Like most of my Christian peers, I was deeply involved in a parachurch ministry for much of college. Those were formative years for me, in many ways—years that shaped my outlook on ministry, discipleship, and faith. The relationships I forged there remain some of the most important in my life, and the mentors I had there changed the way I walk with God.
Yet when all was said and done, I left before I finished my senior year, breaking a signed commitment and resigning a leadership position along the way. The decision was painful and difficult, not least because it involved criticizing people dear to me and hurting them with my departure. It meant reneging on promises I had made. It meant losing some of my relationships. It meant facing counter-criticism from men I regarded highly. Yet I was, and remain, convinced that I made the right decision.
In this series, I will do my best to lay out a careful, thoughtful theology of the relationship between churches and parachurch ministries. In brief, the aim of every parachurch ministry should be supporting local churches. Unfortunately, this goal at times gets buried by other concerns, and parachurch organizations fail to do what they set out to do. Worse, they sometimes (intentionally or not) hurt the mission of the local church.
By the time we reach the conclusion of this series, I hope you will understand how I can be both deeply supportive of and deeply worried by parachurch ministries—as well as hopeful for the future.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of all of this, I want to be very clear on what I am talking about. It will not to do to spend our time in the comments arguing about what exactly constitutes a parachurch ministry, etc. For the sake of the discussion, here is how I am defining parachurch: any Christian organization oriented toward outreach, discipleship, and fellowship that does not consider itself to be a church.
In this conversation, I intend to include organizations like Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Campus Crusade for Christ, Young Life, pastors' associations, etc., while excluding a number of others like Focus on the Family or the International Justice Mission. While these latter ministries (and many others like them) certainly are parachurch in nature, they are not the sort of parachurch organizations I have in mind—not least because they do not generally fall prey to the problems I intend to address.
One risk I run in a series like this is sniping at my allies. I want to be clear from the outset: my goal is not to tear down the work that parachurch organizations are doing, but rather to encourage them to become even more faithful supporters of the local church. As I noted in my introduction, I have benefited deeply from the work of a parachurch organization—as have most of my peers, including other authors here at Pillar on the Rock. I am grateful for the ways God worked in and through those organizations, and (as I will detail more in a later article) I think they are doing a lot of things well.
At the same time, where parachurch organizations have made mistakes, we must not shy away from offering gentle, gracious criticism aimed at moving them in a healthy direction. To the contrary, this series is penned in the hopes that what is good can become better—possibly even much better! Ultimately, I hope to see more parachurch ministries patterning themselves and their relationships with local churches on biblical terms.
Even while this series may be controversial, to many of our readers it may also seem unimportant. Most of you have no direct involvement with any ministries that fit under the definition I laid out above. Others will have only tenuous connections via friends or relatives who are involved in parachurch ministries. Nonetheless, this series matters to you, and it matters to your church. Pastors' associations, college ministries, and youth outreach events all offer great opportunities—but they have some potential pitfalls, too.
Those of you who are much more involved with parachurch ministries—whether because you currently participate in one, financially support workers in one, or are yourself on staff with one—already know that this is important. I hope you will take this series as an opportunity to evaluate the way your parachurch ministries act, and to ask how they can support the local church more effectively. Furthermore, I hope you will be open to hearing some of the critiques I offer—for my part, I will do my very best to offer them humbly and graciously.