Problems? Email Us!
Beyond McChurch
by Philip Lancaster
Beyond Mcchurch

They're everywhere, the golden arches. Americans love them, and hate them. They spend more money and time there, by far, than at any other eating establishment in the country. Yet they love to complain about the quality of the food and the limited menu, they joke about the predictability of the service ("You want fries with that, ma'am?"), and they bristle at the suggestion that they actually enjoy the cookie-cutter sameness of the whole eating experience.

Fast food restaurants are a testimony against Americans, a testimony they don't want to acknowledge: they are addicted to mediocrity. So while enjoying themselves with what they have learned to like, they can’t admit that they actually like it.

We have this corporate sense that we've been had. So much of modern life seems somehow a pale imitation of the real thing, but we're not sure what the real thing is any more, nor are we even sure we would still like it if we had it. And it's not just restaurants. We've actually learned to like the massive super-centers and wouldn't be content with the corner store. We've accepted herd education in a sterile classroom and pretend that it's good for kids. We gather together to watch a video and call it "family night" — "strangers watching strangers on TV"* — knowing something is missing but at a loss to know how to fix it. We channel surf, or surf the Web, exhilarated by the vicarious flight through time and space, but this frenetic electronic journey usually gains us nothing but the empty sense of having squandered precious time. We have the feeling that we are living shadow lives, cartoonish imitations of the genuine thing, while from somewhere within our haze and daze we cry, Give us something real!

What's happened to us? How have we reduced ourselves and our lives to such faint approximations of what we know God must have intended? There is no simple answer to such a large question, but let's attempt a summary of the problem — so that we can go on to describe one major step toward a solution.

We were made for fellowship with God. Walking in the cool of the day with the Lord — this was not goof-off time for our first parents. It is what they were made for. The psalmist wrote, "… being with you, I desire nothing on earth" (Ps. 73:25). Saint Augustine echoed the sentiment: "You made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in You." The only thing that will truly satisfy and fulfill us is a living relationship with the living God and fellowship with others made in His image.

Modern man, intoxicated with all that he can achieve through technology and formulaic approaches to meeting needs, has forgotten what life is. He is enamored of technique, enthralled by the sheer ability to fabricate, manipulate, and coordinate. Bare activity replaces relationships. Things overshadow people. Doing replaces being. Our lives are shadow lives to the extent that mere process is substituted for content. Beauty, simplicity, relationships — what is real — is lost in the make-believe world of busyness, bigness, speed, and efficiency. Mere motion comes to replace progress toward worthwhile objectives. Technology, process, and activity are not bad, but when our lives are defined by them we become hollow men eating assembly line food while watching two-dimensional fantasies with virtual families. A living relationship with God, and the fellowship that this creates with other people, is squeezed out by the blur of prepackaged, programmed living.

We need to rediscover the sanity of the simple. A simple life is one uncluttered by purposeless busyness and the more-is-better illusion. It is a life that operates by a simple rule of thumb: love God with everything you've got, and love other people, too. Make your highest values your relationship with your Creator-Savior and your relationships with other people. Evaluate everything you do by this simple standard: Is this drawing me closer to my God and to those He has placed in my life? If not, don't allow it to squander your time and sap your energy.

The Para-Church Church
Sad to say, even the church has succumbed to the Siren song of the age and redefined itself to better fit in. The techno-church has replaced the simple, relationship-based church of the New Testament. This is especially devastating since the church is the one institution that should be pointing our culture back to the sobriety of biblical values.

There is a term that has been in use in Christian circles for a while that may be helpful in describing the church today. For years we have used the term "para-church" organizations. "Para" is the Greek word for "alongside," so a para-church organization is one which is alongside the church. Specifically, it means an organization which is not the church but which is doing some aspect of the work God gave the church to do. It is a man-made agency as opposed to the one agency Jesus said He would build, His church (Matt. 16:18). Here are some examples: independent mission agencies that send men to preach the gospel, family ministries that teach the Bible and disciple families, campus ministries that evangelize and train Christian youth, Christian relief agencies that minister help in Christ’s name. These groups do church work but outside the bounds of the church. (We do not intend to debate the legitimacy of these agencies in this article; for our purposes here we simply accept them as fact.)

What may come as a surprise, however, is that the church itself has become a para-church organization. That's right, what we are used to calling the church is not actually the church but a para-church organization. It is doing the work of the church but is not itself the church of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture. This can be little confusing to picture, so hang in there. What we are saying is that the local church near you and the denomination of which it is part (if it is part of one) are man-made institutions that do the work of the church (or some of it). But they are not the church Jesus established. The church of Christ is there, but there is a man-made institution surrounding it which has become confused with the true church in its midst. Let's try to sort this out.

Here is a little exercise. Answer the following questions. How many churches (approximately) are there in your home town, or in your immediate neighborhood? What kind of ministries are carried out by the local church nearest you or the one to which you have belonged? Who is the minister of that church? We'll pause while you answer.

OK, now let's consider each of the three questions in turn and we'll discuss the implications. First is the matter of the number of churches in your area. Chances are you pictured buildings. Most Christians think of the church as real estate. The first definition of the word "church" in the dictionary is "a building for public and esp. Christian worship." This is a definition most Christians would accept — but it is a grossly unscriptural definition. The Bible says the church is "the body of Christ" (Eph. 1:23) and "God’s household" (Eph. 2:19). It is a building made up of "living stones" built on the living cornerstone of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:20-22; 1 Pet. 2:4,5). The church is people, but the contemporary church sees itself as being manifest in the world primarily as a building of bricks and wood.

The second question concerned the kinds of ministries being carried on by the local church. Probably you thought about Sunday School, missionary societies, youth groups, drama ministries, and the like. In other words, when most people think of church ministry they think in terms of programmed activities. People are recruited to serve in these activities and that becomes their ministry. But the Bible defines ministry in terms of people responding to the needs of other people through the gifts God has given them (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-7). They are not fit into a program. The modern church is a program-based institution rather than the spontaneously-ministering body of people described in Scripture. We are not saying that any organized approach to meeting needs in the church is wrong, of course, but so often "ministries" become perpetual motion machines, forms that have lost any real purpose in meeting needs. And often "ministries" are counter-productive, creating problems rather than meeting them (e.g., youth groups).

The third question was about who is the minister of a particular local church near you. It is likely that you thought of a particular individual who holds the title "minister" or "pastor" of the church. Most Christians do not even question the concept of a professional, paid staff of "clergy" who lead a church of "laymen." But this is a thoroughly unbiblical notion. The title "minister" belongs to every single Christian according to the New Testament (Eph. 4:12). The church is supposed to be led not by one man but by a plurality of elder-pastors whose work it is to equip the members of the body to do the ministry (some of whom may be supported financially). The members of the church today see themselves as spectators who watch a professional do ministry.

The chief features by which the contemporary church is known — a building, an offering of programs and activities, and a profession clergyman — all point to the para-church nature of the modern church. None of the primary characteristics of this institution are marks of the church of Jesus Christ! They are all extra-biblical features that have become the identity of the church even in the minds of its members.

We are not denying, of course, that God’s precious people are part of the para-church church, or that many godly men pour themselves out in genuine service to God as pastors there, or that God’s work goes on there. Many such churches have more or less of the marks of the true church (see below) mixed in with the extra-biblical ones we have noted. But our aim should be to shape the church according to the blueprint of its Builder! And we should not confuse the issue by attaching the name "church" to something Jesus has not ordained. Let’s separate in our minds the true church from the man-made additions to the church. That is hard to do since the two are so confused. And let’s not demand for the para-church institution the loyalty which only Christ’s church deserves.

Real, Inward Religion is Always Harder
But here’s the rub. It is so much easier to do church the para-church way! You see, the hardest thing about the Christian religion is that it involves relating to an unseen God in the midst of a world that constantly presses in on our senses. It has always been a temptation for God’s people to create idols or otherwise make visible and tangible (in ways beyond what God has ordained) this difficult matter of following the Lord.

The Israelites crafted the golden calf in the desert and worshipped it as the god who brought them out of the land of Egypt (Ex. 32:4). Later they cried for the Lord to give them a king like the nations around them because they considered it too hard for each one to simply follow the Lord as King (1 Sam. 8:4ff.). Still later the people of Judah were rebuked for trusting in the physical presence of the temple rather than living righteous lives (Jer. 7:4-7). The Pharisees in Jesus’ day found that it was a lot easier to dress like clergymen, be set apart by honorific titles like "Reverend" (or the equivalent), and wear the law on their bodies than it was to keep the law in their hearts (Matt. 23:5,8). It was not only God’s people of old who faced these temptations. We too are tempted to define our religion by buildings, by men, by titles, and by outward display and forms.

It’s hard to simply have a relationship with God and relate to His people as our spiritual family. It’s so much easier to focus on buildings and buses, to follow men than to follow Christ, to define our ministry by the role we fill on a committee than by the loving service we render a brother or sister in need. We want something we can get our hands on, something we can see, something we can control. We want techniques for revival and slick programs in 3-ring binders for evangelism. But that’s not what the church is all about.

The church today is McChurch, an efficient and well-packaged system that keeps its constituents busy but leaves them feeling somehow cheated. Christians have learned to like it, but many almost hate to admit they like it because they sense something is not right. There is form, busyness, and activities galore, but where is the substance, the reality? Some churches, sensing the hollowness, substitute the "reality" of frenzied emotion and manufactured experience. Other churches glory in their ceremonial forms, now ancient from prolonged practice, and find comfort in doing things the old way.

The Ever-New Wineskins
There is only one reasonable solution to the problem of the para-church church. The old wineskins must be discarded and new wineskins must be found to hold the new wine (Matt. 9:17). New wine represents the freshness of the Spirit’s work in every time and place where the gospel of Christ and biblical faith is growing. The para-church church cannot hold the new wine of the Spirit. Only biblical forms will. What are those biblical forms? Let’s just briefly remind ourselves of the basic elements of church life according to the New Testament.
  1. The only foundation of the church is the living Lord Jesus Christ in her midst. He alone creates the fellowship that unites Christians in one body. The church is an organism, many parts sharing a common life. Jesus Himself is that life. (Eph. 2:19-22)
  2. The basic functions of the church as it assembles are fellowship (which requires intimacy and accountability), worship, teaching and discipleship, and the ministry of believers to one another. (1 Jn.1:6,7; Jn. 4:23; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 12:4-7)
  3. God’s Word is the church’s constitution. The church’s mission and day to day functioning must be guided by the Bible and the Bible alone. Tradition must be tested by Scripture. Unbiblical tradition must be discarded. (2 Tim. 3:16)
  4. Christ gave the church two ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These must be carefully administered according to biblical patterns and precepts. (Matt. 28;19; 1 Cor. 11:24,25)
  5. Authority in the church flows from Christ to church leaders, a plurality of pastor-overseers, exemplary men who have godly families, who know the Bible, and can teach it well. (1 Tim. 3:1ff.; Tit. 1:5-9)
  6. Both formative and corrective church discipline must be practiced. The body must spur itself on to holiness and seek to remove wickedness. (Heb. 10:24,25; 1 Cor. 5)
  7. Love and unity should mark the church as belonging to Christ. Jesus summarized His will for His church when He commanded, "Love one another, just as I have loved you," and when he prayed that the church be united in His love. (Jn. 15:12; 17:23).
This list is not complicated, but it is hard. God’s way of doing church requires grace, much grace, to work. It requires humility, service, and love on the part of Christians. Doing the para-church thing may be accompanied by grace, and it very often is (thank God), but it need not be. It is possible to be a para-church church in the power of the flesh. Those outward features which men have added to the church can keep it going long after the Spirit has departed. We need church forms that will utterly collapse without the continual outpouring of God’s grace. That’s what God designed. Simple, real, relational, Bible-based forms that require Christians to walk with God and walk with Him together.

What would most churches do if they lost their buildings, could no longer conduct their programs, and no longer had a professional staff to lead. Wow! What’s left? Just the people of God gathered (in a home or other borrowed place) in the presence of Jesus around His communion table. Gathered under the instruction of the Word as it comes from some of the men of the assembly or the elders. Gathered to encourage one another in their growth in grace, to pray for each other and hold one another accountable for change. Gathered to minister to one another’s needs and plan how to meet needs of other members. Gathered to be equipped for outreach in word and deed to the lost world around them.

It’s a simple agenda, but a powerful one, a real one, because it fulfills the greatest commandment and gets Christians in touch with God and with one another. Moving in this direction is like stepping out of the shadows into the light. "If we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another… " (1 Jn. 1:7) Real life is harder than formalism, but it is immensely satisfying to find your rest in God and to discover authentic fellowship with other believers.

Once you drink of this new wine you can never go back to the old. Would you choose a burger and fries at the drive-up window over turkey, potatoes, and dressing at a warm family feast?

*From the song, “Those Were the Best Days,” by Monte Swan, on the album “True to You.”

Blazing Trails page
JavaScript Menu, DHTML Menu Powered By Milonic