Living in tension: church and parachurch
by John Hall
Churches and parachurch (mission) agencies often experience tension around their relationships. Thankfully, for most of us, this has remained an organization level issue and doesn’t trickle down to people in the pew. And even though it’s not readily noticeable, it’s important that each of us consider this tension and participate in the conversation on ways forward that are best for the body of Christ as a whole.
Church, parachurch debate
Lost in the fog of history is the public debate between churches and mission agencies on the right of agencies to exist. This debate, very serious and sometimes heated, persisted from the 1960s to the 1990s. John Pellowe, in The Church at Work, writes, “Even pastors who approved of independent agencies differed on whether they are short-term solutions only until churches take up their full mandate, or are long-term vehicles for Christian service.” The impact of this debate is still felt today. At its worst, it can become a patron/client relationship between the church and agency, or the flip side, a parachurch organization that thinks it can fulfill its mission without the church. At its best, the result has been a renewed commitment of agencies and churches to work in partnership for the glory of God.
Participating in Christ’s mission
For most of us, this debate is moot. We can heartily affirm that all Christians participate in Christ’s mission and have a role to play in building the Kingdom. On the ground, though, particularly in Canada (a traditional missionary-sending nation), the relationship between church and agency bears the tension of the earlier debate and is further complicated by the rise of the missional church movement which began in the 1990s.
The missional church movement built on the work of Leslie Newbigin and was a practical response to the desire to embody a vision of holistic mission. Todd Billings, in his article What Makes a Church Missional? says that “the decline of Christendom provided the church an opportunity… to rediscover its identity as a people sent by God into the world as gospel witnesses.” (Christianity Today). Many of the missional churches in the movement directed their energy to their neighbourhood. Undoubtedly, the missional church movement has been a gift to the church at large, but-as with most good things-there are often unexpected adverse consequences.
The story of short-term missions can be instructive because more and more churches seem to be taking the lead in organizing their own short-term trips independent of mission agencies. This is a shift that may be inspired, in part, by the sentiments found in the missional church movement. At the time the Mission Handbook came out, it was estimated that there were “sixty times as many mission trip participants as long-term missionaries.” What is notable is that the bulk of the trips were being organized by churches.
The missional church movement may have contributed to the rise of church-led short-term trips (though certainly not the only factor) because of the increase in confidence that churches developed as part of reaching out to their neighbourhoods. This do-it-yourself impulse has spilled over to long-term global projects and partnerships as well. For instance, in the recent multi-part survey on mission by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, it’s clear that the church values mission but the way we participate is changing. Long-term mission-sending agencies are feeling this most profoundly with declines in long-term workers (Mission Handbook).
On the one hand, it’s wonderful to see an increase of a missional vision in the church. The missional church approach bypasses the often difficult relationship between churches and agencies. On the other hand, churches open themselves up to all the challenges that mission agencies have already navigated. What if a thoughtful model of relationship between churches and agencies is not developed? What do we lose or gain?
Fragmentation: We live busy lives and our attention is divided. In many ways, even Christians reject a metanarrative that can pull all the strands of our lives together. Sadly, at an individual level, Christians find it hard to deal with the “fragmentation of attention” which now “threatens religious engagement,” resulting in fewer people with a sustained interest and engagement with mission organizations (EFC Long-Term Mission Report, p25). Churches often try to counteract fragmentation by creating a few “authorized” partnerships, but that can run the risk of leaving segments of the church missionally unengaged, if they don’t feel called to those specific areas. Agencies, for their part, try to counteract fragmentation through greater collaboration and cross-referencing. We desperately need platforms that can provide non-threatening opportunities for church/agency engagement so that everyone can find their place in Christ’s mission.
Unity: Related to the issue of fragmentation, unity is under pressure. If there is indeed a shift to our immediate neighbourhood, our immediate family, our immediate friends to counteract the impact of fragmentation, then how can we cultivate a sense of being part of a bigger whole? Pellowe notes that “agencies… are widely acknowledged as providing the impetus for unity within Protestantism by providing the only means by which members of different denominations could work together.” What will the loss be to the church if mission agencies disappear?
Specialization: This has a place in the creation story of every agency. Historically, long-term missionaries (>4 years) are the ones who were most likely to go to the least-reached people, stay long enough to develop relationships, and have language skill and cultural intelligence to make a lasting impact. Once again, the EFC reports on mission provide some insight: “On the one hand, respondents support the following position: ‘Most respondents believed the Great Commission is a personal responsibility and a local church responsibility; however, they also tended to believe local congregations did not have the capacity to carry out this responsibility.” (EFC Long-Term Mission Report, p25). One pastor said, “Well, I think for the average church it’s really hard to think through: the exit strategies, insurance, what does accountability look like … (what about) transportation, fundraising, accountability for the finances coming in and all that kind of stuff.” (EFC Long-Term Mission Report, p25)
These three issues highlight some of the challenges that surround the relationships between churches and para-church organizations. Finding a way to develop healthy relationships is imperative for the whole church if we want to participate effectively in Christ’s mission and keep our witness intact. At the end of June many Canadian mission agencies gathered in Toronto to discuss the future of mission in Canada. Our August article will explore the outcomes of this historic meeting.