Since the time of the reformation in the 1500’s the primary paradigm of ministry has been congregational. People gather in congregations and in that setting worship takes place, instruction takes place, relationships are formed, young people are called to ministry, service is provided to those in the community and missionary activity is supported. Whether large or small in size, whether located in the city or the country, these congregations formed virtually all of what we knew of the church for years. An extension of the local congregation is the denomination. Congregations in different geographic areas are bound together by common confession, practice, relationship and history. Some of what we knew of the church was expressed through these denominational bodies. Missionary activity and service to those in need were more easily accomplished by these groups, rather than the individual, local congregations.
But also, throughout the years since the reformation, there has been a second paradigm of ministry. It has been there all along, but it has become more prominent since the first half of the 20th century. These ministries focused more on a specific task or target group. The Bible societies and the missionary sending agencies of the 19th century led the way, then ministries sprung up, such as Youth for Christ, the Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ, The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Young Life and Youth With a Mission. These are some of the estimated 1,000,000 “parachurch” ministries that were serving in the United States by the year 2,000. These ministries became known as “parachurch” ministries because people saw that they had a valid and valued place in the overall picture of ministry, but they were not really “church ministry”. They were “an arm of the church”. They were not the church, per se, but they did some church things. They were described as “walking along side the church.” Hence they were called “parachurch” ministries.
Congregational (and denominational) ministries are still the predominant platform of ministry, but the “parachurch” ministries are also doing a very significant portion of the overall work.
In more recent years (I trace it back to c.1990) a third paradigm has begun to be more prominent. Promise Keepers, The March for Jesus and Pastors’ Prayer Summits (as well as other events) began to help us see another form of church. Instead of defining the boundaries of the church and of ministry in terms of certain doctrinal and practical distinctions (i.e. congregations and denominations) or in terms of specific tasks or targets (i.e. “parachurch” ministries) people have begun to see church ministry more in terms of geographic distinctions: the church of an area. This concept is not new, but it has received more serious attention in the last few years. In fact, this concept has been around since the New Testament. And it was the dominant paradigm of ministry prior to the reformation.
There is great value to the unique aspects of the denominations and congregations. And there is great value in what we have called “parachurch” ministries. But the Biblical boundaries of the church are clearly not focused on doctrinal distinctions, differences in organizational structure, personalities, certain gifts or styles of ministry or certain groups receiving ministry. The Biblical perspective of the church is clearly the gathering of the believers of a given location, regardless of their (nonessential) doctrinal or practical differences and regardless of their ages and stages of life. With one possible exception, whenever Scripture gives us any further description of “church” it is either 1) a description of possession, such as “of God” or 2) a description of place, such as a specific area.
Note these examples of…
- City locations: the church in Jerusalem (Acts 5:11; 8:1, 3; 11:22; 14:27; 15:4, 22), the church at Antioch (Acts 11:26; 13:1; 15:3, 30) the churches in Iconium, Lystra, and Pisidian Antioch (Acts 14:21-23), the church at Caessaria (Acts 18:22), the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17; I Tim. 3:5, 15; 5:16, 17), the church in Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1), the church in Corinth (I Cor. 1:2; 11:18; 14:23; 2 Cor. 1:1), the church at Philippi (Phil. 1:1; 4:15), the church at Laodicea (Col. 4:16; Rev. 3:14), the church at Thessalonica (I & 2 Thess. 1:1) the other churches of Revelation (Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7).
- Regional locations: in Galatia (1 Cor. 16:1, Gal 1:2), in Asia (1 Cor. 16:19a, Rev 1:4), in Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1) in Judea (Gal. 1:22).
- House locations: at Priscilla and Aquila’s house (Rm. 16:5, I Cor. 16:19b), at Nympha’s house (Col. 4:15), and Philemon’s house (Phile. 1:2).
Geography was the only boundary the New Testament writers allowed in the church. And when the church of the New Testament took any steps to be identified on a foundation other than geography, Paul slapped them on the wrist and told them to stop it! (1 Cor 1:10-13, 3:1-9, 12:12-26)
So, the New Testament knows nothing of “First Baptist Church” or “Memorial Presbyterian” or even “Maple Lane Community Church” in the way we speak of them today.
This third paradigm could be called the “church of the city” or, since we don’t all live in actual cities, the “geographic church”. More and more spiritual leaders are recognizing this as a significant (if not the primary) paradigm of their ministry, without giving up on or leaving their primary ministry platform.
This perspective does not see the part (either the congregation, or the denomination, or the “parachurch” ministry) as the whole, but rather it sees each of these as a part of the whole. It sees the individual congregation, the denomination and the “parachurch” ministry, all as vital parts of the church of the area.
When our view changes, our vocabulary changes. Instead of referring to “First Baptist Church” as a church, we would refer to it as a congregation. Instead of saying there are “350 churches in our area” we would say there is “one church with 350 congregations” in our area. Instead of referring to “Youth for Christ” as a parachurch ministry, we would refer to it as a ministry of the church of a particular area.
In fact, what would it be like if many leaders in the church of an area began putting a common sub-line on their letterhead that said something like “part of the church of Atlanta” (or Boulder or Chicago)? What would it be like if a missionary were sent out from “The church of Detroit” (or Eugene or Flagstaff)? What if we saw a sign that said “The church of Galveston (or Huntington or Ithaca) welcomes you!” followed by a list of the congregations and ministries available?
When we embrace this Biblical view of the church, we stop identifying the church in terms of a certain organization and see it more in terms of an organism. We stop thinking of ourselves as a “Presbyterian” and think of ourselves more in terms of being a “Christian who is a Presbyterian”. When another congregation in our town grows, we know that “our church” is growing. When a congregation down the street is going through hard times, we know that “our church” needs prayer. When the rescue mission in our community has a need, we know that “our church” has a need. We acknowledge that if Jesus wrote a letter to His church in our city, He would not address it to my congregation, or any one congregation, He would address it to the church of my area.
Many have asked why we are not making more progress in the city reaching movement. I would suggest that one part of the answer to this question is because we have not yet fully embraced this view and vocabulary of the church. Because of this, we are more “worldly” than we should be and we are not ready for the “solid food” God would like to give to us (1 Cor. 3:1-4).
We have taken some good, practical steps. We have had some corporate worship and prayer meetings. We have joined hands in some effective service projects. But we have not yet been intentional about reforming our ecclesiology. We still see walking together in genuine unity as an optional activity or a functional preference rather than a biblical mandate. As long as we are satisfied to see the church in segmented parts and keep talking about it from an old paradigm, we will keep hindering the process of “the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole city.”
IRM’s Prayer Summits have been a significant tool of God to help in the development of this third paradigm. We have been used by God to help bring about what could be called a reformation of relationship that the Church is in the midst of. There is a greater sense of unity, trust and love between ministers and ministries that is making city-wide (or community-wide) ministry more effective. We are humbled and grateful for this.
I believe the future of Prayer Summits lies in continuing to be an agency of personal renewal for pastors and congregations, and also encouraging these renewed pastors to engage in meaningful, Spirit-directed acts of corporate service of their communities with the expectation that as they demonstrate the gospel, they will also have opportunities to proclaim the gospel. Further, I believe that this will not happen to the extent it should until our ecclesiology become based more upon Scripture than upon culture.
There are many questions that come to mind as we ponder this third paradigm of ministry. “Is this really practical?” “How does this affect the autonomy of the local congregation?” “How does this impact the way we have viewed our leadership structure?” “How do we decide who is really part of the true church of Jesus Christ?” “Won’t we loose our specific identity?” “What if we don’t like the other parts of the true church of Jesus Christ and don’t want to be identified with them?” And many, many more.
There are answers to some of these questions. Truth is though… there are a lot of questions that cannot yet be answered. But, to the degree that we seek to view His Bride in the same way Jesus does, we can be confident that He will hurry some answers our way!
International Renewal Ministries
Thanks to John Repsold from Spokane, Washington, for research taken from his “A Brief Apologetic for the City Church”. The full text is available at www.missionspokane.org <http://www.missionspokane.org>.
Some practical issues and implications of this view.
- It has a more biblical basis, theology matters.
- Church discipline becomes a real possibility.
- Community marriage policies and counseling become more possible and/or are enhanced.
- Church “shopping” can be aided by the pastoral community so that each person is in a congregation where they know they really “fit”.
- Each believer is not seen primarily as an asset to the congregation but to the community.
- The Clergy/Laity division is minimized.
- Ministry “gaps’ and “overlaps” are minimized.
- Jesus could be recognized as the real Shepherd of His church.
- Corporate worship and prayer times become “ours” not “theirs”.
- Corporate “Salt and Light” events bring glory to God instead of glory to an organization.
- The church has greater capacity to serve a community because the community is not seen as promoting only one part of the church.
- There is a greater motivation to understand the “harvest force” and the “harvest field” in our city.
- “Church” leadership (of all denominations, races, generations, genders and giftings) is diligent to find one another because they would know they need one another.
- The church has a greater ability to “speak with one voice”.
- “Church” budgets and finances are used more strategically
- Concern and prayer for other congregations and pastors increases.
- City-based (rather than denominational based) ordinations could happen.
- City churches could send out missionaries and/or become responsible for a certain unreached people group.
- United prayer with other spiritual leaders in the community is no longer unimportant, nice, or even important. It is essential.