I love the institutional church. I believe the local church is God’s plan for saving and transforming the world. Jesus shed His blood for His bride, the church. Nothing will stop Christ from building His church, not even the gates of hell.
I have followed God’s call in my life to make sure every person in the world has access to clean water. I lead Lifewater, the oldest Christian clean water organization. Lifewater is a parachurch organization. We don’t ordain elders or deacons. We don’t accept people into membership or plant churches. Rather, we help local churches around the world address the health crisis in their village.
We are not a church. We don’t want to be a church. Rather, we want to help local churches carry out their calling in impoverished villages around the world. The term parachurch itself means “alongside the church.” A good parachurch organization supplements the ministry of the local church rather than supplants it.
It is easier said than done. When you work in a Christian organization, there is a tendency to view your organization and its work as central to God’s Kingdom, especially when it involves material poverty. In some ways, the work is central. Poverty alleviation is important to God. Christ came to declare good news to the poor and make all things new. However, the local church is the institution God has designed to accomplish this work. A good parachurch organization is merely part of the supply chain to equip local churches with the tools they need to carry out their mission.
How can parachurch organizations ensure they keep the local church central? Here are three ways I think faith-based nonprofit leaders can promote the local church:
- Encourage donors to support their local church financially.
Every Christian organization needs money from generous Christians to further its ministry. We send out newsletters, host events, and solicit donations to gather the financial resources we need to carry out our mission. As much as we need these resources, we expect and encourage donors to support their local church first before they support our work.
Many pastors get nervous when their church members give to other organizations. There is a silent assumption that if a church member gives money to an organization like Lifewater, that is money their church member might have otherwise given to their local church. That just isn’t the case. Rather, many Christians give to their church based on their annual income. They give money to parachurch organizations based on other forms of wealth they have established (bonus compensation, business income, appreciated assets, etc.).
As Christians, we are not involved in a zero-sum game, where local church and parachurch organizations must fight over finite resources. Rather, we can encourage Christians to faithfully give to their local church, believing God will still make resources available to other ministries and organizations like ours.
2. Require staff to be active in the life of a church.
Working in a Christian organization cannot replace being part of a church. All our staff, whether based in California or Cambodia, are required to be active in the life of a church. The first qualification on every job description we publish states, “Committed Christian, active in a local church.”
Employment in a Christ-loving organization is not the same as being connected to the body of Christ. At Lifewater, we do a lot of things churches do: pray, fellowship, serve others, study the Scriptures, etc. Yet, the local church is where believers are uniquely nourished through preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, pastoral care, and accountability.
We need our employees to be grounded and growing in their faith. We are convinced from the Bible that this happens by being active in the body of Christ. Even when your professional vocation involves extending God’s Kingdom to the poor, we must avoid “giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25).
3. Work through the church to accomplish your mission.
There’s a reason many organizations choose to work directly in communities rather than through churches: churches are often slow to act and complicated to navigate. In terms of efficiency, it is easier to engage directly with a community and carry out your work without trying to collaborate with a church.
However, a good parachurch ministry supplements rather than supplants the church’s ministry. At Lifewater, we enable churches in Africa and Asia to address the health crisis in their village. We don’t want to be the face of the project in the village. Rather, we want the local church to be the hero. As important as it is for people to have access to clean water, we think it is just as important for them to encounter the ministry of the local church in their village.
If we believe the local church is God’s change agent in this world, then we must find ways to work through them rather than around them. It involves patience and finding ways to make the church the hero rather than our own organizations. Trust me, it’s not easy, and there’s a lot of hard lessons along the way.
As long as there are parachurch ministries, there will be debate and discussion about their role. It takes intentionality for parachurch leaders to maintain a proper perspective and acknowledge their limitations. I need this reminder just as much as anyone. I believe the work Lifewater is doing is extremely important. I also believe God has appointed the local church to disciple the nations and bring the whole gospel to the whole person.