This is the very belated part three of my series on local church relations with parachurch college ministries. Part one covered the common myth that “parachurch college ministries should move out of the way now that local churches can do their job.” Part two assessed the commonly held and partly true belief that “too many students replace the local church.” This post will discuss some of the unique gifts that parachurch college ministries have given to the Church. My next and final post in this series will provide a list of suggested Do’s and Don’ts for students, churches, and parachurch groups as we pursue complementary partnership between local churches and college parachurch ministries.
Gifts of College Parachurch Ministries to the Church
Parachurch college ministries offer many gifts, both historical and ongoing, to the wider body of Christ. These include:
- Lay evangelism, discipleship, and Bible studyArguably, the very idea that most lay believers — those outside professional or ordained ministry — can be trained and participate in evangelism, discipling other adults, and inductive Bible study came about and entered Christian culture because of college parachurch ministries. Cru (formerly Campus Crusade) pioneered lay evangelism and the idea that any trained believer could do it. The Navigators did the same one-to-one discipleship. And InterVarsity helped pioneer the idea that almost any believer could be trained in inductive Bible study, manuscript study, and intentionally evangelistic Bible studies now called Groups Investigating God.1
It’s true that some local churches today also have some or all of these gifts and “can do the job.” However, there are far more churches that don’t. Thriving, healthy parachurch college ministries continue sharing these gifts with more and more local churches.
- Research and development (i.e., innovation)
University-focused parachurch ministries pioneered these types of training because by nature their contextualization, transience, and networking lead to more innovation. There are distinct reasons for this. Parachurch staff are missionaries whose salaries do not come from parishioners. This structure encourages missional, evangelistic thinking. Oversight and supervision comes externally, guiding a parachurch staff’s primary goals of evangelism, witness, outreach, discipleship, and innovation rather than congregational care, “feeding,” stability, and administration because most local church leaders are accountable primarily to their congregation and its elders or leaders (as they should be!). College students are also more transient than most populations, fairly high-functioning, and receptive to new ideas. To dismiss parachurch college ministry and these structures as illegitimate or less valued is to abandon and reject the innovation. There are potential pitfalls in over-emphasizing innovation:”chronological snobbery” (thinking all things new are better) or emphasizing methodology over the message of the Gospel or power of the Holy Spirit. However, to reject innovation outright is an invitation for Christianity to become the next Xanga, AOL, or Eastman Kodak. More recent college parachurch group innovations include evangelism and Bible teaching methods geared toward postmoderns and millennials; Biblical multi-ethnicity; evangelistic Bible study groups; group inductive Bible study; focused evangelism and discipleship toward specific academic disciplines, career paths, demographics, interest groups and ethnic groups; how to relate evangelism with justice advocacy; and gospel presentations.
- Evangelism to the most strategic age group and an influential demographic
I entered full-time college parachurch ministry largely because of a talk I heard by Robert Johnstone, author of Operation World. He shared that the vast majority of converts to Christianity in the world come to faith between ages 17 and 26. Addtionally, the modern university context is extremely strategic and culturally influential. For Christians, it really needs to be “all hands on deck.” The university context is far too important and the Gospel far too needed for ministries to tell others, “you only exist because…” Parachurch college ministries don’t exist to serve parishioners; they are student organizations to serve students and the campus. They fit the paradigm of “student organization” to unchurched students and within secular university culture. Local churches are by God’s intent meant to serve and care for people from all walks of life and in different life stages. Healthy local churches naturally become inter-generational2 and do not “match” or fit within the institutional structures of the university; nor should they! Meanwhile, healthy campus ministries are focused on the mission by students toward students. It’s a naturally more transient context. College parachurch staff also exchange ideas, strategies and best practices for their context. There are task forces, panels, and training: all specifically tailored to this strategic context and age group.
- Leadership development and discipleship for mission and local churches
In parachurch college ministries, students become leaders in faith and mission as they grow in following Jesus. This simply does not happen for that age group to the same extent in established local church structures of the 21st-century developed world. Because of the way adulthood is defined today, 18-22 year old students will never “own” or have a voice in the structures of an established local church in the same way. Undergraduate students in a local church rarely make organizational decisions and, thankfully, usually cannot make significantly damaging mistakes. College is exactly when people are starting to figure out what it means to be an adult and to make decisions of consequence and mistakes; to be in conflict and discuss ideas and learn to come to agreement and work through tension. A college parachurch ministry is a great place to learn these lessons that people rarely learn in local church settings until they’re well into their thirties, forties, or (in the case of many Asian churches) fifties or sixties. Experiencing this in the context of God’s mission is invaluable. Ask most churches where their young adult leaders developed or gained their leadership skills: chances are the majority were in college parachurch groups.
- Ongoing witness to secular academic culture
I was once genuinely asked by a pastor why college parachurch ministry should exist when there were “strong” churches nearby. I’ve already outlined many unique gifts of parachurch college ministries to the global Church. Additionally, local churches almost by definition will not seek to redeem and witness to a whole campus or all its structures and subcultures as their core mission. Then how about the entire global context of modern secular academia and “the university”? This witness is an important gift and task taken up by college parachurch ministries on behalf of the global Church. We as Christians are called collectively, after all, to “take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). This includes the university.
- Inter-denominational, broad evangelical unity
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that parachurch groups are among the only true means of continued inter-denominational partnership and interaction. This is significant for evangelical unity and healthy, broadly evangelical, inter-denominational Christian identity. These would significantly diminish in the Global Church without parachurch groups, institutions, organizations, movements, and conferences.
These gifts are given to the Global Church when parachurch college ministries flourish. To say that college parachurch ministries should “move out of the way” is also to say that the Global Church should not have any of these gifts.
My final post in this series will suggest Do’s and Don’ts for partnership between local churches and college parachurch groups.