Barna, the most well-known pollster amongst church groups, came out with a study a few years back called Revolution. In it he showed the research studies and aggregate numbers substantiating that tens of thousands of people have left traditional mainline churches (including Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic) in a search for a more personal, more significant spiritual engagement with God. The great majority, BTW, have been younger churchgoers (20s to mid 30s.)
Many of these “spiritual pilgrims” have moved out of the traditional congregations into what church leaders like to call “para-church ministeries” — food kitchens for the poor, arranging for medical supplies to be purchased and sent to foreign countries in health crises, emergency aide societies such as Red Cross or Feed the Children — and even single-handed attempts to travel in a fifth-wheel to location after location building church worship halls for no salary. “Para-church” literally means “beside the church” as though such ministries aren’t the “real church” but some sort of off-spring and near cousin to traditional religious organizations. Notedly, many people now committed to such “para-church” ministries bear witness to their sense that only after they left the mainline denominational churches and threw their support into these other ministries “outside the four walls of the church”, did their lives become spiritually exciting and relevant.
But for over a decade now, an argument has arisen over those who “forsake” their mainline congregations and make these “para-church ministries” their places of consistent fellowship and worship. Can a “para-church ministries” actually be “churches” in and of themselves? Is there a “pastor” “over” a para-church ministry? Does a para-church ministry fulfill or renege on the “proclamation of the Gospel”? Do they have a Preacher? Are para-church ministries actually church ministries — only by another name?
There’s an ongoing debate today over “church ministries”. Who oversees such ministries (in or “out” of a church)? Is it the “pastor”; the “board”; a member of the congregation (salaried or unsalaried?) And if a ministry activity is a ministry of the church, who’s responsible for it financially? If a charitable ministry is started and led by a member of the congregation who is neither ordained, commissioned or otherwise sanctioned by a “church”, is it a “church ministry”, a “para-church ministry”, or not a ministry of the “church” at all?
Yet questions about the design and function of church ministries and para-church ministries should be put on hold until a more foundational question is answered — do “church ministries” as such even exist?
The question isn’t as foolish as it might seem. And the answer depends on the definition of “church”: Does a “church ministry” exist if “churches” do not actually exist?
DO “CHURCHES” EXIST?
Without question, in normal, Western society, churches exist. But biblically, what we understand today as “churches” do not exist. Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of “churches” as organizations or as buildings. Nowhere in the New Testament is there even a hint of a “church” as a 501c3 non-profit, charitable corporation, a denomination, or even the “First Church of Ephesus”.
The “Church”, as described in the Bible, is a mystical reality — less of an organization than an organism. It consists of all those individuals who by their confidence in Jesus, are spiritually united into One in Christ. In the original language of the Bible (Greek), the word mistranslated as “church” is ekklesia. So, for example, Jesus never said, “I will build My *church* and the gates of hell will not prevail against it…” Jesus said, “I will build My ekklesia and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
The term “church” is a deliberate mistranslation of the Greek word ekklesia. In Jesus, Peter, and Paul’s day, ekklesia simply referred to a “gathering” of people; a “group” or an “assembly”. Thus when Jesus promised his disciples, “When two or three of you are ‘gathered’ in My Name, I will be in the midst of them”, he used the word ekklesia. In this instance, two or three people “gathered” in the Name of Jesus Christ is an ekklesia — or in contemporary terms, a “church”. Very few church leaders today will allow that two or three people, meeting casually together at Starbucks “in the Name of Jesus” is a “church” — but Jesus says it’s an ekklesia.
About 400 years ago, “church” was forced upon the translators of the King James Bible by King James. He demanded (by Royal Decree) that the translators take every opportunity to make their translation support the idea of “church” in the same fashion as the Roman Catholic Church. Instead of translating ekklesia correctly as a simple gathering of people, King James demanded ekklesia had to be translated “church” in a deliberate attempt to assist in his ousting the Roman Catholic Church from England completely, replacing the Pope with himself. To do this, King James wanted to build the Anglican “church” in the model of the Roman “church” with which his people were familiar. Terms such as “bishops” and “presbyters”, “deacons” and so forth were to be used deliberately in his Bible translation (whether accurate or not) in order to support the idea that the Anglican “church” had a similar hierarchy of “spiritual authority” and “was as good as” the Roman church — the Authorized King James Version thus became a socio-political tool in the King’s hands to further secure his authority over England, not only politically but “spiritually”.
But the difference between a “church” and the ekklesia of Jesus Christ is vast. “Church” is a religious organization ruled over by men and women (mostly men) who are generally accepted as “religious professionals”, “spiritual authorities” and “church ministers” by the members of the organization they called “church”. But, in severe contrast, Jesus’ ekklesia, in the first century, had no “pastors” exercising “authority” over local churches; local gatherings (ekklesia) had older Belivers who were chosen because of their having demonstrated spiritual gifts and character over the years, and their primary power was leading the people by example — not a power to “discipline” or “excommunicate” church members. For example, where King James insisted Heb 13 translate a phrase, “Obey those who are in authority over you,” tan accurate translation would have focused on these words as strong advice to see the godly fruit of those older people in the local ekklesia, (both men andreadilyyield women) and to willingly yield themselves to emulate their conduct.
Furthermore, the ekklesia was never considered as being contained in a “building” and in any given locality, there was only the ekklesia — no such thing as the First Baptist Church on one corner and the Primitive Baptist Church on an opposite corner. The ekklesia had no buildings and practically no organizational structure. Instead of being an organization, the ekklesia promised by Christ and envisioned by Paul the apostle was a living organism whose head was the Person of Jesus Christ.
Another point is that charis (in Greek, “Spirit-empowered gifts” or “ministry abilities”) are not given to a “church” but to individual members of the ekklesia. For example, in Romans 12, after a person came into union with Jesus Christ (by faith) and thereby into union with all others who also were in union with Christ, God’s Spirit imparted even greater faith to these individuals in order to exercise particular ministry functions within their local gatherings. These charis were spiritual gifts such as prophesying, teaching, feeding the hungry, giving financially to Spirit-led needs, standing before the people to give them words of encouragement and exhortation,showing mercy, and above all —manifesting love in all its variety in actions and not merely words.
The charis “gifts” are not “church ministries” or “ministries of the church”: These are ministries of individuals within the gatherings of Believers (ekklesia). Today’s “church”, as viewed through the lens of first century Believers, did not exist as such and thus could not minister. And in today’s mistaken perspectives, the “church” as an institution or a humanly constructed organization can not “minister” in the Spirit since true, spiritual ministries are solely the working of the Holy Spirit through people who have the faith to do whatever the Spirit specifically leads them to do in caring for others.
Even the so-called “ministry gifts” of Ephesians 4 (apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor/teacher) weren’t given by Christ to the “church”, but to the individuals who together make up the ekklesia: So Paul writes that these gifts are given to “each of us” (v. 7) and to “His people” (v. 8). At no point does Jesus or Paul propose that a humanly crafted, socio-political organization (a “church”) has been given “ministry gifts” — only persons who may (or may not) be involved with those human organizations.
[Side-note: BTW — this also gives the lie to merely human organizations declaring that “this person” or “that person” is or is not a “minister of God”… As Paul said of himself, no person (no apostle, no elder in Jerusalem, no one) “made” him an apostle — he was an apostle because he was called by God to be such. And it hasn’t changed. No one in any church or religious organization can supersede the Holy Spirit’s work in bestowing or recognizing any person’s spiritual calling — it is the work and has always been the work of the Holy Spirit to empower individuals for whatever spiritual calling God intends for them. Now, a church (a merely human, religious organization) does have the authority to declare whether a person is a representative of that organization — but when God ordains and empowers His people, what men say apart from Him bears little weight in God’s eyes or in His ekklesia.]
WHAT ABOUT “CHURCH PROGRAMS?”
Let’s “drill down” another level. In my earliest years, as a faithful church attendee, it eventually dawned on me that leaders of churches had fallen into a serious misconception that church programs ministered to people. This is distinct from understanding that only people minister spiritually to people — and they do so only as the Holy Spirit empowers people to love and care for people.… not programs.
This error has led many churches deeply into legalistic and merely human attempts to “minister spiritually” to people in need. Here’s an example: in churches with Sunday Schools, the Sunday School Superintendent is burdened with the task of assigning enough “teachers” to lead all the different age-level and topically oriented classes to keep these classes going. But a problem appears when the “ministry” that is assumed to be taking place in these classes is actually not the Spirit ministering through people to people. What so often actually takes place is that people perpetuate programs designed to “minister” to people. In such instances, mere human-designed, human-led programs tend to be religious in the sense of assuming that because it’s a religious program or a Bible study, it will in and of itself be pleasing to God. Program-driven ministries (sucah as program-driven Sunday Schools, program-driven evangelistic efforts, etc.) tend to become focused less on seeing people’s needs met in the Holy Spirit and more on simply maintaining their own existence.
Actually, in such systems, administrators often struggle to find enough mature people to “man” these programs until they’re forced to fall back on merely finding “warm bodies” to fill these “teaching” slots — people who can then present “materials” to church goers. The fundamental principle underlying this is that if a spiritually mature person writes the programs, then any “warm body” can present the materials and spiritual growth will take place. The flaw in this expectation is that “programs” are not empowered by the Holy Spirit to minister life to people — people are empowered by the Holy Spirit to minister to people.In any “church ministry” or “church program”, it’s essential to understand that the only “teacher” who can imnpart spiritual wisdom is the Holy Spirit. If in a particular Adult Bible Study, for example, no one present “has ears to hear” the Spirit, and if the teacher hasn’t been placed by God into that setting and empowered to present truth, nothing of eternal value will be able to be accomplished. [Paul explains this clearly in 1Cor 2; only the Spirit can impart spiritual wisdom to spiritually enlivened people. Even if the class leader is no more than a “warm body” who presents a church program (Sunday School materials, Men’s Bible Study books, etc.), the Holy Spirit is still able to “speak” through that person — but all too often in those circumstances, people’s heads will be “taught” but their hearts will remain unfulfilled
Simply put: organized teaching or evangelistic or counseling programs never “minister spiritually” to the needs of people; the only ministry that meets the spiritual needs of people is the ministry of the Holy Spirit Who ministers Life to people who hunger after more of God — and His design is to work through spiritually empowered persons to impart Life to spiritually hungry persons. In or out of a traditional church setting, inside or outside religious organizations, the only “spiritual” ministry is governed not by the human nature or intelligence — but by the Holy Spirit.
Needless to say (but I will anyway), in respect to truly spiritual ministries, “church ministries” do not even exist.