Defining Our Terms
by Jared Wilson
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.
Defined broadly like this, parachurch ministries run the gamut from resource organizations such as The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God to relief organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse or Compassion International, from preaching, publishing, and broadcasting ministries such as Ligonier Ministries and Grace to You to foreign missionary organizations such as New Tribes Mission or SIM (Serving in Mission).
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.
The parachurch is best when it serves its ministerial function in a way that honors the primary place of the local church. But when it seeks to replace the church, it goes off the rails and makes a mess of discipleship. For instance, some campus parachurch ministries have a reputation for making converts and then winning these converts to the spiritual life of the campus ministry. This may work for a time, while the new believer is in college. But disconnected from the life of a church, discipleship often stalls out upon graduation. Sometimes the narrow focus on certain demographics cultivates an undervaluing of the multigenerational and otherwise diverse local church.
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.