Monthly Archives: September 2008
Well, today I am worn out and sick, so it hasn’t exactly been a productive time. I’m struggling to do anything that requires sustained, coherent thought. Fortunately, The Book of Happiness requires neither sustained nor coherent thought.
So, without further ado, I present the highly motivating Meditation 10: “Hope.”
For the fourth and final part of our series on the roles of the local church and parachurch on a college campus, my goal is to address our need to respond to the biblical emphasis on local church ministry. I’ll keep it short, so if you have any other thoughts, feel free to leave a comment.
- For local churches, outreach to nearby campuses should be a higher priority. Don’t be passive about it! Investigate ways to make your church more “college-friendly,” such as offering rides to campus or having church families “adopt” college students. Also, be sure to educate the young people in your church before they head off to college…not only through teaching, but by expecting participation in the life of the church and encouraging relationships with adults.
- For parachurch organizations, local church involvement needs to be emphasized. The goal of your organization should be to funnel students into a local church. If your students are leaving you in favor of deeper church involvement, that’s a good thing. Encourage it.
- Students should make local church involvement a priority. It should rank as a higher priority than parachurch involvement. If you’re heavily involved in Cru but your only involvement in church is to show up on Sundays, you’ve got it upside down. Reverse your priorities and start obeying God. (Caveat: if there are no solid, Bible-preaching, gospel-centered local churches, I’d rather have you be heavily involved in a parachurch organization that is grounded in truth.)
A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have been so bold as to encourage students to leave parachurch ministries in favor of a local church. I would have thought of the two merely as different options among a smorgasbord of perfectly good alternatives. But as time goes on, and as I study scriptures to see the church in action, and then see the effect my church has on me, I feel more and more comfortable saying that every student needs a church—not just a place to show up on Sunday, but a place to grow one’s roots deep. The church is the bride; the parachurch is the bridesmaid. We don’t go to weddings to marvel at the bridesmaids but to focus on the bride. So let’s make sure that we’re not neglecting the local churches that Jesus Christ came to establish.
In Part 1, we took a look at the biblical relationship between the local church and parachurch ministries and concluded that the parachurch exists to plant and edify local churches. In Part 2, we turned our attention to campus parachurch organizations and asked whether they were fulfilling their biblical role; unfortunately, it turns out that the roles of church and parachurch on campus have been blurred.
At this point, I’d like to take a little detour and talk about a couple of related issues. The first is the presence of campus churches—churches that are planted on campus that cater exclusively to college students. The second is the lack of local church presence on Christian college campuses.
So, first things first. What about campus churches? Well, it’s pretty obvious why they exist. They’re formed on the theory that college students hate the inconvenience of traveling off-campus to go to church, and that they’re more keen on spending time with other college students rather than with older people who aren’t singing the latest music or teaching things that are relevant to a student’s life. My freshman year of college, I talked with a friend about how I enjoyed being a part of a church with people from a variety of ages and backgrounds; I liked getting out of the “campus bubble.” He replied that he liked the “bubble” and that was why he attended a campus church. He would rather spend all of his time around his peers than around older, more mature believers. He was less comfortable around them, and a church like mine would have inconvenienced him. I’ll go right out and say that I’m not a fan of campus churches because they do such a good job of isolating students from the depth of a local church comprised of people from all stages of life.
As for Christian colleges, you could simply read Part 2 and then magnify the problem by a factor of 10. Christian colleges are themselves parachurch organizations, and they almost totally supplant local churches in the way that they minister to students. The vast majority of Christian college students find their preaching in chapel and their fellowship in their dorms. Other than a clock-in/clock-out attendance on Sunday mornings, they aren’t really a part of one of the surrounding local churches.
It all boils down to convenience. In a convenience-driven culture, the local church doesn’t fit into the college mindset very well. We must learn to value, to appreciate, to love the local church.
Yesterday, I compared the relationship between the local church and the parachurch to the relationship between a bride and her bridesmaids. A wedding is not about the bridesmaid; rather, she works to show off the beauty of the bride (or else the wedding gets really awkward). Similarly, parachurch organizations, if they follow the biblical pattern, exist to plant and edify local churches; they do not exist in a vacuum.
So is this taking place on college campuses throughout the United States? I’m afraid to say that it isn’t. Parachurch organizations such as The Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship do the work of discipleship, holding Bible studies and large group events (some of higher quality than others). In a sense, they do serve local churches indirectly by training students to follow Christ—students who, hopefully, will participate in churches after college.
But those last two words are key: after college. In the meantime, while in college, students involved in these organizations rarely show more than a minimal commitment to local churches. Most of them show up only on Sunday mornings and leave immediately afterward, disappearing until next week’s service. Some bounce around from church to church, looking for a killer preacher or worship leader to make their Sunday mornings worthwhile. Some don’t even bother coming at all, failing to see the point of attending a church in which they don’t know anybody and in which they receive little discipleship.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. For too long, local churches have done a poor job of explaining to their youth and to college students what the church is all about. From junior through senior high, the youth tend to be quarantined into youth groups, isolated from older men and women in the church who can mentor them; they are not expected to participate seriously in the life of the rest of the church. Furthermore, churches near college campuses often “hand off” the discipleship of students to parachurch ministries. It’s tough to come down hard on them because it is difficult to reach out to students in a college environment. Why not leave it to the experts?
Parachurch organizations have stepped in where the church has failed. And praise God for using them to bring many students to Christ and develop many young believers! Yet their very philosophy of ministry prevents students from participating in a local church. Their Bible studies replace those of the church; students are expected to develop close relationships with their peers rather than people in the church they attend. Lacking time to do both, they pick the convenience that the parachurch offers. They end up spending their entire time in college with practically no commitment to a local church and no sense of participation in a local body of believers. Many well-intentioned students are simply unable to use their spiritual gifts to build up the church as they are commanded.
When it comes to the commandments of scripture, most students are ignorant of what they are called to do. In part 1, we saw that believers are expected to be involved in a local congregation. Most college students do not follow this expectation. They approach the decision between local church and parachurch as simply a consumerist decision—which one does a better job meeting my wants and (perceived) needs? Which will make me feel more comfortable? Which is the easiest and most convenient for me? Of course, most local churches can’t hold a candle to parachurch organizations in these areas.
Sadly, so many college students miss out on the beauty of the church. The parachurch organizations to which they have committed themselves don’t baptize their members. They don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper. They aren’t led by elders and deacons. They don’t practice church discipline. They lack the diversity in age and experience that a church should have. They cannot replace the church, nor should they try.
So how should local churches, parachurch organizations, and individual students respond? Well…I’ll give my thoughts on that in a couple of days. But tomorrow, I’d like to take a brief excursus and discuss how this relates to Christian colleges and to campus churches which consist of students only.
Yesterday, I traveled across the state to attend a wedding of a friend from college. I think weddings are really interesting. For example, I find the custom of bridesmaids and groomsmen to be fascinating. I always wonder how the bride and groom decide how many there will be and who they will be. Family? Friends? A dash of each? In the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Bridesmaids and groomsmen are not what the wedding’s about; the bride and groom are the center of attention. In fact, the maid of honor and best man are really the only members of the bridal party who do anything. The maid of honor makes sure the bride’s dress is looking its best, while the best man holds onto the rings for the groom. They exist only to serve the bride and groom.
So why bring this up? Well, I think it’s a good analogy to the relationship between local churches and parachurch organizations (which are institutions existing alongside the local church, such as missions agencies and campus student organizations). Though both are necessary to the advancement of the kingdom of God, their roles are distinct from one another. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of biblically-modeled thinking in this area among Christians. I’ll admit that the issue never even occurred to me until a few years ago, and even today I’m still developing and refining my understanding of the subject. Here’s what I’m learning from the Bible so far.
First, even in New Testament times, there existed structures which today we would call “local church” and “parachurch.” The former are fairly obvious; local churches were planted in cities throughout the Roman empire, typically gathering together in the only meeting places available—the homes of their members. The latter were present in the form of apostolic bands—traveling evangelists who were eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ.
Second, local churches were intended to be the primary arena for discipleship for believers. After they first believed, there was no question that a community would be formed; new believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The apostles insisted on this sort of community, commanding believers to continue to meet together in these local fellowships in order “to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Believers were to be edified as they participated in the life of the church body, working to “build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). The churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper and baptized new Christians. They were led by elders and deacons, as the apostles had taught them (1 Timothy 3:1-13). They were given authority by Jesus Christ himself to discipline their members (Matthew 18:15-20), and the apostles also affirmed the need for church discipline (1 Corinthians 5).
On the other hand, the “parachurch” apostolic bands traveled from town to town, preaching the gospel in new places. Their mission was to plant churches in each location they visited and to edify churches they had planted (1 Corinthians 3:6). Their work was aimed toward the building of God’s church in the form of local congregations (1 Corinthians 3:9). They continued the equipping work by writing letters, sending representatives (such as Titus and Timothy), and returning in person to teach and strengthen the churches.
In summary, the focal point of community and edification for the New Testament believer was the local church. The parachurch structure existed for the sake of the local church, to plant it and assist its development. Just as a bridesmaid does not call attention to herself but works to show off the beauty of the bride, so parachurch organizations, if they follow the biblical pattern, exist for the sake of local churches—not for their own sake, to perpetuate themselves.
So how does this principle apply to churches and parachurch organizations on a college campus? More on that tomorrow.