Generally speaking, what we refer to as “the church” is an organization with a paid and volunteer leadership who develop and direct programs in which the members of the organization participate in a particular place or building. (Notice that this definition includes churches of all sizes, from the small, rural church with one bi-vocational pastor to the urban or suburban mega-church with a staff of hundreds.) But biblically speaking, the church is the body of Christ, the people, the organism that lives and moves and has its being within the structure provided by the organization.
Think about it. What do you and I call the place to which we travel for worship on Sundays? Have you ever said something like, “Our church is having VBS this week” or “When is the church going to replace those old choir robes with new ones?” or “Have you been tithing to the church?” or “There sure are a lot of churches in this part of town.” True, we could be referring to the group of people who are members of our local body, but it seems all too easy to slip into the mindset that the organization is the church and not the people.
If the people of the church (the organism) are really the church, then the organization of the church as I have defined it is really a parachurch organization. Para- means “alongside” and parachurch is a term that has been given to groups and organizations who “come alongside” the church to aid her in her mission. We typically think of groups like Young Life, Chirstian schools and seminaries, and mission boards as parachurch organizations because they do not claim to be churches, but rather servants of local churches and of the Church at large.
So then, the organization with a paid and volunteer leadership who develop and direct programs in which the members of the organization participate in a particular place or building is really a parachurch organization. The structure that has developed in order to organize the life and activity of the organism is meant to come alongside the people to equip and encourage them to be the church. When we rightly define the people as the church, then it becomes clear that the organization that we commonly call “the church” is really parachurch.
This is an important disctinction to make because as I just mentioned, the purpose of the church organization is to serve the organism. However, all too often we pastors and church leaders treat the organism (the people) as if they exist to serve the organization (leaders and programs).
Why do we feel the need to pressure people to give or give more? Because if they don’t give, the organization will not survive and our staff, missionaries, and bills won’t get paid. Why do we so easily become numbers-centered and spend so much time and energy figuring out ways to get more people in the pews? Because if they don’t come our programs won’t run, our paid and volunteer staff will have nothing to do, and people will go to other “churches” whose programs “meet their needs.” When the organization begins to depend on the organism to prop up or perpetuate itself, the church (the body, the organism) is in danger of being devoured. What might have begun as a church organism being served by its church organization quickly and subtly becomes a group of people who exist to serve the organization.
I’ll give two examples of this organization-devouring-the-organism phenomenon: one broad-brushed and one in which I am the guilty party.
- When church growth experts tell us that we must build and maintain “excellent” programs for youth and children because that will attract and keep their parents, I believe we are in danger of sacrificing our children on the altar of church growth. We’re using children to get something we really want…their parents in our pews. That’s the organism serving the organization.
- A personal example: When I was a Middle School Youth Pastor in a large suburban church, I asked a certain couple to join our volunteer team of leaders in the middle school ministry. I wanted them on board because of their love for Jesus and for people. They said no, and in so many words explained that if they joined our team of volunteers they wouldn’t have time to lead the weekly Bible study that they had at their home with friends of their middle school son. Yikes! It hit me hard. I was asking them to give up THEIR ministry to teenagers in their own sphere of influence so that they could serve in MY ministry to teenagers. I was asking the organism to serve the organization. What I should have done was ask them how I could help equip and resource them for the ministry that God had given them in their own neighborhood.
I have much to learn and unlearn. These thoughts are in process, not completely settled. I am not saying that the organization is bad or unnecessary, indeed it is necessary and good, but I’ll save that thought for another post. However, I am more and more convinced that Jesus has called the organization to serve the organism and that I have spent most of the last 20 years operating the other way. The question becomes: how can the organization of our churches do a better job of coming alongside our people to equip them to do the work of their ministry? Are we willing to sacrifice the perpetuation of our organization in order to better serve the people, the church for whom Jesus sacrificed Himself?
What are your thoughts?