The Fields Are White For Harvest But the Labourers Are Few ...
When I read the latest copy of the Newfrontiers magazine, I suspected that it would provoke some reflections, and hence therefore greatly enjoyed reading Mark Heath's thoughts on "Parachurch Organisations". Briefly summarised, Mark finds some agreement with author Steve Tibbert in that training is best done in the local church, questioning whether people with a heart to go to the nations should be handed to missionary organisations and finally agreeing that execeptions such as Wycliffe Bible Translators do exist. Mark has five questions - two of which caught my attention. He asked; "Are we ready to take over (from parachurch organizations) ... at the moment I doubt it". And secondly he noted Newfrontiers passion to plant churches. This however has an inevitable result: "But this means many churches with small memberships. There is no way that they can sustain a fully comprehensive set of ministries".
These are valid thoughts. The answer I believe is to be found in Terry Virgo's 'Firstline'.
He wrote; "After searching the Scriptures, we found she has an absolutely vital role to fulfill. The local church should be a strategic centre for the advance of Christ's kingdom on earth ... Church planting was strategy number one".
That suggests to me that church planting will ever and must always be our number one passion - that is the high calling upon us. But as Mark noted, excessive church planting without due care and attention given to making the church the strategic centre for the advance of Christ's kingdom will indeed result in many churches with small memberships. While church planting must always be our strategy number one, I would ask - should the task of those staying "at home" be to make the sending church that strategic centre? And does that task of making the church a strategic centre involve more than the more well-known serving gifts such as passing the offering bowl round or collecting up the tea cups?
Terry wrote: "Those who love the local church and see it's vital significance in God's strategy will regard the local church as the key centre for such things as worship, prayer, prophecy and healing. The more local churches engage in these God-given ministries the quicker we shall return to Biblical norms and extra-curricular activity won't be required!".
So I want to approach Steve Tibbert's article trying to envisage possible answers, rather than trying to see the questions.
1. Is There a Place For Learning from Other Strategic Centres?
Terry Virgo actually asked this question during his "Half Time Team Talk" at the Leadership Conference in Switzerland in 2003. He noted that Newfrontiers, as yet, has not produced "mega churches" on the scale of some and asked whether lessons could be learnt from them. I realise that the very term "mega church" raises negative connotations - I think when that term is used, it is most accurately summarised by something Terry said; "Once the local church discovers her true calling, she rises to her true significance. She is a dwelling place for God's Spirit. She is corporately the light of the world, a city set on a hill which cannot be hid". Or in other words, the issue is more than numbers. The question is are those numbers being trained and nutured to become fully mature disciples, themselves capable of discipling, rather than just seats in pews?
Can we therefore learn from the biggest church in the world - Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea? Two things impressed me as I read their website. Their passion for prayer is as famous as the church itself. And secondly while Dr Yonggi Cho is the senior pastor, perhaps what is less known is that he has 527 pastors assisting him and 100, 113 Elders and Deacons!
I remember my pastor, Dr Jebb went over to Korea to visit Dr Cho's church and came back hugely impacted by the passion for prayer that he saw there. Prayer Mountain is renowned over the world and this spirit of prayer is something that we desperately need to learn if we are to see strategic centres come forth from which to send church planters out.
Doctrinal and ecclesiastical differences aside, my point is that there surely is much to be learnt from the wider body of Christ. And who can deny that Yoido is a church that cannot be hid?
2. Is there a Place for Raising Up New Ministries Within the Local Church?
The most recent edition of "Connect" - the Newfrontiers newsletter - carried a report from John Hosier on behalf of the Ephesians 4 Forum. It was interesting to read that he gathers theologians to address key issues head on. But the glaring word that stood out to me was "twelve of our teachers". Twelve? In a family of churches the size of Newfrontiers, are there really only twelve teachers that can be gathered? Now I could have misunderstood the situation and this forum may deliberately be small, but this spoke to me of the need for the raising up of ministries to see this "strategic church" come forth.
It was Jesus Christ who said that the fields are white for harvest but the labourers are few. Is there any excuse for coming across a church of frustrated members who are not being used, and a leadership team who keep a tight reign on opportunities to exercise spiritual gifting? I don't think so - not if we are to see these strategic churches come forth.
Mark concluded: "Personally, I think that we will never be without the need for groups of Christians working together with common goals across local church boundaries, and because of this, there will always be organisations that in some sense will be "parachurch"". This may be true, but I can't accept that this is an excuse to not try and see the church become that strategic centre that Terry Virgo envisaged. Can it be really true that God blesses His church by raising up gifted individuals to work in parachurch organisations such as Wycliffe Bible Translators or UCCF and not bestow gifted individuals in the local church? No that cannot be. Surely the question is rather, are pastors and elders using those gifted individuals in their churches to their best?
So in conclusion, I don't think we will see parachurch organisations made redundant in the near future, unless God moves mightily in revival across His church. But I do think the argument that the New Testament church saw much that is done in parachurch today, accomplished among their ranks - i.e social action for the poor. I do think that is a model that we should be seeking to get back to. But we will only see this done when we get Terry's words into our hearts - that church planting is indeed strategy number 1. But those who don't go must be all involved in making the sending church, a strategic centre - a city set on a hill - a light that cannot be hidden.