Reflecting on “10 Predictions About the Future of Churches of Christ”

church_of_christ (1)In a recent post, Matt Dabbs offered 10 Predictions About the Future of Churches of Christ. I think his predictions are very insightful — so much so that I feel compelled to add a couple of thoughts.

4 – Universities and churches will compete against para-church ministries for “talent.”

I think this is true — but potentially unhealthy unless handled with the greatest of care.

Over at OneInJesus, I’m blogging through Scot McKnight’s excellent Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. Scot argues against the separation of “kingdom work” from “church work,” making the point that Jesus chose the church, not parachurch organizations, to be his bride and body.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how a parachurch organization could draw the lost into the kingdom unless it manages to somehow be a part of the church itself. 

On the other hand, the parachurch organizations associated with the Churches of Christ that I have the greatest respect for, organizations such as MRN and Kairos, make a point to work alongside and in partnership with a local congregation, not in competition with God’s household of faith. And I clearly see the value of organizations that work to enhance the work of the local church by, for example, supporting their missions or church planting efforts.

Now I wouldn’t want to be heard as insisting on a particular structure as required for the parachurch organization to be “scripturally organized” or “authorized.” I’ve seen countless badly conceived and badly run parachurch organizations theoretically “under the oversight” of an eldership. That’s not the cure because elderships aren’t trained or qualified to run many of these organizations. That’s just not where I’m going with this.

Take foster care as an example. While it’s wonderful and godly for a nonprofit organization to support foster parents and children, I would far prefer that the foster care organization see itself as supporting churches in their efforts to care for the fatherless rather than taking this privilege and opportunity away from the local churches. You see, when a congregation decides to make the care of foster children a part of its mission and identity, the entire church is transformed. They need a special grace from God to take on such a role, and in seeking God’s help and in working together to care for children, the church is changed.

However, if a nonprofit corporation recruits Christian parents through word of mouth or advertising to take on foster children, working outside the congregations, only the parents who are immediately involved are blessed in their good work. There’s little opportunity for the entire congregation to work together to support the couple in their decision. There’s no sharing of the work. And I think the foster care organization will find itself struggling to find volunteers because the volunteers grow up in churches that have nothing to say about caring for foster children.

Worse yet, because the congregation isn’t challenged to take on the care of the fatherless, the congregation isn’t challenged to grow — to do things that can only be done with the strength of God. They pray less. They lean on each other less. Their elders don’t see it as part of their responsibility, and the preacher doesn’t preach on the subject. It becomes a private decision in a denomination that has far too many private decisions and not nearly enough corporate decisions. We need to be challenged to do hard things as a body — praying together and supporting each other.

And so, yes, Matt is doubtlessly correct. And it worries me.

7 – Intergenerational ministry: We will finally see the benefit of getting the generations back together and not be afraid to throw away obsolete ministry structures of the past.

In this one, I couldn’t agree more, and I pray that it happens soon. The key is to understand “intergenerational ministry” as being about adults leading children and teens in ministry — not adults volunteering to do ministry for the teens and children.

It’s my view that no ministry should ever be undertaken because of the impact it will have on our children. A short-term mission trip to Guatemala to teach our teens about poverty and good works uses the people of Guatemala to our own ends. We aren’t ministering to them. We’re ministering to our own children — and our children are figuring this out. And so long as our own children are the primary objects of our ministry, we’ll raise self-indulgent children who expect to be ministered to.

However, if the adults have a passion for the lost in Guatemala, and they invite the congregation’s teens to travel with them to help the adults minister there, then the teens will see adults as caring about the lost of Guatemala. They’ll see ministry as being about helping others. And they’ll see a role for the church beyond merely helping to teach values to our own children.

I’m not sure whether this will require more or less staff or make congregations more or less lay-person led. But it will do wonders for our families — adults and teens. In fact, it will dramatically change the heart of our congregations by turning our focus outward.

Teens don’t need parents who serve pizza and chaperone parties. They need parents who are on mission and who invite young people to minister alongside them in preparation for a lifetime of service.

Notice, that in both cases the question isn’t whether to engage in the ministry at hand or seeking an “authorized” structure, but rather being very thoughtful in putting the ministry together in a way that builds the local church — so that what is done is truly kingdom work.

And one test is whether, if the parachurch organization or ministry is successful, the church as a whole grows more into the image of Christ. Do we do short-term missions, plant churches, or care for foster children in a way that brings an entire congregation to its knees in prayer? Does our ministry draw us together in mutual support? When a family decides to take on a ministry, is it a decision made within the life of the local church because we do ministry together?

When we can proceed this way, some really good things happen. We not only do ministry better, but we change the congregation to be more ministry-hearted. But when we separate ministry from church, we are putting ourselves on a path where we will likely fail at both.

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  1. Thoughtful observations, as usual! I was especially impressed with your comments about parachurch ministries. Unless the church itself is involved in these, it will mean little to the local church, even though the ministry may be a great one.

    In my work with Eastern European Mission, I see churches where the elders make a contribution by adding our ministry to the budget – but say little about our work of providing a resource to churches, missionaries, public schools, and more in the former Soviet bloc nations. Consequently, there is no involvement by the church.

    I also see churches where the congregation is involved and committed. The church becomes excited about the ministry and considers itself a part of it. From such churches I hear questions like, “How are we doing?” From the others, the question is (if it comes at all), “How are you doing?”

    • How important it is that the Christians support any work done in the name of Jesus! It’s not enough just to send money, though that is vital to most “mission” works, but it should be as Jerry says, that supporters should also be able to thoughtfully ask, “How are WE doing?” and realize that the work IS shared and being done by several.

  2. Jay,

    One thing I like about the ministry approach at Herald of Truth is the emphasis on the local church. We don’t do campaigns anywhere where there is no local church to follow up. And we approach the local church to get their “buy in” before starting any work. Contacts are connected to the local church.

    That said, I think Matt’s original article discusses the training of ministers, not the realization of ministry by parachurch organizations.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim

    • Every Christian should be a servant of Jesus and be ministering in His name. We should not have a clergy, a class set apart from others and somehow “different” from those who are “just Christians.” Evangelists are needed, and prophets are needed, and encouragers are needed. It’s a mistake for any Christian church to have hired servants to do the leading and teaching FOR the congregation. Or the evangelizing, as in the case of “missionaries.” Every Christian should be an evangelist, shouldn’t we?

  3. Tim wrote,

    “I think Matt’s original article discusses the training of ministers, not the realization of ministry by parachurch organizations.”

    True enough, but the ministry of tomorrow will be shaped by the ministers we train today. Matt wrote,

    “Para-church/non-profit ministries are becoming more and more popular as they require less investment to participate in and get you into ministry much more quickly than most universities can manage. These organizations are flexible and efficient and that is often more attractive to young people than investing 4-8 years into education to begin ministry.”

    If our most talented, well-trained, motivated young people reject the church in favor of parachurch organizations, we’d better hope that those parachurch organizations are committed to building up and supporting the local church.

    I’ve spoken with a number of ministers of large congregations who are finding that young ministers coming out of our universities reject the institutional church in favor of … something else. They want to be “missional” and engage in “kingdom work” without the burden of the local church — the same local church that hired them and pays their salaries.

    And if this trend continues, we’ll destroy both the local church and parachurch organizations. I’ve seen this very close hand, and it’s not pretty. I don’t know if this is coming from our universities or pop-evangelical literature or bad theology or what, but the trend is very real and being felt across the country.

    We need to be calling our leadership and ministers and volunteers back to the church — but in hopes of learning a better way of being Christ’s church.