplish the tasks of evangelism, service, and education, denominations and institutional churches were formed to help groups of Christians to accomplish similar services.


In all such para-church organizations there is a blurring of the line between the Church and the institution. Those who work for the institutions are commonly members of the Church, but very few members of the Church work for one of these institutions. Many institutional churches have formal memberships, but not all of those who are formal members of an institutional church are members of the Church. A pastor who administers the word and sacrament – an indispensable service of the Church – may do so as the contracted employee of an institution which thus helps facilitate that ministry. But a pastor, evangelist, teacher etc. can certainly serve the Church without being paid for it by an institution. The elders of a Church community may also have a legal role as the board members of an institution – these roles are hardly the same thing. This is because that in para-church organizations, including the institutional church, the institution helps members of the Church do the work of the Church, but not all the work they perform is the work of the Church.


What’s the point of recognizing this distinction; is this just semantics? No, when we confuse these institutions with the Church itself we come to think of the Church as the institution, instead of the body of believers which is the Church. And if we think institutional churches are the Church we will think that it is the role of these institutions to accomplish the mission of the Church, instead of it being the mission of these organizations to help the followers of Christ to accomplish the mission which he has given us all. We will then forsake our responsibilities as members of the Church. Many people have pointed out how we Christians have given up our responsibilities to evangelize, educate and serve to para-church organizations. When we recognize that the institutional church is a para-church organization then we will easily recognize even more ways that we have given up our responsibilities as members of the Church to do the work of the Church to a small group of paid professionals. When we confuse the institution with the Church we give the job of the Church to the institution, and lose the true identity of the Church. No wonder our institutional churches are not missional. Institutions are by nature attractional. And institutions can only at best train their customers to be brand evangelists, not full participants in their mission.


Today with the rise of independent institutional churches we see an even more obvious example of the para-church nature of such institutions; because there is usually a more obvious contrast between the institution and those it serves (This sharp contrast can also be seen in some denominations such as the Roman Catholic church and Eastern Orthodox church). Many churches today are often established, grown and built like a business. They may start as small home based sole proprietorships, or large startups with vast resources, but their strong institutional natures lead to similar results. They function as distinct from the group of consumers they provide goods and services to. In these types of churches, those who do care about furthering the work of the Church are usually made to feel that their only real responsibility is to give money; the institution will take care of the rest.


Institutions, such as businesses, can easily grow stagnant; they can lose sight of their mission; they can then begin to pursue self-interests which are opposed to their original mission; including doing whatever is necessary to maintain the status quo. Institutional churches often outlive their productive life span; they then can easily spend all their energy attempting to maintain their existence – which is more about the survival of a legal entity and the property it owns. The Church survives the institution. In these circumstances the mission of the Church would be better served by the transfer of resource from one institution to another, but institution aren’t usually very good at sharing.


All this is not to say that para-church organizations don’t serve a valid purpose. Institutions are not bad by nature. In their proper place, recognized for what they are they serve a purpose which is helpful, and sometimes necessary – but we must recognize them for what they are.


Categories: Being Missional , The Emerging Church , Business