Friend of Sinners is a church among the poor in Milwaukee, where racial divides are just beginning to heal. Many of the city’s poor and disenfranchised are not members of the dominant American culture. They go to jail more. They have less job opportunities. Their options are limited. But many of them love the Lord, and many more need to know Jesus. So the people of God must bring the gospel and must deliver mercy. How to do this confuses churches of the dominant culture who don’t understand or are apathetic to the needs of oppressed people in America.
It is normal for donors to ask: “Are you a church or a ministry?” Or, for instance, “Will your church be sustainable in three years?” (The reasonable time frame for a suburban church plant.) Yes, Friend of Sinners is a church plant. Yes, We do ministry because we are a church plant. As to the second question, no, Friend of Sinners will not be sustainable in three years. Friend of Sinners may never be financially sustainable outside of the resources God provides through the rest of His church. In fact, the gospel itself is not humanly sustainable. The gospel is first and foremost a message given to the poor. But if we cannot plant churches among the poor any longer because the poor are unable to sustain it, is it the good news of the gospel we preach? Who is responsible for the preaching of the gospel to the poor? Perhaps the church has lost track of the great commission Jesus gave it:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Churches planted among the poor must do ministry to the poor also. Some argue (quite convincingly) that if the suburban church does not include the poor in its ranks, it has missed the message of the gospel. So the question, “Are you a church or are you a ministry?” is important.
Parachurch ministries today do a lot of things that appear church-like, but these ministries clearly are not churches. Yes, they feed the poor, clothe the poor, visit the prisoner, care for the sick and many other activities assigned to the church that are done in the name of Christ. But ministries typically do not baptize, serve communion, marry people or bury people. The work of a parachurch ministry must be to aid the church in fulfilling Christ’s call to the church to show mercy.
Parachurch organizations play a very important ecumenical role in our world today, where the church is fractured into various ecumenical denominations. Parachurch ministry becomes a uniting factor between people of different denominations, uniting not over issues of orthodoxy, but issues of orthopraxy. Parachurch ministries are usually run by some who are members of the invisible church. On the other hand, the church consists of all the elect of God who are under Christ. The church is His body. The church defies time and national barriers. The church is that body of Christ, outside of which there is no possibility of salvation.
The nature of the church
The true church is invisible, known only by God. But the church is made visible as local church bodies meet together in homes, or in buildings dedicated to the worship of the Trinity. Christ has given this visible expression of the church responsibility for ministry, preaching of the Word, the ordinances and sacraments of God and the gathering together and perfecting of all those who are part of the invisible church. It is by the power of Christ that this visible church is able to serve and nourish the invisible true church.
The church is difficult to spot, and among local visible expressions of the church, some are more and some are less pure. Some identify with one or another body of specific doctrines. Nevertheless, the core beliefs of the church always center on those the church has affirmed, as expressed in ancient documents like the Apostle’s Creed, or the Nicene Creed. Christ gives the church the responsibility and obligation to teach and embrace the gospel, to administer the ordinances, and to publically worship the Trinity.
Granted, even the purest of churches will have some mixture of truth and error, and some churches have degenerated so much that they are no longer churches at all, but antichrist (if they have fallen so far from the gospel that there is no faith in the work of Christ visible at all). As Christians (visible members of the invisible church), our primary loyalty must be to Jesus Christ, and not any denomination. Because of Christ, we can be sure that the church will always exist on the earth until the end of the age. This is because the head of the Church, visible and invisible, is the Lord Jesus Christ, and no other.
The interaction of church and parachurch
Parachurch ministries exercise and important and godly role in united those fragmented local and denominational church bodies into service for the kingdom, orthopraxy, that is done with a greater stewardship blend that individual denominations might find themselves unwilling to cooperate in directly from denomination to denomination. However, a parachurch ministry is not a church. It comes under the leadership of the church, according to Scripture.
Which helps answer the question, “Is Friend of Sinners a church or a ministry?”
The question itself is a false dichotomy. The church is always the umbrella over the ministry that is done by the church. There is no example in Scripture of ministry being done outside of church authority. In this sense, all ministry is church ministry when done in the name of Christ. In our time, where the visible church has been so fractured, God has given us parachurch ministries to allow us to labor in unity for the sake of the kingdom. There are even parachurch organizations that specialize in church planting, for example, Acts 29, or the New City Network. These parachurch organizations facilitate the planting of many churches of varied evangelical denominations for the sake of the Kingdom, though they are not churches themselves. Even my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, has churches within it that have helped to plant churches of other denominations for the sake of the spread of the gospel and the Kingdom of God.
The invisible church is the sole body of Christ. It is mostly revealed by the visible church, with its duties and obligations described in Scripture. One of those duties is ministry, and loving participation with other local visible churches for the advancement of the kingdom. I have initiated such a church plant. Yes, it does ministry! Ministry is one of the duties of the visible church.
Unhealthy interaction between the church and parachurch ministry
There are times when a parachurch ministry evolves, and in the absence of theologically astute leadership begins to display the marks of a church incompletely. In these cases, the ministry is confronted with a decision: whether to become a local visible church or denomination, or return to a parachurch ministry, or secularize. If it returns to service of the church, this is a victory for the church. If not, it will largely cease to serve the greater invisible church. Examples might be the Christian and Missionary Alliance or the Salvation Army, each seen as or originally begun as a parachurch organization, but in the end becoming its own denomination. In doing so, each slows or stops its ministry to the church as a whole, and begins to function as its own visible expression of the invisible church, instead of supporting the visible church.
The reason I get the question “Are you a church or a ministry?” seems to come from this same confusion. People know I am planting a church among the poor in a cross-ethnic part of town. There are many ministries I rely on in order to fund and organize the work I do among the poor, or in order to participate in conversations about racism and reconciliation, or to reach out to the prisoner.
“So, are you doing mentoring and discipleship ministry or are you planting a church?” Yes.
“Are you feeding the poor, or are you planting a church?” Yes.
“Are you clothing the poor or are you planting a church?” Yes, yes, YES!
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
This is the earliest description of the church, and includes those marks of the church already mentioned above. This, in combination with the Great Commission, places the church at the forefront of ministry in the world today. This is the vehicle God has ordained for the advancement of His gospel.
Churches, Ministries and Fundraising
I become perplexed when donors ask whether I am starting a church or a ministry, although I think the motivation is good stewardship. But sometimes we confuse good business process with good church ministry. The gospel is not always about spending money efficiently – especially when the lives of the poor are in the balance. I had a wealthy church ask me the ministry-church question in an effort to determine whether to support my church plant. The church declined to support Friend of Sinners in part because “You look more like a ministry than a church.” Yet my church planting efforts are designed to rely on the knowledge that God has provided well-funded parachurch ministries in part so that church plants among the poor can be effective in ministry without having to develop novel, difficult to manage programs of their own.
On the other side, I just had a parachurch foundation refuse to support Friend of Sinners Church Plant because we’re a church not a ministry! It’s their policy. “We don’t think it is right to support a church plant.” The attitude reveals a profound misunderstanding of the purpose and preeminence of the invisible church on earth, as represented in the visible church, in the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
Here’s the bottom line: Christ has ordained that His Kingdom be spread through the church – His body. The moment a parachurch ministry departs from that, they have turned from following the expressed will of Jesus in building that Kingdom, and turned instead to building their own Kingdom. Once that happens, the parachurch ministry must either legitimize itself by becoming its own denomination, as was the case with the Salvation Army and the Christian and Missionary Alliance, or it will eventually secularize as has the Boy Scouts, the YMCA and YWCA, and a myriad of other now-secular, once-Christian charities that have fallen away from the church.
Leaders of Christian foundations and parachurch ministries must regularly ask themselves four blunt questions:
- Whom do you serve?
- Are you in alignment with God’s revealed will, or working against His revealed will?
- Do you expect to succeed in His power, or yours?
- If your policy ignores God’s revealed will, do you expect His blessing?
At some point the church of Jesus Christ is going to have to figure out how to plant churches among the American poor. The United States is now the fourth largest mission field in the world. We must reach our cities. We must do so passionately and with resolve and resources. Jesus came to bring the gospel to the poor. So must we.