Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Who’s Afraid Of “Parachurches”?

Para-Church ministries have an uneasy seat at the table in the broader church. They are often viewed, at best, with some suspicion by more traditional local church organizations. There is just something about parachurch ministries that is vaguely threatening . 9 Marks devotes a whole e-journal to the topic to make sure that we never, ever confuse parachurch ministries with local churches. Even the title is somewhat ominous: Church and Parachurch: Friends or Foes?. Their e-journal is chock full of warnings that parachurches are not churches, that they don’t function like churches, they are not accountable like churches, they don’t exercise church discipline like churches, there are no ministers to safeguard the doctrine, etc. We must never, ever confuse churches and parachurches!

So me being me, I asked…

Does the Bible make a distinction like this?

Well not really. Primarily because there were no parachurches and not really any local churches that resemble our traditional model. There was the church. In times of rapid growth and severe persecution, arguments about which manifestation of the church was subservient to others probably didn’t come up. So I think that a lot of this is a product of Christians who have too much time on their hands to worry about things the Bible doesn’t mention.

So what exactly is a “parachurch” ministry? This is the definition from Wikipedia:

Parachurch organizations are Christian faith-based organizations that work outside of and across denominations to engage in social welfare and evangelism, usually independent of church oversight. These bodies can be businesses, non-profit corporations, or private associations. Most parachurch organizations, at least those which are normally called parachurch, are Protestant and Evangelical. Some of these organizations cater to a defined spectrum among evangelical beliefs, but most are self-consciously interdenominational and many are ecumenical.

What distinguishes the two, between a parachurch ministry and the local church ministry? The para-church tends to be bigger and less localized. Many parachurch ministries have a large budget, tons of office space and a bunch of staff. They tend to draw in Christians from a variety of doctrinal, geographic and ecclesiastical positions. It is a diverse group ranging from mercy organizations to Bible translators to food pantries to evangelistic organizations. Local churches are the groups you gather with on a weekly basis and are engaged in more traditional church functions: baptisms, weddings, funerals, potluck dinners,VBS, weekly sermons, Sunday school.

So my question is this: is a “parachurch” ministry a less legitimate or even subservient form of the church than a local church gathering? Maybe Paul can shed some light…

Look at this passage of Scripture:

Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me. (1 Corinthians 16: 1-4)

This is interesting. Paul is instructing a whole bunch of Christians in various churches in Galatia and now in Corinth to set aside some money. As Paul is travelling around, he is sending these offerings from the churches to Jerusalem to aid them in their time of need.

Also it is interesting to note that Paul appears to be supported by churches outside of where he was ministering, so in effect he was a missionary who worked with his own hands and at least on one occasion received some support from a different church while ministering among the Corinthians (2 Cor 11:8).

As Paul was not a permanent part of any local church, could he and his companions not fit the definition of a “parachurch” ministry? They ministered outside of but with the support and cooperation of local churches and crossed all sorts of geographical regions. They by and large raised their own funds. They were engaged in preaching the Gospel and in works of mercy for the needy (Galatians 2:10). I think that the Apostle Paul, so beloved and studied by the church, was engaged in an ancient version of what we would call a “parachurch” ministry! If what Paul was doing was Biblical and vital (and I think we would all agree that it was), why is there such concern over parachurch groups?

I think one of the reasons that there is so much hand-wringing over "parachurch" ministries is based in money. When someone donates to "Parachurch Ministry A" it often means they are contributing less to the local church offering plate. Now many so-called parachurch ministries are engaged in producing books, conferences, radio shows, etc. that are hardly more essential than church buildings and clergy but some, like those that engage in mission work or mercy ministries, are every bit as deserving of Christian offerings as any local church. That borders on blasphemy in some circles but the "your first giving should always be to your local church" view is based on a tradition to preserve and sustain the institution of local churches rather than on Scripture. As I have railed about again and again, giving is a major theme in the New Testament but it almost universally goes to meeting the material needs of individual Christians and not for what the vast majority of local churches spend their budget on.

The other big reason? Control. Message control is very common in local churches. If someone spends too much time associating with parachurch ministries, they might hear things that are contrary to what their local church teaches. Perhaps a Presbyterian will hear Baptists speaking about baptism or a dispensationalist might hear people talking about covenant theology. One of the essays by Carl Trueman seemed very concerned that different Christians might mingle together. I can think of nothing more chaotic than Presbyterians and Methodists mingling together without proper supervision! Throw a few Pentecostals, Lutherans and Baptists into the mix and there is a real danger of a rift in the time-space continuum! Why we might just find that the things we fight and feud and divide over are less important than the universal callings of all Christians, callings that just might be more effective and provide a better witness if we weren’t fighting with each other all the time!

There is nothing illegitimate about parachurch ministries. Oftentimes it seems to me that they are engaged in more of what the church is called to than local churches. Rather than issuing ominous warnings and giving parachurches the stink eye, local churches should be seeking ways to cooperate with other local churches to carry out the mission of The Church, even if that leads to a “parachurch” ministry. It might actually be a healthy thing for your local church!


Steve Scott said...

And of the 9marks parachurch ministry itself?

Arthur Sido said...

Well Steve they are OK because they don't cross any of the lines.

Alan Knox said...


You asked, "Who's afraid of parachurches?" Do you think the answer may depend on who's relying on church donations (ummm, tithes) for their living?


Arthur Sido said...


I think that is exactly what the answer is, at least in part. The single greatest driver of disunity in the church is the mindset that most Christians ministries hold that sees other Christian ministries as competition for scarce financial resources.