The Para-Church Prosthetic

In 1 Corinthians Paul likened the Church to a physical body saying,
"For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, thought many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
"For the body does not consist of one member but of many.  If the foot should say, 'Because  I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.  If all were a single member, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, yet one body"  (1 Corinthians 12:12-20, ESV). 
Paul's primary point is a demonstration of unity among Christians within the Body, that is, the Church.  Each member of the local church is not expected to be exactly like the other members.  We need one another and all of us serve in different functions but function together.  By extension, the same should be true of each local church.  Various local churches, while still mirroring the shadow of the Kingdom, will likely look different among the entire Body of the Church built and lead by Christ.

How then are we to understand the role of the para-church?

To get to the heart of this question, we must first attempt to define para-church.  The para-church is typically any organization or network that works alongside the Church.  Missionary organizations, campus ministries, learning centers, church-planting networks, Christian counseling facilities, orphanages, chaplain services, and seminaries are some of the most typical para-church organizations.  Some denominations, at times, function like a para-church.

Historically, the rise of various para-church organizations came in the wake of the failure or inability of the Church in one specific area or another.  As local churches stumbled to send and support missionaries, para-church organizations were formed and came to the aid of struggling local churches.  When theological education is not being adequately developed in the local church, Bible colleges, seminaries, learning centers, certificate programs, and publishers come alongside the local church to help.  Campus ministries abound where local churches struggle to reach the campuses with the gospel.

Para-church organizations are like a prosthetic limb for the Body.  Where the local church's reach is limited because it has no arm, the para-church can extend that reach.  But we must see this for what it really is if we are to understand how the Body of Christ best functions with the para-church.  

First, a prosthetic limb is useless apart from the body.  The prosthetic limb helps the disabled person, not the other way around.  Any para-church organization that does not work in conjunction with the Body of Christ, specifically with connections to local churches, is a prosthetic limb attached to nothing.  Para-church organizations should be seeking ways to help the Body.  Too often, para-church organizations demand that the Body financially help the prosthetic (in the name of advancing the Kingdom) without any intention serving alongside or connecting to the Body.

Second, the para-church is not the Church.   At times, para-church organizations function completely apart from the local church.  The claim is often something to the effect: "It's all about the Kingdom," but then no attention is given to the prosthetic connection point--the local church.  In addition, when para-church organizations function completely apart from the local-church, they become just an eye or ear and often assume that the entire Church is (or should be) only an eye or ear.  And many times the people involved in these kind of para-church organizations learn to depend too heavily on the para-church and can't seem to integrate into a local body.  Rather than becoming part of the bigger body and part of the family, they learn only to become a prosthetic limb.  While it is certainly not the case for all para-church organizations, some make little or no effort to encourage people to join and serve within a local church. Some outright discourage local church involvement.  In the bigger picture, this does little good for the Body.

Third, local churches should do more to encourage and equip para-church organizations that are serving in an area where the church is struggling.  A good relationship between the local church and a para-church organization is like the active person who lives very well with a prosthetic limb.  Local churches really aught to see the para-church (if it's functioning in conjunction with the mission of the local church) as an aid where the church is in need.  This can be a healthy relationship.  And this may be one way to better advance the mission of the Church.

Finally, churches can grow new limbs.  Through Christ, churches can regenerate failing and missing parts of the Body.  Where the human often depends on the prosthetic limb for life, the Church is really only on crutches while a new limb could be forming.  Local churches and para-churches should work together to grow limbs, training and equipping people in the area the para-church is covering.  In fact, the truest measure of the success of the para-church results in being replaced well by the local church.   If only more local churches and para-church would strive for such a goal!

* Photo of the prosthetic leg worn 1st Lt. Ryan McGuire  during track and field events was taken by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III and is registered under a creative commons license.