Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
Having become as cynical as I am about people, I have, nevertheless, been shocked at least three times. One of those shocks took place as I met with a group of church people and asked which was more important, church or parachurch. The answer was parachurch. When I explained that the Church is an institution of God, their answer was still the same.
Now I suppose that most individuals who found a parachurch ministry will say they were so led by God. I have no basis upon which to deny their claim, but I will any day prefer an institution of God so defined by the Bible over an institution defined by man’s extrabiblical experience. I trust the Bible, God’s Word, while I suspect the claims of people.
By now some of you may be wondering what a parachurch is. In some circles that nomenclature is common, but not so much elsewhere. “Para” is a preposition in Greek which can have several meanings but commonly has a meaning like “beside.” So parachurch is a ministry or organization which exists alongside the Church. It is not the Church, but it usually focuses on some aspect of ministry. It can be represented by various religious schools, missions, groups formed to promote a biblical value, evangelistic groups assembled around a sport or other interest, groups designed to support a certain demographic, etc.
In this blog, I will be sharing a view of parachurch, and I will comment generally. I do not wish to name any parachurch organization because I wish to focus on principles, not persons or ministries. My hope is that you would think about what is presented here and consider your own values. Neither do I wish to characterize all parachurch ministries the same. There may actually be a few—I can think of one right now that might qualify as a legitimate extension of the church. So keep in mind the possibility of exceptions and the effort to respect people in their desires to serve God.
I must also disclose that, although my focus has been the Church, I have at times been temporarily associated with parachurch ministries, and for the most part they have been happy associations. We could say that these associations have come about because we live in an age in which parachurch is very much part of the landscape. I suppose that parachurch organizations have existed for a long time, but they certainly mushroomed in the decade of the 1970’s and have continued to multiply.
I also suppose that most individuals who found a parachurch ministry do so because a perceived need was not being met. Over the years I have occasionally tried to determine whether the Church might not have met these needs, and my conclusion has been that she could have. Why she did not, if indeed she did not, is another discussion that we might yet have. But the person founding this parachurch ministry discovered it easier and perhaps more effective, in his/her view, to create the parachurch to meet the need rather than attempting it through the Church. Certainly, this parachurch organization could be more narrowly focused and streamlined in meeting this perceived need.
It has been fascinating from the present vantage point to glance back over one’s shoulder to the time when particular parachurches originated. They had goals they intended to achieve, sometimes even by a certain date. How effective were they? I can think of a parachurch designed to help the family, and forty-some years later the family is more dysfunctional than ever. Is that the fault of the parachurch? Not necessarily--it’s just an observation. I can think of another parachurch designed to strengthen the correct expression of gender, and thirty years later the society, even the Church, is saturated with gender issues never before imagined. Would the outcome have been better if the Church had been faithful to its given message? Who knows?
The parachurch allows for various anomalies simply by the fact that it is not the Church. It doesn’t need to have biblical requirements for membership because it is not the Church. It doesn’t need to have requirements for leadership because it is not the Church. If there is criticism, it can plead its non-Church status. But that also opens the door to weirdness.
I have observed that folks who have trouble with the Church will often congregate in the parachurch. They may not want to meet the qualifications for Church membership, and they don’t need to in the parachurch. They may not want to let go baggage that should involve repentance and abandonment, and here they don’t need to. As long as they mesh with the purpose for which the parachurch exists, everything is fine.
One parachurch gave out awards occasionally. One man was awarded with one such “outstanding” award because he had given a large amount of money. That was fine as far as it went, but I knew some of his neighbors, and they cursed his Christian testimony because of his shady business deals. His testimony did not adorn the gospel of Christ, but his gift obtained for him a one-time annual award.
Along with that and going back to the answer to my question posed in a church group, I have observed that giving to a parachurch is often easier than to the Church. The local Church considers an expansion or an improvement, and the project may die because the project is considered too expensive. On the other hand, when the parachurch considers its project, it may be ever so expensive, and soon someone has written the check. People give to what they consider important. And sometimes the structure of the parachurch eliminates the inefficient discussion that could put an obstacle in the way of a project.
Often when the parachurch asks for money, it will remind you that you should give first to your local Church. And when the parachurch explains their ministry, they will usually declare that they are an arm or a branch—or whatever extension term you wish to use—of the Church. Somehow someone knows that Christ instituted the Church and not the parachurch, so that to claim some connection to the Church legitimizes.
A few years ago I was reading material from an organization overseen by two gentlemen. The organization had a name, and one of the gentlemen was quite famous. They opined on all kinds of topics theological, and in many cases they were very critical of others. I was curious whether they were responsible to any church, so I wrote them and asked. They graciously responded with the information I requested. They were part of a church, and they told me which one. For me it was helpful to know that they were not just some folks who had set up shop and were free-wheelingly peddling their opinions.
It has also fascinated me to observe that when a parachurch or a local Church has an event, the probability that the guest speaker comes from parachurch is high. I have wondered why. It could be because the parachurch representative has a particular emphasis, and we want to hear that. Also, he/she has spoken on the emphasis a hundred times already, so the performance is bound to have a certain polish. We might consider that a Church representative might also have a wealth to share that is borne out of a broader challenge and experience. But we value the entrepreneurial style of the person founding the parachurch, so we may well continue to provide publicity there.
I was in a seminary homiletics class (parachurch, or perhaps an extension of a denomination) once when the professor became very emotional in expressing envy at those of us who would be ministering in the Church. He kept being asked to be a special speaker and to communicate on certain topics which he had often communicated. He said he would rather go on to something else. He said he and his family knew these subjects very well and had incorporated them into their lives. He envied us who would be able to communicate something different every week.
Further, after the parachurch has existed for a while, it often encroaches on the Church. I don’t know if the narrow focus on one purpose becomes boring, but the parachurch begins to compete with the Church. The Church must cancel services in order to encourage the success of the parachurch, and the parachurch seeks to more and more take over the ministry of the Church (even though it is only a ‘branch’ of the Church). Perhaps every such move is generated because of perceived failure of the Church, but it seems that such a movement could be sought and promoted within the Church, not off to the side. I would rather place the emphasis on God’s institution.
So why did I share my bias here? I don’t expect that you or I will change the culture, eliminate the parachurch, and cause the Church to in purity be all it should be. So, in the first place I share this for the purpose of information. Once this topic has been raised, you may evaluate your own relationship to ministries. You should know which is Church and which is parachurch. One is instituted by God and the other is not, at least not in His written Word. Having been served, you decide where to place the emphasis.
God’s Word has everything to say to us even here. One passage that came to mind as I wrote is 2 Timothy 2:2, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (NASB). There is no reason why the Church cannot do this. A few local Churches are, but in many cases we leave it to the parachurch.
To me it seems ideal to have just the Church and no parachurch, but history teaches us that the curse is active there as well. Everything deteriorates over time and will until Jesus brings His kingdom to bear. So I rest in His promise “I will build My church” (He will!) in Matthew 16:18 and join John in saying, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). When He comes, then the Church will finally and truly be His Bride!