A Plea For The Parachurch

I recently heard a well known pastor talking about how we need to do away with the parachurch. He was specifically talking about the need to replace the campus ministries at his local university with an in-house church ministry reaching students. His reasoning? This kind of organized outreach is the responsibility of the local church.

It struck me as odd, though, that at the same time he was boasting about a degree he is receiving from a seminary which is also a para-church organization. Was the ministry of theological development not given to the church as well?

Comments like this are misguided at best and hypocritical at worst. If we did away with the parachurch we would lose the most effective campus ministries around the country, seminaries like RTS and Westminster, church planting organizations like Acts 29 and Redeemer City to City, publishers like Crossway, church building organizations like The Gospel Coalition, Together for The Gospel, Desiring God, and 9marks, and ministries like Family Life bringing the gospel to marriages.

I vividly remember the Lord opening my eyes to the value of the local church as I read a book in a hotel in Italy in 2007. I, like many others, zealous for this new found love of the local church allowed the pendulum to swing too far and lost sight of the value of the parachurch.

My pendulum has now come back toward the middle and I want make my case for the parachurch.

Parachurch defined

‘Para’ in Greek has a number of meanings. It is a prefix that usually means ‘at or to one side of, beside or side by side.’ We get words like paragraph and parallel from this word. In the same way, parachurch simply means alongside the church. It doesn’t mean autonomous from the church, but working alongside the church to help the church accomplish its mission.

They have strong historical (and maybe Biblical) roots

Ralph Winter, the great American missiologist, traces the para-church  back to the first century and even to the Apostle Paul himself. Winter makes the case that there have always been two branches of God’s work in bringing the gospel to the world: modalities and sodalities.

“…a modality is a structured fellowship in which there is no distinction of sex or age, while a sodality is a structured fellowship in which membership involves an adult second decision beyond modality membership, and is limited by either age or sex or marital status. In this use of these terms, both the denomination and the local congregation are modalities, while a mission agency or a local men’s club are sodalities.”

Jared Wilson says ‘so long as there has been the church, there has seemed to be some form of the parachurch.’  They came in the form of monastic orders bringing the gospel to Northern Europe, countless missions organizations, church planting organizations, seminaries and, according to Winter, even the Westminster Assembly as it was comprised of multiple denominational groups.

Is the parachurch prescribed in the Bible? No, but neither are Christian lawyers, seminaries, or hospitals. It doesn’t have to be prescribed to make sanctified common sense. Most agree, though, that we see the seeds of the parachurch in Peter’s ministry to the dispersed and Paul’s ministry to the poor in Jerusalem.

They allow for interdenominational work

The parachurch gives us the opportunity to work across denominational lines for the greater good of the gospel. We may disagree on baptism and church government, but we can agree on the need for the gospel to go forward.

We see this interdenominational success in organizations like InterVarsity, The Gospel Coalition, Acts 29, YoungLife and Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) to name a few. Probably though, none has had a bigger impact over the past 50 years than Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ).

As a pastor, I get to sit down with new members and hear their faith story. One of the most repeated refrains in these meetings is how the Lord used Cru during their college years to draw them closer to Him.  The success of Cru simply could not have happened without the interdenominational support it has enjoyed all these decades.

They are laser-focused

They are able to focus on a demographic in a way the church rarely can. They can become experts on groups like students, internationals, millenials, and youth and they can become experts at tasks like educating, training and church planting. The parachurch can focus its time and resources to a specific end and see fruit that the church, with all its other responsibilities, usually can’t.

They move the church’s agenda forward

It’s ironic that people in the church cry out against the parachurch as the parachurch moves the church’s agenda forward. Would you get upset if someone was promoting your business outside of your direct control?

Paul was confronted with people sharing the gospel in an effort to deliberately cause Paul problems and what was his response? Who cares as long as the gospel is going forward! (Phil. 1:15-18)

The success of the parachurch, unfortunately, has brought out jealousy and a desire to control in some churches. In our church, we enjoy sweet partnerships with Cru, Young Life and The International Guest House (a ministry aimed at international students in Oxford) that give our church evangelistic reach in our context that we would NEVER otherwise have. These organizations are moving our agenda forward and we are deeply committed to seeing them thrive.

They keep the church on course

The church has gotten off course many times over its life. We have strayed theologically and we have let go of vital parts of our mission. And do you know what the Lord has typically used to get us back on track? The parachurch. Ralph Winter calls them ‘organized renewing structures’ and explains it like this:

“the sodality, as it was recreated again and again by different leaders, was almost always the structural prime mover, the source of inspiration and renewal which overflowed into the papacy and created the reform movements which blessed diocesan Christianity from time to time.”

They are a sign of God’s blessing

Kevin DeYoung and Ryan Kelly make this case well here. The church grows when God blesses her and every great expansion of the church has been accompanied by a great expansion of the parachurch. As God blesses the church, people are moved by the Holy Spirit to act on very specific gospel callings which become parachurch activity. As this happens, the church grows.

Two concluding cautions

To the parachurch: I think one of the main reasons churches are skeptical of you is the tendency of the parachurch to operate completely independently of the church. In the words of Jon Saunders, parachurch exists to assist the church, not to replace it.

When I worked with Cru, a pastor and good friend told me that Cru staff made great evangelists and bad church members. As you live out your calling, don’t starve the church of the blessing of your gifts and ministry. Be a thriving member of a local church and make sure all the fruit of your ministry is plugging into the church as well. You have much to offer the church and the church has much to offer you.

To the church: I am not dissuading you from honing your skills and targeting specific demographics. University Reformed Church is a great example of church organized campus ministry. But they aren’t against parachurch activity. I’m simply saying don’t stifle the parachurch, fuel it. Be humble enough to admit what they bring to the table.

Pastor, whose kingdom are we growing? If it is the kingdom of your local church or, worse, your name, you will want to beat the parachurch and both will lose. If you are working to grow the Kingdom of God, you will be glad for anyone willing to work alongside you.

Let’s work together to build The Kingdom, not our kingdoms.


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