The urban mission field is not a playground

There are a number of parachurch organisations dedicated to encouraging people to get involved in evangelism and world mission. There’s often a focus on young people and an emphasis on short term missions.

Now, this is one of those articles where lots of disclaimers are needed and I’m running the risk of causing offence.  So, as always, at the outset, here are the disclaimers.

  1. There are a lot of wonderful Christians involved in parachurch mission organisations with a lot of passion and energy for the Gospel. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. I love them and respect their desire to see people reached for Christ.
  2. We have had plenty of positive experiences from engaging with parachurch missions. We’ve particularly been blessed by having young people spend time with us who have encouraged us and helped us in the work. We’ve also had the privilege of seeing them grow and go on to serve God in other contexts.
  3. I think there is a place for parachurch bodies that serve and are accountable to the Church through local churches. Sometimes they are needed to help churches co-operate and do things together that they could not do alone (e.g. CPI, 2020 Birmingham etc) and sometimes they do things that are brilliant and good things that Christians should be concerned about but are not necessarily the mission of the local church (examples of this include CAP, TLG, Birmingham City Mission etc).

At this point, you’ve recognised that there is a “but” coming. So here it is.  There are risks with parachurch organisations seeking to mobilise for mission. Let me give you the scenario that I have in mind.

A parachurch grouping decides that it wants to encourage people to try mission. It then organises its training programme, special project or mission trip. In the worst-case scenario, it then simply goes into an area and runs its programme. In other cases, it then invites local churches to join in and get involved with what it is doing. That creates one side of the problem which we’ll return to in a minute.

However, there’s another side of things. The organisation then goes out to recruit people to join the programme. It advertises on its website and in Christian magazines. How does it advertise. Sadly, I’ve seen too many examples of the mission trip or training programme being sold as an experience. It’s all about how the person will have a fantastic time, discover their gifts etc. It is marketed as a consumer experience hence my title above. If we are going to move away from seeing urban mission as a fringe issue then we are going to need to stop treating our inner cities, estates and small churches as play grounds where Christians can descend for a little time and then head off. To  be sure, friendships may be formed, churches may get a little bit of a buzz and an uplift, there may even be conversions – but those things will really be accidental by-products of such an approach.

Now, let’s come back to the other problem. The parachurch organisation has started with their aims and the local church has come a poor last in their decision-making process. Does that really matter? Their hearts desire is to bless the local church, their priority is the Gospel. What’s the big deal. Indeed isn’t there something unsavoury, parochial and territorial about this.  Is a local church saying “This is our patch.”  Are we insisting that they need our permission.

I want to suggest that it is a good and proper thing to start with the local church. By this I don’t just mean that you go and invite them to get involved or even ask their permission. Rather, Gospel mission should start with local churches seeking to share the Gospel. The movement should come from local churches. It then does one of two things. It either goes into areas where there is no meaningful Gospel witness or it is a local church to local church movement. The parachurch agency will work at its best when it helps link up sending churches with receiving churches. Then there should be  a sense of planning and working together.

Sadly, this rarely happens. From time to time I’m told about what a parachurch group wants to do. I’m rarely asked what I think they should be doing.  This is sad because.

  1. Biblically, the local church is the only institution that God has commissioned for Gospel ministry and discipleship.
  2. Healthy Local Churches are not being territorial when they care about what happens in their local area. Rather, they act and speak out of a love for the area. This means that they want to encourage healthy Gospel witness in their area and protect the community from unhealthy witness – whether that is outright false and cultish or just cringeworthy.
  3. Healthy local churches know their areas. They know what is likely to bear fruit. They know the local needs.
  4. Healthy local churches and church members are in it for the long-haul. They are th eons who either follow up after you or clear up your mess. They know that fruitful Gospel ministry means putting down roots and sharing your life with neighbours. Indeed, where such churches exist, they provide the model for Gospel mission that if we want people to be mobilised for mission, we want them to catch hold of.

So, let’s stop treating our hard to reach places as playgrounds. Let’s see them as genuine mission fields and let’s put the right resources into helping local churches reach those mission-fields. The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few and we are praying that God will send labourers into his harvest field.  This means, we are deeply grateful and rejoice when individuals, other churches and parachurch groups want to partner with us to reach the harvest field in our area. All we ask is that you start by coming and asking “How can we help?”

  • This was originally posted a few years back on the Old Blog

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