It’s tough to work in parachurch ministry. It can be lonely. Many of these ministries work with transient populations like high school kids or college students who are here today, moving on tomorrow. On top of that, many churches can clash with or misunderstand the role of these ministries, neglecting them or ignoring their purpose in the community.
The good news is that the Bible itself contains an example of an ideal parachurch ministry: the ministry of John the Baptist. John is this strange character, dressed in camel hair and eating locusts and honey (sound like any parachurch leaders you know!), who comes onto the scene “mooing” like a cow in the wilderness. He is loud, brash, in your face, and yet he has appeal–especially to the marginalized sinners in Galilee. Tax collectors, fornicators, and other notorious sinners came to him in droves confessing their sins, repenting, and being baptized.
Trouble in Paradise.
For a while, John’s ministry swells. Day after day people flock into the wilderness to hear him preach, as he cries out, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:2). He claimed to be “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord'” (John 1:23). However, even as his ministry grew, he began to prepare the people to leave him: “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:26-27).
We all know who this one was: Jesus.
Jesus comes onto the scene, and all of the sudden John’s ministry begins to shrink. People who once came to John begin to flock to Jesus. John’s followers notice this fact, and they begin to complain to John: “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness–look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him!” (John 3:26). It’s as if they are saying, “Jesus and his disciples are stealing all of our people! Our ministry was going great! Now that Jesus is gathering disciples, we are shrinking down to nothing!”
He Must Increase. I Must Decrease.
John’s response is so full of humility and purpose: “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the Bride is the Bridegroom. The friend of the Bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the Bridegroom’s voice” (John 1:28-29). John understood his place. In the Great Wedding, he wasn’t the Bridegroom, and he wasn’t gathering the Bride to himself. John was the best friend, the Best Man, who stood beside the Groom and celebrated the wedding.
This is the purpose of parachurch ministry. John saw it as his job to prepare people to meet and accept Jesus. He called them to repentance. He sought to make straight paths into their hearts. However, when Jesus came into their lives, he did not prevent them from leaving his ministry and joining Christ’s disciples. In fact, he encouraged it. In John 1, John is all but forcing his two disciples to leave him and follow Jesus. For John, he understood that his ministry was one of humility: “He must increase, I must decrease.”
Give Them Away.
John was not seeking to build up his own disciple group. He was constantly seeking to give his disciples away. In the wedding metaphor he uses, he sees himself as standing beside Jesus and celebrating as the Church walks down the aisle. John saw his ministry as a funnel of sorts. He was calling men and women to repentance then seeking to funnel them into the Bride of Christ. He had no greater joy than to give his disciples away to Jesus. Multiple places in the gospels we see John intentionally sending his disciples after Jesus (John 1:35-37; Matthew 9:14-17; 11:2-6; Luke 7:18-23). This was no coincidence–this was his purpose.
This is tough. It must have been tough for John to watch as all of the people who had repented began to leave him and to join Jesus’ disciples. It must have been tough to realize that Jesus was going to build his Church upon Peter and the disciples rather than on his ministry. It must have been tough as he languished forgotten in prison only to be beheaded as a bizarre birthday party trick.
However, John realized that the best thing for his followers was for them to move on and join the Bride. In humility, he found his joy not in the explosion of his own ministry, but in the growth of the Church. He admitted to himself and others: “I am not the Christ. I’m not the main character of this story. In this love story, I’m the Best Man; I get to watch as the Bridegroom celebrates his Bride.”
Jesus didn’t come to die for any parachurch ministry. He has one Bride: the Church. Whether you are John the Baptist, a traveling evangelist, an FCA leader, or any other parachurch ministry leader, you have the joy of watching as people find Jesus. The humbling part is realizing that we must find our ultimate joy in seeing those people become a part of Christ’s Bride. Only then will they participate in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
Titian’s painting of John the Baptist is perfect. Standing confidently, he extends one finger away from himself and toward the Savior, as if to say, “Don’t worry about me. I’m just here to point you to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Turn and follow him.” May our joy be complete even as each of us discovers in our own lives that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).