Ralph D. Winter Addresses Three Church Problems Unrelated to Sunday Morning Worship

Protestant churches have weathered many hardships over the 500 years since the Reformation. And, despite recent handwringing about their predicted demise, there are still 300,000 organized Protestant churches in America, or 24 churches for every Starbucks. (Interestingly, there are ten churches for the combined total of all the McDonalds and Starbucks restaurants). However, churches have not been able to solve three problems of no small importance: mission to unreached peoples, church unity, and Christian revival. Churches are not organized to send missionaries to unreached peoples; our Lord’s prayer for unity, “that they may be one,” is rendered invisible by hundreds of versions of Christian denominations and churches that find reasons to criticize one another; and third, renewal of Christian faith in our churches depends, mainly, on adult children refilling the pews as the founding generation ages. But fewer and fewer adult children of church members are feeling loyal to the churches they grew up in. A reading of the New Testament suggests the wholesome importance of all three: mission to unreached peoples, church unity, and Christian revival; yet church leaders do not seem equipped to address them. We have books a-plenty on leadership, and we have become “pretty good” at presenting a Sunday morning worship and teaching experience for Christians. But our efforts to teach and worship on the Sunday morning (and our efforts to make disciples through small group fellowships) have made some of us realize that the day will never come when churches (as we normally think of churches) fulfill the biblical expectations that we are concerned with here: mission to unreached peoples, church unity and Christian revival.

Ralph D. Winter is one person to offer a way for Protestant churches to begin resolving these three problems. The solution has been “out of reach,” Winter writes, because of a strong bias against organizing small, voluntary organizations of Protestants who pledge themselves to these three very causes. This unfortunate bias began at the start of the Reformation, which the men we look to as the fathers of the Protestant renewal. For it is a fact that Martin Luther and John Calvin and John Knox dissolved the Catholic monasteries, the means of mission, unity and renewal in the Catholic tradition. With only the Protestant congregation and its administrative structure to do the entire work of the Holy Spirit, the Reformed Churches have emphasized what they are good at: teaching and worship (especially on Sunday morning) and maintaining the doctrines of the Protestant traditions. That leaves three problems to stump the elders and pastors. But we are interested in getting “beyond stumped.” These three problems were meant to be addressed by smaller, focused, associations whose members pledge themselves to address the biblical values of unity, mission, and renewal. These associations are sometimes called parachurch groups. Ralph Winter wrote,

Protestantism has made no serious attempt to recover the voluntary tradition of the Catholic orders. By cutting off the orders the Protestant body gave up arms and legs and virtually put unity, renewal and missions out of reach.

Is there “a more excellent way?” The writer [Ralph D. Winter] is convinced that the Roman Catholic tradition embodies in its much longer experience with the phenomenon of the “order” a superior structural approach to both renewal and mission. Fortunately, Protestants do now possess in various parachurch structures functional analogues, if they could somehow see them in a new light and develop a new relationship to them that will be beneficial, symbiotic and accountable.[1]

The Warp and the Woof

Ralph D. Winter theorized that there are two kinds of Christian organizations—churches (which are biologically dependent for their existence after the first generation of members has aged) and parachurch agencies (not biologically dependent), whose members make a pledge to make their lives count for a mission they believe God has given them. Winter writes:

These two structures working together as the warp and the woof of the fabric, the fabric being the Christian movement—the people of God, the ecclesia of the New Testament, the church of Jesus Christ. Therefore, to make either of the two structures central and the other secondary, as the term parachurch seems to do, is probably unwise. The two are indeed interdependent and the evidences of history do not allow us to understand either of them as complete without the other. As in the Roman tradition, their relationship is at least potentially a beneficial symbiosis. The problem is that within Protestantism today the tension between the two is as great as or greater than ever before, [2]

Dear reader, how do you feel about Ralph D. Winter’s “two structures” theory?

[1] Winter, “Protestant Mission Societies and the ‘Other Protestant Schism’.”

[2] Ibid.