The Future of the Parachurch Organization

The phone conversation was going well until I asked a surprising question. I had been speaking to a missionary from an outreach organization who was soliciting a commitment of financial support from our church for his efforts, and I guess I asked something he hadn’t been asked before. Or, maybe he had been asked before and was tired of the question. In any event, I didn’t think I was coming out of left field when I asked: “In what way does your evangelistic work serve the local church?”

He could not answer right away. This fellow knew his work was valuable to the kingdom of God because it involved spreading the gospel in difficult places. But I wanted to know if those won to Christ were also won to local churches in which to be discipled. I wanted to know if converts were baptized not just into the life of Christ but into the life of the covenant community of Christ’s body. I wanted to know the church where he held his membership and the pastor or elders to whom he was in submission.

My new friend fumbled around for an answer. It turned out he was more of a “freelancer.” He had a very clear idea about how his work would benefit the Church with a capital C, the universal church. But he was less clear on how it served any particular body.

And therein lies an important matter for the future viability of many parachurch models and the churches they aim to support. But before we get too far into some potential parachurch pitfalls, we should make some clear distinctions.

The Meaning of Parachurch

While we do not clearly see the presence of what we today call the “parachurch” in the Bible, we can see some historic precedents for the parachurch in religious orders and organizations operating alongside and in service to local churches, fulfilling particular ministry endeavors and spiritual enterprises. From Christian organizations mobilized to feed the hungry to nonprofit publishing ventures, so long as there has been the church, there has seemed to be some form of the parachurch.

A parachurch organization is exactly that—an organization that operates alongside (para) the church. Parachurch organizations are groups of Christians, members of the universal church, who engage in specific areas of ministry that serve or supplement the ministry of local churches.

Really, there seem to be as many kinds of parachurch ministries as there are Christian callings. A parachurch focuses on one particular biblical ministry or vocation of the universal church, ideally to serve the local church in its primary focus to proclaim the gospel and make disciples. “Thus,” Jonathan Thigpen writes, “we could say the purpose of the parachurch is to support and enhance the work of the local church, not to replace it.”

And yet this purpose is constantly in danger of being muddied.

The Work of the Parachurch

I was sitting in the back row of a plane from Atlanta to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. A few others from my fellowship and I were on our church’s annual mission trip. It looked as though many others on the plane were on a similar mission. There must have been forty to fifty young people, mostly college students, all wearing matching T-shirts, on their way to do works of service and ministry.

Sitting near a few of these team members, I asked them where they were going and what they would be doing. It turns out that very few of them knew each other. Most of them were Christians, but some of them were probably not, my new friend told me, and they were going on the trip for reasons ranging from earning college credit to résumé padding.

It turns out that the trip was organized by a Christian parachurch organization that wasn’t very selective about who participated in its mission. The aims of the group were noble; it organized regular trips throughout the summer that focused on community service projects—relief work, mostly. But there wasn’t a concentrated gospel focus, and there was no connection at all to any local churches in Honduras. Sometimes the group worked out of a church; sometimes it didn’t. It sounded a lot like what many negatively call “missions tourism.”

Setting aside for the moment the controversial issue of the value of short-term mission trips, I was reminded of what a privilege it was to be traveling with brothers and sisters from my local church body to visit and serve another local church body in Honduras with whom we had an established, long-term relationship. We were representatives of one local church serving another local church, and this comes close to the biblical picture of missionary work.

What I learned about the other group’s approach to missionary work seems representative of so many philosophical perils in the parachurch model in general. Many times, in seeking to serve the larger church alongside her, parachurch organizations have tended to drift away from the church, even seeking to replace or neglect her. As Mack Stiles says: “The standard cliché for parachurch is that it’s not the church, but an arm of the church. Yet historically, that arm has shown a tendency to develop a mind of its own and crawl away from the body, which creates a mess.”

I have a friend who feels disillusioned with the local church. He just wants to “be the church,” he says, by going out and helping and serving. Helping and serving are unquestionably good things, and they are things the church is called to do. Loving service of our neighbors is a nonnegotiable of discipleship. But involvement in a local body of believers is also nonnegotiable. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my service-minded-but-church-neglecting friend often struggles with doubts about his faith and holds to a very superficial theology.

Similarly, some parachurch ministries become not just vocationally focused on a particular ministry endeavor but theologically focused so that the gospel itself can become distorted or obscured. There are plenty of examples of parachurch organizations dabbling in political engagement and “moral values” that eventually begin to equate particular political party platforms or particular moral efforts with the gospel itself, creating confusion as to what the gospel actually is.

Some parachurch organizations pride themselves on doing ministry work “so the church doesn’t have to,” or—more ruefully—”because the church isn’t doing it.” Such attitudes over time can have a detrimental effect on parachurch members, putting them at odds with or at a distance from ministry in their local church.

Conversely, many local churches have tragically seemed to adopt the singular activism of some parachurch ministries, blurring their own ecclesiological boundary lines, making themselves less a church than a parachurch. This happens when a local church becomes preoccupied with a charitable service or even evangelistic outreach in a way that distorts the biblical parameters for a local church body while at the same time obscuring more biblical markers of a healthy church such as the sacraments, biblical exposition, or biblical offices in governance.

The Future of the Parachurch

Moving forward, it would be wise for parachurch organizations to reconsider and reevaluate their relationships with and service to the local churches from which these organizations and ministries receive their workers and constituents. Recent examples demonstrate that when a parachurch pushes the gospel and its ecclesiological context from the center, it will get spiritually wobbly. When a Christian movement untethers from the local church, in other words, it often untethers from the “good deposit” with which the church is entrusted (2 Tim. 1:14).

The best parachurch organizations will continue serving the ministry of the church by supplementing her in the spread of the gospel, not just the doing of good works or the promotion of good values. The mission of the church is to make disciples of Christ, to plant and grow local churches—not local utopias. When a parachurch ministry understands this purpose and sets its efforts alongside it—in development of and in deference to the local church—the work that the ministry does will endure into eternity with the good pleasure of our heavenly Father.

The terms of the parachurch’s future must be defined by the historic and orthodox church’s gospel, not simply by its own good ideas.

J. Wilson

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

8 thoughts on “The Future of the Parachurch Organization

  1. For years we were overseas missionaries in two third world countries and the locals churches supported us, also individuals. Now we are Member Care Reps in the states with the same mission board and still supported by local churches and individuals. As a missionary I see everything we do feeding back into the churches that support us. Missionaries help give church members a bigger world view of God’s command to go into all the world with the gospel and disciple them. With out the help of a great local church who see missions as part of their outreach we would not have been able to stay in most countries because you cannot hold down a job in most third worlds. As for as our ministry of member care to our missionaries coming back home we know we help local churches. I remember once at a church we shared our ministry and following us was a missionary to Cuba who brought validation to our ministry. His mission board did not have Member Care people set up to help their missionaries coming back to transition into US culture. And, because he has had a hard trial with others while on the field he felt like he had no one to talk to about it. His pastor was for someone like us coming in to help this man. There are some cultural difference with someone who ministers in the states to someone who ministry in a foreign country. Fitting back into US culture is a hard task, and most do not understand it. Most pastor see the need for people who do what we do and truthfully here what matters the most to a missionary coming home. Being understood is of the upmost importance. Helping them understand how they will not be understood is usually the first thing they must accept. It’s hard to bring your big world view into a small world view mind. So, for the missionary coming home if their expectation is not met, they become depressed and even bitter that people do not understand why they cannot shop, the amount of choices in all areas is over whelming. Our goal is to help them get past that judging part and become part of their local church again. So we advise them to start to ask questions of others, learn about them and their issues so they can be a positive part of their life. Most missionaries do not want to be put on a pedestal as someone special. So when others do that, then when a missionary lets down and share how they are depressed or bitter over something people are shocked. Like pastors we are suppose to be above that kind of feelings. Thats where we can help by being that listening understanding ear. And offer resources that can help them have a good home assignment. So, for sure I feel like we aid the local churches and the missionaries too. We need to at all times realize it is God who works through both, local church and para church. We are all a team bringing people to the Lord, helping disciples them into a Christlike mindset. As you can tell, you have hit a cord in my heart with your post. If there was one thing I always want to tell pastor about what we do now comes from our first couple we met with after taking on the role of a Member Care Rep in the states. This couple had one term under their belts in Indonesia. Young with two children, excited about being home, but already suffering from a lack of understanding. They had met with both their pastors and both was good. Then they met with us and after we mainly listened for two hours to them the wife said this, ” we did not have explain anything to you”. Our experiences of being on staff of our home church, being an overseas missionary in two countries, raising our children overseas, bringing them both home for college, returning without them, a biggie. All that and some good Member Care training all came into play as we listened to them. They were not looking for counsel, or direction, they needed validation what they felt was normal and a process all missionaries go through on returning home. This visit validated for us we were in the right ministry at this time of our life. I do not remember telling a missionary they do not need their local church. In fact, we build up the local church because we believe in it. It all starts there, sitting in the pews, listening to the pastor, and then being challenged by the needs of the world that drove us and many others to commit to stepping out in faith for what ever God has for us. Many churches chose not to support para church in the states, only overs ministry, and that is their choice and ok. Praise God, our support has continues and allowed us to travel to meet these missionaries face to face. We chose to do ministry that way because we understand how traveling on their part to meet us is just an extra burden on them. We usually take them out to eat, pay for it, spend money for a hotel room if the drive it too long heading back home. As a para church ministry we still have to pay rent, utilities, have a car, gas, groceries, go to doctors, dentist, etc. We still need support to do our ministry and as I said, praise God it has stayed up enough to do it. By now you may have turned me off…as I said, you struck a cord in my heart. Blessings.

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  2. In a manner of speaking, you could say that my blog operates as a parachurch organization, though not voluntarily. I don’t presently belong to a church. The last church I belonged to fell into heresy and error after the senior Pastor passed away more than a year ago. Since then, finding a church that bases its teachings solely in Scripture has been a nightmarish ordeal.

    I’m still searching for a church I can belong to, but all I find are nice buildings, with nice lawns, occupied by heretics. I don’t want to be a parachurch organization, I don’t want to run a parachurch organization, but I am unwilling to compromise biblical principles in order to belong somewhere.

    I hope and pray that the Lord guides me to a church that meets with His approval, so that I can once again operate under the auspices of the Church.

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    1. You might consider an intentional community where you invite three or four friends (no more than 12 including kids) to meet at your house or a neutral site (restaurant, etc.) for worship and fellowship as an alternative. I pastor a church but have conducted an intentional community for over 6 years now. Did one two years before that. The level of sharing is impactful and you share with like-minded people. Let me know if you want more information.

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      1. My family is in the process of relocating to another state, so I’ll see what I can find once we get there. It’s much easier for my wife and kids. They’re sociable. Between Asperger’s and service in Iraq, I don’t make friends easily. I’m willing to give it a shot, though.

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