Friday, January 06, 2006

Church or parachurch?

Parachurch ministries operate outside the command structure of the local church and cut across denominational lines.

Parachurch ministries are a fixture of contemporary evangelical life. They do most of the heavy-lifting in Christian outreach.

Parachurch organizations are involved in mass evangelism, campus evangelism, urban mission, Christian education (K-12, college, seminary), political activism, legal aid, Christian media (print, radio, TV, film, music), crisis counseling, apologetic blogs, jail and prison outreach, drug rehab, Bible societies, home-schooling, home Bible study, &c.

Although they often cooperate with various churches, they are self-governing. This autonomy has made them controversial in some Evangelical circles where they are viewed as encroaching upon or usurping the Scriptural prerogatives of the church. They drain away resources. They’re rogue elephants. They dilute doctrinal purity.

These allegations raise a number of questions for which there is no uniform answer.

1.How do we define a church? One traditional way is to isolate and identify the “marks” of the church. In Reformed circles, the marks of the church are word, sacrament, and discipline.

But it isn’t clear how this would transgress on the jurisdiction of the church. If, on the one hand, a parachurch ministry doesn’t duplicate these activities, then it isn’t taking over the functions of the church; if, on the other hand, a parachurch ministry does duplicate these activities, then what distinguishes it from a church? If a church is what it does, and a parachurch ministry does the work of the church, then a parachurch ministry is a church. At that point they coincide.

2.The definition can, however, be amended. Not just anyone is authorized to preach or administer the sacraments. That is reserved for an ordained minister. Seminary professors are often ordained ministers.

But there are problems with this redefinition:

i) Some church polities are more formal than others. So it becomes a difference of degree. Depending on your theory of church government, there is no principled distinction.

ii) Apropos (i), the NT doesn’t assign the administration of the sacraments to the pastor. And ordination, in the modern sense, is not a NT qualification for teaching and preaching.

This is not necessarily to object to these extra-Scriptural developments, but if the accusation is that parachurch ministry is unscriptural, then the charge cannot be sustained.

3.Indeed, the rise of parachurch ministries is a logical outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation. In Catholicism, there is a principled distinction between the laity and the clergy. Valid communion presupposes valid holy orders. Valid holy orders presuppose apostolic succession. But you don’t have this is Evangelical theology.

4.What is more, the Protestant Reformation regarded the lay state as no less of a divine calling than the pastoral vocation. And many parachurch ministries draw upon the expertise of the laity.

5.Another way of amending the definition is to distinguish between independent organizations and organizations formally affiliated with a particular denomination. As such, they are under the supervision and control of the sponsoring denomination.

But there are problems with this redefinition as well:

i) Now we are redefining the church. A denomination is not a church. A denomination is a set of local churches. Indeed, as John Frame has said, "denominations themselves are parachurch organizations."

ii) In addition, differences in polity reassert themselves at the denominational level. If your theory of local church government is more hierarchical, then that will carry over to your denominational structure. But if your theory of local church government is more informal, then that, too, will carry over to your denominational structure.

So it’s hard to find any principled objections to parachurch ministry. If so, then this leaves us with the pragmatic objections:

6. They drain away resources.

That’s possible. However, parachurch ministries arise to fill a vacuum. If the church were already assuming these responsibilities, then there’d be no need for parachurch ministry.

7.They are rogue elephants.

That, too, is possible. Of course, churches and denominations can also revert to the wild. We’ve all seen liberal prelates who hijack a denomination over the protest of the faithful

8.They dilute doctrinal purity.

It’s true that some parachurch organizations evince a considerable degree of doctrinal indifference.

i) But is this a cause or a consequence of doctrinal indifference? As free associations, parachurch organizations attract like-minded volunteers. If you’re a Calvinist, you’ll gravitate to a Reformed organization. If you’re an ecumenist, you’ll gravitate to an interfaith organization.

ii) In addition, not all parachurch organizations are into indoctrination, per se. For example, a Christian legal aid society may be staffed by lawyers of various persuasions who are generally concerned with the civil rights of Christians.

iii) It is also possible to overemphasize the difference between Christians at the expense of their spiritual unity in Christ. We can so accentuate the doctrine of the local church that we lose the doctrine of the universal church.

All said, I don’t see parachurch ministry in competition with the church. And even where it is, a little competition can be a good thing.


  1. Generally I thought this was a helpful outline of relationship between parachurch and church, and a dismissal of common 'myths' about parachurch organisations. FWIW I would add at least two more reasons against too quick a dismissal of parachurch organisations:

    1. They are an expression of denominationalism. Denomations are a reality, and denominations do not fully express the whole church, only their small corners of it. Parachurch organisations provide an opportunity to express Biblical fellowship and partnership which would otherwise be inhibited by or outside the scope of denominations or just within a local church. They provide a point of intersection between denominations and/or local churches. ParaCHURCH might be a misnomer. Perhaps paraDENOMINATION or paraLOCALCHURCH would be more accurate?

    2. Members of parachurch organisations should also be members of a local church. If that is the case, they are not entirely rogue elephants, as they should still be under the supervision of denominational or local church leadership in some way.

    Craig Johnson

  2. MJB in Madison, WI5/02/2007 9:32 PM

    Very interesting thoughts about a controversial issue. One thing I often wonder is this: if "parachurch" groups have accountability & leadership structures of the same quality as the leadership of a local church, why do members of a "parachurch" need to also be under the "supervision" of the local church to be considered legitimate? Isn't that like being the member of two local churches? (I'm not saying it's wrong for 'parachurch' folks to also be a part of a local fellowship.) I agree that "parachurch" is a misnomer. As far as I can see, "parachurch" groups are just mobile expressions of the body of Christ just as local churches are local expressions of the Body of Christ. It's like the Army & The Air Force - both fight for the same side & report to the same General. They just have slightly different means & objectives. The local church & the mobile church.
    Thanks for your blog!

  3. I think you did a great job here of examinig the issues with parachurch. On the one hand I think parachurch is an entity we have to live and work with now. On the other hand I think they serve as a crutch that churches rely on rather than doing the ministry themselves.

  4. Wow! I googled "relationship between parachurch ministries and the church" and this was the first link that showed up.

    Generally, I am dubious about blogs of unknown origin (sorry - but I don't know you)... but this was such a civil & reasonable assessment!

    One more distinguishing characteristic I would add is that churches meet "in person" and therefore have natural limitations as to its geographic boundaries. A parachurch often go beyond geographic boundaries.

    Thus, it seems churches are naturally more "bent" toward sheparding and parachurch toward achieving kingdom goals. Both have a community of sort, but I think churches have an adavantage in that that 'eyeball to eyeball' contact just cannot be replaced by technology - as much as I appreciate social networks and blogs like this one!

    I work & volunteer at a parachurch ministry and have been trying to develop a biblical ethos of "development" and one area that tends to be a point of tension was the unspoken [but nevertheless real] "competition" for a slice of the donor pie. I'm not saying this is biblical... it is just a prevailing unspoken assumption. As a result, a lot of parachurch ministries exort believers not to cut into their tithe to give to them. I think this is a good policy in general, but I have been thinking more about what/how the relationship should develop between the church & the parachurch ministry I am part of.

    This was a disjointed comment...just wanted to put in my separate 1 cent coins!

  5. I don't believe that Para church ministeries exist we are all the church just different expressions of it, Jesus said where two or three are gathered there I will be also Church is not the building it's the people together we are the people of God and some of us meet in buildings some in houses some in Pubs we are all the church and some of us move around as God leads us to like Paul did and those of us who do are the mobilwe church not the Para church!!

  6. Any one would like to do this blog in Spanish, or just a "click" to translate this into Spanish