Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Parachurch" and the Emporer's New Clothes? (A friendly interaction with Steve Timmis)

Oh no not him on that again! I couldn't resist the opportunity to engage the church/parachurch issue again. I'll get off the topic and onto something else tomorrow.
Steve Timmis of The Crowded House, at Resurgence: 

"I know saying this isn’t going to win me any friends, but someone has to tell the king he’s naked. Is it not a quiet madness for churches to largely outsource their discipleship (to parachurch agencies) and training (to theological colleges)? The best context for both discipleship and training is the people of God on mission (a.k.a. church)
Parachurch vs. Local Church
 Take discipleship as a case in point. It’s in the context of church that we are going to learn best what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Parachurch agencies do a lot of good, but they tend to draw people who share a special interest and who want similar things. By contrast, a local church is usually comprised of people from a range of backgrounds, at very different stages of development and with competing interests."

I don't see why we can't talk about a subject like this and win friends... evangelicals should be able to air their questions freely. I have concerns, I have things I agree with..

Any example of church-outsourcing ministry is probably almost as bad as parents outsourcing parenting to youthworkers. Question - what does it mean for a church to take responsibility for something? And who - the leaders, memebers, a label...I'd argue my church 'owns' student mission through CU our students being involved in it, and by resourcing it as a ministry of our church (though not only of our church).

The use of "vs." is precisely the problem. Church is for Christ, parachurch for the Church and thus for Christ. Without that what business does it have existing...whether united campus witness of theological college. There's a missing link to the examples cited - everyone in a theology college or in a Christian Union (for example) is going to be a member of a local church (or should be) - so a great deal of their training and discipleship is going to happen in the local church.

Timmis also overstates both the diversity of churches membership and the lack of the same in parachurch - we all have problems with cloning and conformity, though the single biggest struggle for a "parachurch agency" like the one I work for, isn't how similar we all are but how the heck we hold everyone together when the default is to splinter and separate.

Parachurch enables churches to do more and become more than just the sum of their parts. Training in house is great if you're a big church in a big city, but a whole lot harder if you're not. Partner with other churches in your locality or denomination/network and suddenly you have better training but it's "parachurch".  Someone previously suggested that the Newfrontiers Newday Youth Conference wasn't a kind of parachurch because it was effectively under denominational leadership (apostolic oversight), while I take the point it's a rather narrow/'roman catholic' view of the British church scene...

Instead of parachurch I'd rather speak of Partnerships. This is more involved language - people partner in partnerships. A partnership benefits the members whether through access to central resources or conferences... or through the creation of partner ministries. In Exeter one such partnership is the Exeter Evangelical Partnership of 30 church leaders who in turn together throw their weight behind three partnerships - YMCA, ICE (schoolswork) and UCCF. The gospel drives Christians  towards unity and outwards in mission so it's a supernatural impulse to form partnerships. Such partnerships, far from existing because of failure in the church (as is often said of parachurch), are the fruit of strength in the local church.

Under all of this is something of a false assumption that:"Parachurch = Gospel + Culture - Church" (as Mark Driscoll argues in the outstanding The Radical Reformission, p20 - also excellent I think is Timmis & Chester's Total Church). If that's parachurch then sack it off. But I'm not sure it has to be like that. See parachurch that loves the local church. or the Northern Training Institute of which Timmis is a faculty member. NTI is a reformation of the traditional "Bible College" model, arguably still a parachurch ministry but just a good one - a partnership!

I'm all for safeguarding and upholding the church - amen Steve! The way to do it though isn't to make parachurch the bad guy - the benefits to the church of 'the best of' parachurch ministry are surely endless (granted there is bad parachurch as much as there is bad local church too...). It's good to talk, and friends need to have the freedom to differ. In reality I'm not sure I'm very far away from Steve Timmis on this issue, I guess I just have a vested interest in showing there are some exceptions! And, seriously big respect for Steve Timmis, 18 months ago I met him and heard him give probably the best wedding sermon I've heard. Those crazy Crowded House people love the church which makes them good guys in my book. 

Let's show of the splendour of the bride and her Christ and love both more. Let all ministry, all partnership, be to build the church and to draw attention to the one she is betrothed to in the gospel.