“Too many students replace the church with their parachurch college fellowship”
I’ll address this commonly repeated idea somewhat differently from my previous post. “The church wasn’t doing its job but now it can so the parachurch should move out of the way” reflects legalistic anti-Gospel thinking, conflated aspects of “church,” historical fallacies, and a distorted theology of redemption. Those who hold or perpetuate this view have not examined it critically or Biblically. On the other hand, I cautiously agree with an interpretation of “too many students replace the church with their parachurch college fellowship”: I strongly believe that parachurch evangelism and discipleship are incomplete and severely weakened if students are not encouraged to participate in a local church community. After some helpful dialogue with a pastor a few years ago, I even began encouraging formal church membership for most committed Christian college students when feasible. Further, if a committed, kingdom-minded Christian student only had time for either participation in a local church or a parachurch fellowship, I would tell them to choose a local church. I’ve even advised several students to do so. However, it’s rarely that simple. In fact, I disagree with what is often meant when people say “too many students replace the church…” and strongly disagree with what is usually understood.
Those who say “too many students replace the church…” rarely understand the audience of parachurch college ministries. They inadvertently judge the students who do not participate in local churches. These days 47% of students regularly involved in InterVarsity “rarely engaged with God’s Word” prior to their involvement and around 25% are not Christian.2 And that’s a good thing! My own experience corresponds with the statistics: about half of regularly participating students in our campus ministry grew up nominally Christian or completely outside of Christianity. An even higher proportion — in fact the majority — did not consider themselves committed Christians upon entering college. We should celebrate that these students participate in college parachurch groups to hear and engage with the Gospel and grow in their faith exploration!
Most college students, churched or not, are preoccupied with two concerns: 1) academic survival or performance amid figuring out where they’re headed career-wise 2) finding a group of friends on campus with whom they can feel comfortable and included. Pursuit of faith involves moving beyond those two concerns. However, few college students — let alone freshmen — are in a place to do this regularly regardless of church background. While nurturing and challenging such students in their faith, parachurch college fellowships also help them with #2 and even #1, as campus organizations have been found to promote college inclusion and even graduation rates among participants, especially racial minorities.1 It’s unhelpful and legalistic to oblige church participation from those who do not see beyond #1 and #2. Some are this way because they are less committed in their faith. Others are just really overwhelmed or still figuring things out. We should celebrate that these students explore faith in college parachurch groups.
What is most often understood when students are told “don’t replace the church with the parachurch” or “a parachurch college fellowship is not a church, so go to church” is legalism and obligation. “Church” and “going to church” are seen as acts of piety, obligation, or works-righteousness to appease God, parents, and pastors or to convince themselves that they are good Christians. Church participation, worship, and nurture should be viewed as a gift by those freed and redeemed through the death and victorious resurrection of Jesus. “Don’t replace the church” teaches legalism and obscures the Gospel among people who already struggle to grasp it. Perhaps some students have “mistakenly” directed their appeasement, legalism, and obligation from the local, institutional church to a parachurch college group. When told “don’t replace the church,” what students hear is “ye who have mistakenly directed the appeasement of your legalism: your college parachurch participation does not make you any more righteous. Direct your legalism back to local church participation, which will!” Re-directing legalism back to a local church does not necessarily help their faith growth and may even hurt it. Some less churched students even pick up legalism that wasn’t there in the first place.
If what is meant by “too many students replace the church…” is that students expressing their faith in parachurch ministries are doing so in inferior ways to those doing so within a local, institutional church, I strongly disagree. If anything those who have been programmed to see “church” as an act of works-righteousness — and many raised in the church see things this way — have the opportunity to discover faith outside works and obligation. They have the opportunity to see it in mission. It is true that some students re-direct their works-righteousness obligation from church attendance toward parachurch participation. It’s not helpful to merely redirect this legalism back. The statement that “too many students replace the church with their parachurch group” also reflects a false, “either-or” dichotomy that also encourages a bare-minimum faith approach. It is concerned with how many visible parishioners are at church on Sunday rather than how many are truly committed in faith. It may even confuse the two. Again, this is legalism. We are called to “make disciples” rather than people who merely show up at church each week!
Under a purely “either-or” framework, perhaps local church participation is better for some of these tenuous Christians and exploring seekers because of sacramental nourishment and/or inter-generational discipleship, community, and mentorship. However, I have never heard an anti-parachurch argument from these perspectives. Those most critical of college parachurch ministries tend to duplicate its ministry model of “college fellowship”– and have similar strengths and weaknesses — rather than focusing on sacramental nourishment or inter-generational discipleship. They are upset or disappointed that these students are not fulfilling their obligation of church attendance or serving in their young adult ministries or Sunday schools.
If what is meant by “too many students replace the church…” is that kingdom-minded, committed Christian students must primarily commit their time and gifts to the local, institutional church, I also disagree. These arguments have conflated the local, institutional church with the church’s global organism (see previous post). I absolutely believe that nearly all Christians — including parachurch fellowship student leaders and staff — are called to worshipful participation, discipleship, and sacramental nourishment from the local, visible, institutional church. However, some are called to focus on work, outreach, and receiving training in specialized parachurch ministries. Common sense says “the best group of people to reach a group of people is that group of people.” Parachurch college ministry participation by students is a gift. It’s a gift to the students themselves as they grow in mission and evangelistic outreach and are trained to think strategically toward a specific context: their own. It’s a gift to the global Church in reaching students and credible, contextualized, broad-scale witness to a crucially strategic context: academia and the university. It’s a gift to local churches through reaching and developing future members, leaders, missionaries, and clergy. And it can be a gift to local churches in the present through participation of parachurch ministry students and staff. Missiologist Patrick Johnstone, author of Operation World, estimates that the vast majority of converts to Christianity do so between the ages of 17 and 26. This statistic is one of the reasons I decided to work full-time in college parachurch ministry. The university context is too large and strategically important and the people who have not heard or experienced the Gospel too many. Those receiving training and deciding to serve in this context through specialized parachurch ministry are a gift to the Church. Local churches should bless and affirm these students by treating them as such.
Why is church participation for parachurch students so often framed as negative, legalistic, and adversarial? Why aren’t we asking “how can we help more students in parachurch college groups integrate meaningfully into the life of local churches” and “how can local churches benefit from partnership with parachurch college groups”? Because we’re too busy myopically complaining about how “too many students replace the church with their parachurch college fellowship.”
My next posts will address gifts of the parachurch and how local churches and parachurch college ministries can complement each other.