The Parachurch: A Parasite?

(I recently was asked to address the question of the “parachurch” by the Canadian Council of Christian Charities. Here is a brief summary of my main argument.)

What are we to make of World Vision, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, freestanding Christian schools and colleges, evangelistic associations, and the myriad of other “special purpose groups” (as Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow has termed them) that have proliferated within and especially beyond the congregation-denomination structures of Christian organization?

These groups are usually, but mistakenly, called “parachurch” as if they are not the Church (that is, the worldwide Body of Christ), but instead occupy a shadowy zone “beside” the Church. I use the term “shadowy” to allude to the suspicion and even outright hostility with which they are viewed by some Christians—not least by many clergy and denominational leaders. For such groups often are seen as distractions and diffusions of the Church’s resources, not least its money. Thus we hear pastors urging congregations to tithe first to the local—which is to say, the “true”—church, and then (perhaps) to other ministries.

I respond that such groups are not churches (that is, congregations or denominations), but they are certainly part of the Church. Indeed, I see them as the Church of Jesus Christ deployed in particular modes to accomplish particular purposes.

In particular, I want to dispute with a typical rationale offered for such groups—sometimes by their own representatives. I affirm that they are not, as “parachurch” can imply, “stopgap” devices to “make up for” some kind of deficiency in the work of congregations or denominations. Most of them do work that no congregation or denomination can do, and could ever do, as well, precisely because they are both more focused than congregations and are ecumenical to at least some degree.

For example, such organizations on university campuses—such as the Navigators or Campus Crusade—have blessed several generations of students by introducing them to age- and context-appropriate Christian education in an ecumenical environment. This experience has introduced their members both to other traditions and to the Christian consensus that binds them together in a way unlikely to happen in any other form. A Baptist or Pentecostal or Anglican campus group in the nature of the case may well offer particular benefits to its members, but not these crucial benefits.

Furthermore, by drawing from across denominational lines, groups such as these can achieve a critical mass of members and funds, and thus can accomplish certain things on campus that an array of disassociated, small denominational groups never would. Such is not always the case, of course, but my point is that there are important limitations to denominational divisions here, no matter how lively the denominations, that can be overcome by such ecumenical special purpose groups.

Again, they are not churches per se and normally do not aim to be. Churches are what I would call integrated and integrative communities. They bring together disparate people (rather than the relatively homogeneous groups brought together in special purpose groups) around a core of liturgy, doctrine, ethics, and mission in a single fellowship—in short, around the standard trio of worship, fellowship, and mission.

As such, however, they cannot do what special purpose groups do, which is precisely to focus similarly-concerned people on an area of mission and to do so, at least sometimes, across lines of denominational distinction. And, it must be added, often these groups engage in particular ministry that is not even attempted by a particular local church, but is in fact part of the calling of only some of its members.

Grey areas do exist in some special purpose groups, to be sure, particularly around the sacraments: Should they be administered, and, if so, by whom? But most do not ever consider baptizing or serving communion. And their utterly voluntary nature means that church discipline is not exerted (although one must allow that church discipline is hard to find anywhere on the ecclesial landscape today).

Yet such groups clearly are Christ’s Church mobilized and active in worthy pursuits. Thus the term “parachurch” really won’t do. I suggest instead the term “paracongregational.”

Congregations do some important things well—indeed, some nonnegotiably fundamental things well—and the “normal Christian life” entails belonging to and participating in such bodies. They truly are our “church homes,” our ecclesiastical family units. And paracongregational organizations ought to expect and urge people to join and function well in churches, being vigilant not to encourage people to substitute the easier affinity of the relatively homogeneous special purpose group for genuine church fellowship.

Yet paracongregational work has a long and significant history in the Church. Thus churches need to support this work as well, and should think about how to do so better. For example, church leaders can help their congregations choose well among the welter of paracongregational choices out there.

Furthermore, congregations should beware of acting like special purpose groups—particularly like youth groups or campus groups, with the same musical genres and songs, the same preaching topics and styles, the same transdenominational/generic doctrine and practice.

Why would young people come to your church instead of just attending a youth group or campus organization if you are not offering them something different: tradition, maturity, diversity (of people, liturgy, and ministry), integration, and discipline? And why would anyone else come if it’s just a kind of big youth group—including churches that cater to Baby Boomers who often flatter themselves that they are “forever young” and so remain in a weird kind of arrested ecclesiastical development? No, congregations should act like what they are, so that their “use” vis-à-vis paracongregational groups becomes obvious.

Why not support both, therefore, with glad hearts, open wallets, and ready hands? For the New Testament churches supported and benefited from the apostle Paul when he was resident in their congregations, and they supported him in his independent, organized ministry to benefit others when he was away. Maybe I’m just an old-fashioned and simplistic Bible believer, but this idea doesn’t seem all that difficult to me.

(For more description, theology, and evaluation of paracongregational ministries, please see “The ‘Parachurch’: Promise and Peril,” chap. in my Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day [Baker Academic, 2002].)

0 Responses to “The Parachurch: A Parasite?”

  1. Beyond Words

    This is interesting. Hope my question isn’t off-topic. Can you describe what a church is like that isn’t in an arrested state of ecclesiastical development?

    I’m curious because I think that’s why I’m struggling right now in my church. The service (music and word) is intentionally geared to be attractive to the 25-35 y/o male. I come home from “worship” depressed. Could be because I’m a 54 y/o woman who’s been following Jesus for 48 years. Sunday is the low point of my week.

    I don’t know how to articulate what’s wrong to my husband. I just know that I don’t want to sing loud, hip praise songs anymore because it’s all about the band. I don’t need any more topical sermons based on prooftexts that only apply to my personal walk/relationship with God/Jesus. I want to assemble to worship in community instead of gathering as individuals…

    Does this make sense?

    • Ron Fryer

      Hi;

      My name is Ron. I am a married Christian man. I feel more fulfilled in ministry outside the church but believe in staying connected to a local church even though it is less satisfying. It should not be this way or should it?

      Are you active in a ministry outside of your local church; some parachurch or paracongregation?

      Love In Christ.,

      Ron
      PS: Please respond!

      • John Stackhouse

        I don’t know if you’re asking me or the commentor, Brother Ron. Nor am I sure what the point of your questions are. Please clarify your concerns.

  2. Andy Rowell

    John,
    Brilliant. Brilliant. I found myself agreeing the whole way through. Love it all. I will send this to others. I have never seen something so good on this subject.
    Just two quick comments:
    In the “In particular” paragraph ther is a typo. It should say “more focused than congregations” I think.

    Church discipline. I think that church discipline is done with those who are employed at a church or who occupy key leadership roles (worship leaders, small group leaders, deacons, elders, etc.). The same is true with the parachurch where “official leaders” of the group are definitely subject to censure or dismissal for heresy or moral failures. But the average attender is rarely disciplined. If they are, it is because they are part of the core leadership usually.

    The other major issue with church vs. parachurch is working at one.
    With the church, you have a constituency that is your boss. If you tick off the congregation, you won’t be there long. The hard thing about working for a parachurch organization is that you have to raise your own support usually from your friends (who usually are not part of the people you minister to). The dangerous part is that you can stink at what you do and still get your friends to support you financially. I’m not saying one is better than the other but they are just different.

    Allow me to address the comment of Beyond Words as well:
    I’m 31 and it is interesting to hear of someone 54 hating their 25-35 age church because I hear lots of 25-35 year olds hating their churches run by 55 year olds. 55-65 year olds are typically in leadership of churches because this is when they have “risen to the top” of the ladder. Like the workplace, 55-65 year olds are often in charge. After 70, I find church leaders (usually – see exception 79 year old Chuck Smith in Christianity Today http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/march/7.53.html) are much better about worrying about the “young people” and not so worried about holding onto power. John is simply saying that the church should be a family that specifically tries to use the gifts of both young and old. (This is a better way of putting it than “pleasing both young and old” because I don’t think that can happen and it is not the way the Bible describes the church). Church music should be like a family reunion talent show where everyone joyfully or dutifully listens to grandpa’s banjo and little Johnny’s drum solo. Still, it takes some maturity to have that perspective and it takes exemplary leadership to keep that ship moving toward greater fidelity to Jesus. That leadership is rare. My bet though Beyond Words is that you can find lots and lots of churches that include a variety of ages. Most churches are under 200 people and usually include a range of ages. Whether that church is completely insular and dead is another thing but it is probably intergenerational. Like I said, it takes extraordinary leadership to have a range of ages using their gifts while still pursuing excellence in Jesus.

    Andy Rowell
    Taylor University
    Department of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry
    Blog: Church Leadership Conversations

  3. April French

    Thanks for writing on this topic. I have a long history of working in both church and parachurch, most recently as a missionary with CCC in Siberia before my recent move to Vancouver and Regent. I appreciate what you have to say here both about the church and ‘paracongregational’ movements.

    Yesterday I translated a letter from Russian to English for some friends of mine (Russian staff with CCC). The letter is an attempt to share with the national director (an American) the challenges they are facing in working for a parachurch organization in a society where ‘parachurch’ is a relatively new and, therefore, suspect form of ministry, when compared with the church. They are finding that if a student, who begins a relationship with Christ, does not get connected with a church but is simply attracted by the univeristy ministry’s ‘bells and whistles’, their faith does not last beyond the university. They have proposed a way of more direct partnership between CCC and the Church (which may include church planting, if there are no life-giving church options in that particular city).

    I know that you are addressing a North American context here, but I thought you’d find this interesting.

    Have a groovy day!

  4. Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    An excellent post, though I know many paracongregational organizations that administer the sacraments. I think, for the most part, it is appropriate. Well said.

    Peace,
    Jamie

  5. Armin

    Thanks for the post.

    When it comes to tithing, I am currently finding it more palatable to give to special purpose groups than to my local church. I continue to do both, but when I compare where the local church spends its the bulk of its money, and where World Vision or IVCF or many other special purpose groups do, it’s hard not to see their mission as more closely aligned with the thrust of Jesus’ gospel.

    In my particular situation, this disconnect is also forcing me to consider where I am spending my other currency – my time and effort.

    Thanks for the blog, and for your books, of which I’ve read “Can God Be Trusted”. (If I remember correctly, also articles in the Winnipeg Free Press way back when.)

  6. Mike Gilbart-Smith

    I agree with much that you have said here.

    Parachurch ministires can be extremely valuable. I agree that pooled resources are helpful for the viability of the ministry, as well as the cohesion of the witness (so long as the group can agree on what the gospel is).

    It is good for churches to support them. (I prefer the idea of churches directing people’s tithes to support parachurches, rather than individuals doing this themselves.)

    However, by making the comment that these are not ‘para-church’ but ‘church’ though not ‘a church’ I think that this needs a little more fleshing out.

    ‘Church’ in the New Testament is used either of ‘A church’ or the universal church. It is not used of a subset of the universal church that is not ‘A church’.

    Thus I would disagree that baptism & the Lord’s Supper are “grey areas”. If they are not ‘a church’ then they should not be practising the ordinances.

    I’ve been blogging on this subject

    http://lovingchurch.blogspot.com/search/label/Models%20of%20Campus%20Ministry

  7. Tim Abbott

    Thanks for this. As director of an area wide youth outreach ministry (in the UK) I appreciated your insight about being para-congregational rather than para-church – it fits better with our experience and intention in ministry.
    In terms of the role and benefits of being an area wide organisation, much of our work is with schools who value the fact that we don’t represent any one church. We are also able to act as an independent catalyst for inter-church projects and mission.
    We went through a phase in the late 90’s when one staff member steered the organisation towards establishing a youth congregation. I felt very uncomfortable about this as I do not believe we are called to be a church and, since taking over as Director, have restated our aim of facilitating mission to young people in partnership with, usually, groups of churches.
    We maintain a worship life as a team, which may occasionally involve breaking bread together, but beyond this each team member is expected to be part of a local congregation – we currently have seven people going to six different congregations!
    We are supported by the direct giving of many local congregations as well as the personal giving of individual Christians – an arrangement which is endorsed by the vast majority of those congregations.

  8. John Stackhouse

    One more bit to add on this topic. The statistics on tithing in North America are, as you can guess, pretty dismal. A significant amount of tension between “congregation/denomination” and “paracongregational” ministries would be resolved–not all of it, but a lot of it–if we all stepped up our giving.

    This goes also for volunteering time. If we each took on one significant role in EITHER a congregation or a paracongregational group, a lot of the implicit competition for helpers would diminish.

    Indeed, these two factors–of money and time–come together in terms of gender and society. Since more and more women are working alongside their husbands, and there are also more single women proportionately in the population as well, the “volunteer pool” has shrunk for both churches and paracongregational ministries. That is, the women who previously did not work outside the home are fewer AND more men are helping out at home because their spouses have outside jobs, ergo fewer volunteer hours.

    Thus Christian organizations have to hire staff to make up for the decrease in volunteers.

    That’s not necessarily bad, although I can hardly recommend that we laypeople buy our way out of using our spiritual gifts! But it is a factor we have to face and deal with realistically.

    Those who would like to consider this question further might like to look at this article by your servant: “Money and Theology in American Evangelicalism,” in More Money, More Ministry: Money and Evangelicals in Recent American History, ed. Larry Eskridge and Mark A. Noll (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 406-18.

  9. Jeff Loach

    John, thanks for your favourable comments toward parachurch (‘paracongregational’) ministries. I thank you for obvious reasons as a humble employee of one of them.

    The organization I serve, the Canadian Bible Society, exists to promote and encourage, without doctrinal note or comment, the translation, publication, distribution and use of the Scriptures, and to co-operate with the United Bible Societies in its worldwide work. Clearly, this is stuff that the church could not do on its own without some sort of co-operative action. Yet I find that many churches – particularly larger evangelical churches – consistently assume that when they hear from me, I’m looking for money. In fact, anytime I contact churches (which is all the time, since it’s my job to do so), what I’m seeking to do is help them do their job better. I never ask for money. I offer to help. Sometimes that costs money and sometimes it doesn’t, but I never overtly ask for a handout.

    Thanks for painting a positive picture of paracongregational ministries. God’s best!

    Passionately His,
    Jeff

  10. Tom Grosh IV

    Dear John, I really appreciated your comments on ‘paracongregational’ at the recent IFES conference. For the past year, I’ve begun referring to my work with IVCF’s Graduate and Faculty Ministry as ‘para-academy/para-academic.’ Considering IVCF’s structure which involves the leadership of students and faculty, I guess it’s some of both. In Christ, Tom

  11. Robin Calamaio

    The entire parachurch concept does not exist even in thought in the Bible. It is a fabrication of the clergy/lay church model that has been imposed on the Christian body. It is a very destructive teaching and I address this in detail in an ebook I have written on the Tithe (“No Tithe for the Christian”). It is free to anyone who wants it. Keep digging and exposing.
    Sincerely
    Robin Calamaio

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