Move, Parachurch – Get Out the Way! (Part 1 of 4)

“The parachurch only exists because the church wasn’t doing its job. Now that it can, parachurch ministries should move out of the way of church-based ministry.”

I’ve heard such statements quite a few times in my 9 years of full-time college parachurch ministry. I personally wrestled with them when I first began and several years later when I had an existential crisis as to whether to remain in parachurch work or ministry at all. I stayed… and I’ve come to love and value parachurch college ministries’ ongoing work in campus engagement, discipleship, and evangelism and strategic long-term gifts to the global body of Christ. I’ve also realized how these anti-parachurch ideas reflect significant historical and theological fallacies and arise from a wrong, legalistic framework of thinking. Those who make such pronouncements generally do not understand how parachurch ministries contribute to the kingdom of God: parachurch ministries aren’t a crutch and shouldn’t be treated as one.

As a parachurch worker, my relationships with local churches have generally been very positive. These days I hear fewer and fewer anti-parachurch statements and experience more and more positive partnership. Pastors and church leaders are mostly genuinely excited to partner in the Gospel. Many are humbly eager to celebrate and even learn from how God has worked in my ministry and the ministry of parachurch organizations. However, I still hear anti-parachurch ideas here and there; they just won’t go away. I’m convinced those who propagate these ideas haven’t examined them critically or Biblically: they just heard them somewhere and believed them since.

“Parachurch” is typically defined as any Christian ministry organization that exists outside the structures of local churches or denominations and does not seek to replace them. This includes many seminaries, Christian colleges, charitable organizations such as World Vision or the International Justice Mission, think tanks, publishers and publications such as Zondervan or Christianity Today, evangelistic organizations such as Arab World Mission or the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and extra-denominational associations such as The Gospel Coalition or the Acts 29 church-planting network. Fortunately, local churches and denominations rarely tell such ministries to “move out the way,” so I’ll focus on college ministries.

Here’s a short video where Tim Keller argues specialized parachurch ministries need healthy local church involvement and healthy local churches to flourish, which I absolutely agree with and hopefully have modeled. He concludes, however, that for thriving gospel eco-systems, we need a “wonderful, positive, complex, mutually-supportive, inter-dependent relationship between the local churches and all those [specialized parachurch] ministries.”

Keller names anti-parachurch arguments and refutes them: “I don’t buy it.” He explains using practical considerations. This post, meanwhile, will explain the wrong framework that leads to these statements before unpacking their underlying historical and theological fallacies. In my next post, I’ll address the partially true but often unhelpful statement that “too many students replace the church with their parachurch college group.” Wrapping up this topic, I’ll also list some ongoing gifts that specialized parachurch college ministries bring to the body of Christ that those who are anti-parachurch don’t seem to know and share some suggestions for partnership. I’ll also explore ways local church partnerships can be most helpful to college parachurch ministries and hopefully most beneficial to partnering local churches, as well.

The Wrong Question

Simply put, anti-parachurch “move out the way” sentiment begins with the wrong question. It reflects an obsession with what is right and ignores what is best. It values law over gospel: legalism. It places truth — misinformed truth — over love and grace. It places the letter of the law over its spirit. It focuses on who should or shouldn’t be doing this rather than what can be done? God intentionally involved Rahab, Ruth, the Samaritan woman, and the Ethiopian eunuch in his redemptive work; none were the “right” people.

Anti-parachurch sentiment also reflects a fundamentalist “bare minimum” mentality. By focusing on what is right or merely sufficient, it ignores the bigger picture of how the body of Christ can qualitatively and quantitatively reach and disciple the most people. It is so narrowly obsessed with rightness and sufficiency that it verges on the same fallacies that lead to superficial questions such as, “what’s the least I need to do to get to heaven?” or “how far is too far” in terms of sexual boundaries or even “how can I prove my righteousness by dissociating with the unrighteous and even those who associate with the unrighteous” rather than, “How can I most love God and others?” and “How can the most come to know and love Jesus?”

Occasionally, anti-parachurch sentiment is based practically on the idea that church-based ministry offers better discipleship — especially if inter-generational — and models better ecclesiology. I absolutely agree on the strengths of church-based ministry! However, this is not an issue of “either-or” except under a very wrong framework of thinking. Church-based ministries simply cannot do targeted outreach, evangelism, student community, and academic engagement like parachurch groups. Those who try, as Keller points out, begin resembling parachurch groups, anyway, and offer fewer of the benefits of church-based ministry. These ministries will never have the paradigm and scope of seeking to redeem the entire national or global university context nor develop and replicate context-specific strategies and methods. Why reject or oppose these? Preference for one particular ministry model’s strengths does not necessitate opposing the strengths of others in the body of Christ. There is diversity in the kingdom of God to accomplish a diversity of work. Exclusive preference for one model would be akin to a modern-day army general entering battle with only infantry and adamantly refusing to utilize other personnel, weapons, vehicles, or branches of the military. “But infantry is the primary and most important force upon which militaries are built!”

Anti-parachurch ideas proceed from a “bare minimum,” legalistic mentality and reflect an additional assortment of theological and historical fallacies as outlined below:

“… parachurch… church”

This dichotomy as stated confuses the different concepts constituting “church.” The church exists both locally (each individual congregation) and globally (the whole body of Christ); visibly (those in the pews on Sunday and/or official members) and invisibly (those who truly follow Jesus, governed by the Holy Spirit), and is both an institution and an organism.1 Those who say “the church wasn’t doing its job” in this context have confused all of these concepts. Parachurch ministries are very much part of the global, invisible church and its organism; they generally seek to build up the local, visible, institutional church (and should).

Protestant parachurch ministries as we now know them did not exist until the last couple centuries and truly developed after World War II. Roman Catholic orders such as the Benedictines and Jesuits date back to almost the age of the Church Fathers and are in some ways “parachurch.” Neither orders nor parachurch groups existed, though, in Biblical times. Nor, however, did individual local churches as we now know them with denominations, Sunday services, children’s programs, and mutually exclusive attendance or membership.  This isn’t to say that First Baptist, Second Presbtyerian, or Oak River Community Church are un-Biblical or that any ministry model not mentioned in the Bible must be rejected.2 We are unable to follow Biblical prescriptions to the letter in this age and cultural context but we should do our best to apply Biblical principles. Based on Biblical principles, I strongly believe that the primary instrument through which God builds and develops his kingdom is local, institutional churches — usually welcoming those of all ages — preaching the word, administering the sacraments,3 and practicing church discipline or discipleship.

In our multi-denominational world, there are varying definitions of what constitutes a local, institutional church. In American evangelical Protestantism, Presbyterianism and Congregationalism are the two dominant views. Both have strong Biblical roots and their own respective strengths and weaknesses. Congregationalism believes any group of genuine Christians can gather together, form a system of accountability and ordain leaders, begin administering sacraments (or ordinances) and constitute a local, institutional church. Presbyterianism, meanwhile, believes that a higher governing body of leaders from several local churches — often called a Presbytery — should exercise oversight over individual local churches whose members are accountable to the leading and teaching of their church’s elders and edified by the work of their deacons.  In either a Presbyterian or Congregationalist view, parachurch college ministries could easily decide to cease being “parachurch,” ordain leaders, begin administering sacraments, and form churches or denominations.4 However, in order to maintain our missional focus and to partner with and rely on local churches rather than compete with them, college parachurch ministries intentionally choose not to. This self-imposed “forced partnership” is an incredible gift to the kingdom of God and to the past, present, and future of the global Church.

Because denominations differ on what constitutes institutional “church” (among other disagreements), parachurch groups are among the only means of genuinely inter-denominational fellowship and partnership. As a parachurch worker, I’m happy to partner with any Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church and strongly encourage all Jesus-following and Jesus-exploring students I have ever worked with in an ongoing basis to participate in such a church. Based on applying Biblical principles to our present context, I especially prefer elder-led congregations that are part of larger bodies of accountability and churches that practice membership and take their members’ commitments seriously. In order to complement parachurch college ministry involvement, I also generally encourage student participation in inter-generational congregations. However, we should never close ourselves off from seeing or participating in God’s work beyond the boundaries of the local, institutional church, let alone the ones we prefer.

“…wasn’t doing its job”

This assumption is based on a false golden-age “once upon a time” premise that there was once a time when local churches effectively or at least sufficiently5 reached and/or discipled university students. In actuality, “once upon a time,” modern universities didn’t exist. Around the time modern European universities began emerging in the mid-1800s, a student prayer group was founded at Cambridge University in 1848 which three decades later named itself the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU). CICCU was the first chapter of the “Inter Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions” which later helped plant IVCF Canada and IVCF USA. Similarly, the American university as we now know it emerged after World War II through the G.I. Bill. Campuses and enrollments expanded significantly because millions of returning war veterans received financial assistance to become first generation college students.6 University education became accessible to most middle-class Americans for the first time in history. Six years after the war, as universities were still rapidly expanding, Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) was founded in 1951 at UCLA.

Parachurch college ministries don’t exist because churches weren’t doing their job; they came about because the university came about. People needed to hear the gospel or sought people to pray with in these brand new contexts. Cru founder Bill Bright and IVCF USA founder Stacey Woods didn’t look around and say, “local churches aren’t doing their job. We must!” They saw the university and saw people and a setting that needed Gospel witness. “Evangelizing, discipling, and mobilizing college and university students” was never an item on the local church’s job description they suddenly abdicated; nor was Bible publishing, educating seminarians, or distributing relief supplies after Hurricane Katrina. These are all tasks for the whole people of God rather than any particular local church. Saying local churches “weren’t doing their job” with college students is like telling a stove it isn’t doing its job of brewing coffee.

That said, from the 1920s through the 1970s, most of American Christianity — the “American Church organism” —  was barely in a place to evangelize at all, let alone on rapidly growing college campuses. American Protestantism was embroiled in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy and its continued fallout.7 Modern mainline liberal Christianity was often so focused on accommodating and compromising Christian belief to science and culture that it began treating many core doctrines of Christianity as optional such as the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, the infallible inspiration of Scripture, and the necessity of salvation through Jesus. Kind of hard to share the Gospel if you don’t believe in those!8 On the other hand, fundamentalist Christians became overly fixated on maintaining doctrinal purity and separating from culture and even other Christians. Comparatively, evangelism became an afterthought and very few gospel-believing Christians enrolled at secular universities for fear of their corrupt culture and liberal ideas. Students at secular universities needed to hear the Gospel more than ever, as did most of the United States. The entire organism of the church was “not doing its job.”9 Cru pioneered the idea that every Christian could and should engage in the work of evangelism and, arguably, InterVarsity USA pioneered the idea that every Christian could learn to study the Bible inductively.  There is some truth behind the statement that “the church wasn’t doing its job” and “now… it can…” but that has absolutely nothing to do with parachurch ministries needing to “move out of the way” of local church ministries: parachurch ministries are an active part of the organism of the American Church.

“Now that it can… move out of the way.”

This reflects a plainly illogical theology of redemption. Throughout Scripture and now in the Church Age, redemption does not move backwards or undo itself. God brought about different languages and set apart Abraham in Genesis 11-12 because humanity “wasn’t doing its job.” The Church, through most interpretations of Romans 9-11, came about because ethnic Israel “wasn’t doing its job.” The Reformers reluctantly began Protestant denominations in the 1500s because, at the time, the Roman Catholic Church “wasn’t doing its job.”

In Revelation 7, God does not try to cancel or erase Babel. Instead, he celebrates and delights in its continuing redemption through the presence of all languages, nations, and tribes in New Creation. People are not monolithically speaking only Hebrew or Esperanto (or English), nor is any speaker of these walking around telling everyone “well, now that all your different languages have done their job…”10

Nor do today’s Jewish synagogues or Messianic Jews tell Gentile churches, “you’re only here because we weren’t doing our job, now out of the way!”11 I realize these examples differ slightly from local church vs. parachurch relations because some form of local church is a Biblically prescribed institution. However, my aim is to show that God’s redemptive plan doesn’t eliminate newer, compensatory means of redemption in order to re-establish or privilege older, original, proper ones. God creates even more beauty out of redeemed brokenness. This is part of the fallacy behind statements like “now it’s time to move out of the way.” Rahab, Ruth, the Samaritan woman, and the Ethiopian eunuch were certainly not crutches. There are no crutches in God’s work of redemption, only instruments.

Denominations and even Protestantism present a more interesting case study because neither were explicitly prescribed in the Bible: they began as an improvisation based on faithfully pursuing Biblical principles amid an imperfect reality. Rampant corruption, works-righteousness, and serious doctrinal errors in the Roman Catholic Church have been significantly addressed since the Reformation and especially since Vatican II. If local churches have a legitimate claim that they “weren’t doing their job but now can” and therefore parachurch ministries need to “move out of the way,” Roman Catholic churches –especially ones that are not corrupt, teach against works-righteousness, and affirm justification through faith — can legitimately claim that Protestant churches should “move out of the way.” At the very least, anti-denominational churches would be able to ask denominational churches and ministries to move, dissolve, or merge. But we won’t and shouldn’t, because Protestant churches and even denominational differences picture the beauty and diversity of the kingdom of God and are unique, effective instruments of its work. God took human limitations, sin, and divisiveness and created even more beauty and function out of it. This is the heart of redemption; A heart that would be thoroughly lost if newer redemptive mechanisms simply “moved out the way.”


Next week’s post will address whether “too many students replace the church with their parachurch college group.” In future posts I will discuss gifts of parachurch college ministry to the Church, why they need local churches and should seek to complement them, and some practical ideas for improved partnership.

In recent months, students from several campuses have communicated distress with me about local church – parachurch tension or hearing anti-parachurch teaching. These posts are intended as a resource to them, to explore my own thoughts, and to hopefully create healthy dialogue. They are not intended as a direct response to any one church or pastor. However, in an effort to model charity, transparency, and healthy dialogue, I have personally sent several pastors involved drafts of this post and welcomed responses from them. Two have responded graciously and one even offered some really good questions about partnership which I hope to explore in my final post. I’m very encouraged.

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