This article about ministerial students wanting to serve God in ways other than the local church reminded me again of how lowly the local church is in the eyes of many Christians today. Oftentimes Christians have experienced problems in local churches or little seeming productivity, so they immediately gravitate toward something that seems to promise fewer problems or greater results. Yet I believe that in the long run all the alternatives to local church ministry actually work to undercut our ability to make mature disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the NT the local church is God's plan for making disciples in the world today. I believe that those activities which fall within the parameters of the mission and purpose of the church should be reserved to the church. This is the God-given structure in which we are to carry out his work. Christians may participate in other legitimate activities and organizations; however, these should not be considered equivalent to the mission of the church. For example, Christians who wish to apply their Christian principles to politics may rightly do so (in fact we all must do so), and they may determine that they would like to form a political action committee to accomplish this objective. This is good. But it is not good for them to claim that they are fulfilling the Great Commission or making disciples of Jesus Christ by doing so. Jesus Christ did not leave his disciples with a political agenda that they were to pass on to others. Christ’s disciples are responsible to pass on the truth of God’s Word, and this is properly the function of the church.
Here is another example which might be more controversial. I believe that the job of training ministers of the gospel should not be delegated out to para-church organizations. I am all for having well educated pastors, but we must not confuse qualifications for the ministry with a Bible college or seminary degree. The only real place where the biblical qualifications for ministry can be developed and assessed is in the local church. See this article by John Frame for a similar perspective.
American Christianity has been explosively creative about developing models of ministry outside of and apart from the local church. If we had put that much energy and thought into developing our local churches, we might find ourselves in a very much improved spiritual situation right now.