A few weeks ago, I spoke at an interdenominational event called the Festival of Young Preachers. It was an event for young adults across the region interested in preaching. It was fascinating to see so many different people from different traditions trying to help younger people catch a vision for what this calling is, and why it matters.
Over the past few years, one of the surprising trends has been watching seminaries across the country slowly start to lose incoming students. What has been even more surprising is that the majority of students who are enrolling aren’t getting their MDiv to serve a local church. They are paying large amounts of tuition (sometimes taking on excess amounts of student debt) to get a seminary degree in order to work at a non-profit ministry or run some kind of parachurch organization.
I think much of this impulse is good. I am glad that people have learned that God is up to more than just within the four walls of our church buildings. But I have a couple of concerns (and after being at the Festival of Young Preachers I realize I am not the only one).
In their book Leap of Faith, Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost make the point that this is really the fruit of something that happened decades earlier. They call it the Great Divorce, but it was the invention of the Parachurch movement. Para just means alongside, or along-with, and so ideally any parachurch is deeply connected with an actual church or body of churches. But over the past few decades, churches have been willing to farm out more and more of what has historically been the Church’s job, and parachurch organizations are maturing, standing on their own, and often becoming entirely indigenous from actual communities of faith.
This isn’t just my observation. A few years ago, Rick Warren was asked why Pastors and Churches were not as influential as they had been in years past.
Here is what he said:
My generation fell in love with the parachurch. My generation and the generation before me built all the great parachurch organizations: Focus on the Family, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Wycliffe, Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, Young Life, Youth for Christ, and so on. The reason why the church doesn’t have greater impact is because the smartest brains and the most money have gone outside the church. If you go to a missions conference at any Christian college, go out and look. There won’t be a single local church organization. It will all be parachurch—100 percent.
That may seem incidental, but I believe it is one of the key reasons why the bench is getting shallower and shallower in local church ministry. We have created a system of missions without churches and churches without missions.
In my experience people of my generation have started to see Church as a parasite of society and not a means of contributing God’s grace to it. Every time I fly, somewhere around cruising altitude my seatmate turns to me and asks something like, “So…what do you do?” When I tell them I am a preacher, it is fascinating to see how different the responses are. Since they are now strapped in a large metal tube next to me for the next hour or two, they have to be polite, but if they are around my age (early 30’s) or below, they almost always ask me the same form of the same question, “Why?”I have actually developed something of an elevator pitch for this question. I normally turn to them and say something like, “I think in the 70’s and 80’s we looked back on our churches and asked ‘How could we have been so racist?’ I think in the 90’s we started looking back and asking ‘How could we have been so patriarchal?’ and today I think we are starting to look back and ask “How could we have been so selfish?’
For far too long churches have invested so much of their resources into their own memberships and institutions, and I believe that churches all over the country and world are starting to wake up to the implications of what we believe.
From a historical perspective, it is good news for the world that Christians believe in Jesus. Christians and churches have been a compelling force for good in the world, we have made huge mistakes and done tragic things (you have one Crusade, and suddenly that’s all that everyone wants to talk about), but Christian history is actually filled with men and women who have served the world well, and made it a better place as a way of service to God.
That’s why I preach.
I think it is interesting that the final words Jesus gives his disciples is not “Go into all the world and make disciples.” The final words Jesus gives us begin with “Stay”.
Stay in Jerusalem, receive the Holy Spirit, then go into all the world and make disciples. In other words, the best ways to make a difference in your city/county/world is to send out different kinds of people into the world.
One of the greatest tragedies of young people not investing their lives in the local church is something we will not see for a few more decades. That is because we are currently drinking from wells that we did not dig.
The people who have started these non-profits or have tried to serve the world in Gospel ways through their business or parachurch organization are primarily people who have been formed in a local church. They have been taught to care about the world in a way that is in line with the nature of God, and adjust their bottom lines and values accordingly. But when we create a culture that is more in love with the fruit than the tree (and by tree I mean Jesus) we eventually lose both.
I believe there is nothing on earth that can replace the local church, in all her forms and nuances, she is a community of diverse people gathering around Jesus. Nothing can replace that.