Some of the most beautiful, rewarding partnership I’ve experienced in ministry was through local churches that genuinely rejoiced in how God was at work in the parachurch group I advised and sought to bless, complement, and strengthen what God was already doing. I hope these churches were equally blessed by that partnership; I desire many more partnerships like them. Here are some suggested do’s and don’ts for students, parachurch groups, and local churches:
- Do choose your commitments to a parachurch group and/or local church based on where you will grow the most spiritually and serve most in God’s mission.Spiritual growth may require some stylistic, cultural, and social “fit,” but more importantly involves being stretched, challenged, taught, and nurtured. “Serving in mission” involves more than just helping out: it’s how you can contribute to God’s mission and ways he is already at work in different ways. This may be big or small; simple or complex. I’m sometimes asked if this means, “so, like, ushering?” Well, yes and no. It may be something as simple as greeting people or clicking powerpoint slides, but more importantly do you see how God is at work and do you feel you are taking part in it?
- Do consider stylistic, cultural, demographic, and theological complementarity in terms of the parachurch group and local church you choose to commit to.
Do the different ministry groups you are a part of help you grow spiritually or be used for God’s kingdom in different yet complementary ways? Are you challenged to pursue your own personal ethnic and cultural identity while also learning to cross cultures? Are you in spiritual community with people who share your life-stage, age, ethnicity, and socio-economic background and those who don’t? While it may be unhealthy to try to “have it all,” it’s very helpful to consider these forms of complementarity when choosing your spiritual community or communities.
- For those already committed to a parachurch group, do seek to be involved in a local church and to be nurtured and involved in ways you cannot be in your parachurch group. These include…
- sacramental participation (e.g., Lord’s Supper and baptism.) – Some of my favorite moments in parachurch ministry were baptisms and confirmations (or professions of faith) for those who had come to faith in college. It was so amazing for their local church and our parachurch group to come together in celebrating these faith milestones.
- inter-generational community – seek spiritual relationships with those older and younger and in different life stages. Look for older role models with faith characteristics you admire or perhaps vocational interests you share.
- At the same time, don’t succumb to the commitment aversion of the culture around us.If you consider yourself a follower of Jesus, you should thoughtfully choose a church to commit to and consider membership. For more info check out my paper on how to choose a church. If you haven’t been baptized or professed your faith (confirmation) in a meaningful way as an adult you should consider that, too. If you don’t consider yourself a follower of Jesus, please continue exploring but consider trying out a few churches to get more of a feel for what Christianity looks like, too!
- However, don’t ever base your commitments to church on obligation, legalism, or a “bare minimum” mentality; you’re setting yourself up for unhealthy faith patterns.
Don’t view “going to church” as a way to appease God or other authority figures or to merely follow rules or make yourself more righteous before God or others. Make your commitments based on joyful, gospel-driven participation in God’s Kingdom.
- Do take initiative with inter-generational relationships.
Even someone is much older than you or a too-cool-for-school teenager is probably shy about approaching you, too. Initiate conversations and hangouts with older, wiser folks you’d like to learn from just to hear their stories, or with specific questions or things you’d like help processing in mind. It may be a bit awkward to jump straight to asking for mentorship but start with meeting once or twice and perhaps work more toward regular mentorship if that’s something you would like. Also approach parents with offers to babysit, dog-sit, house-sit, or hang out with their teens in a way that could lead to a mentor-type relationship.
- Do learn to identify, celebrate, and share about the distinctives, strengths, and weaknesses of different ministries and churches as well as your own. We should do this positively in a way that doesn’t put down other Gospel-based ministries or churches.If you’re checking out different churches or ministries, do learn to identify these. Choose spiritual mentors who know how to do this. Choose churches and/or other ministries whose leaders know how to do this, too.
- Do encourage students who are followers of Jesus to thoughtfully and prayerfully commit to a local church.Also encourage those exploring Christianity to visit churches with friends. Exposure and participation is an important component of faith exploration.
- Do try to help committed students find time-appropriate ways to get involved and contribute to local church programs.Some examples include helping with Sunday school, youth group, worship, outreach and justice programs, and so forth.
- Do be creative about encouraging local church participation and partnership.For example, encourage specific weeks that students not yet committed to a local church can visit churches together in groups and maybe let some folks at that church know about it beforehand so that they can be greeted, welcomed, and so forth.
- Do approach local churches and ask how you can serve and bless them and how students can become better involved.
- Do invite speakers and panelists from local churches that students may consider attending and emphasize their church affiliation.
- Do see fundraising as an opportunity for partnership.The best examples I’ve seen of this has been conference scholarships. I often approached local churches for conference and short-term missions scholarships but also sought ways these could be a blessing to the congregation and the student alike. Follow up meetings with church members or leaders and possible testimonies by the students were fantastic ways to help the church develop ownership in these students’ growth.
- Do encourage students to get baptized or confirmed in their local churches and celebrate accordingly.Do encourage membership if appropriate.
Don’t administer sacraments regardless of your theological view on them.Why not use sacraments as a beautiful opportunity to partner with local churches and encourage student involvement?
- Don’t be territorial or competitive.If someone will be better served by being committed only to a local church or another parachurch group, bless and affirm that and the ways they will be growing. Be able to identify ways other churches and parachurch groups may bless students that your group cannot.
- Do be honest about territorial and competitive concerns.Of course we all have territorial and competitive concerns for our own ministry, want credit for things, and want particularly gifted or likable people “on our team.” The only way to move beyond territorialism and competition is to be open, honest, vulnerable, and repentant about such concerns. We must pray our territorial concerns and ambitions are in line with God’s desires but prayerfully prepare for the possibility they are not. People can also sense it when we are territorial or competitive but pretend not to be.
- Do seek to share resources with local churches and bless them.Parachurch ministries often have great training resources on Bible study, discipleship, and evangelism, as well as access to books, teaching material, conferences, and much more. Also, local churches with strong partnerships with parachurch groups can also benefit from involvement by students and recent graduates: encourage it!
- Do encourage students to consider membership and to participate sacramentally in the life of the church.
- Do seek to provide students with what they cannot receive from parachurch groups.These especially may include inter-generational mentorship and gatherings, vocational exploration, serving opportunities, sacraments and membership, and some combined programs or outreach, cultural, and service events outside of the campus.
- Do genuinely ask how you can serve parachurch groups, share resources, and get creative.Free (or inexpensive) event space use and conference or missions scholarships are great ways to bless parachurch students. Follow up meetings with church leaders and even testimonies during service by students who participate in such events, missions trips, or conferences are a great way to help the congregation develop awareness and ownership in what God is doing in these students and through these parachurch groups.
- Don’t use a “blind date” model for inter-generational relationships with students.Some churches try to set up inter-generational relationships with students, which is great. However, randomized or survey-based pairings have a very low rate of success. Such relationships need to happen organically through repeated, low-pressure interactions that allows for a degree of self-selection or intentionality by someone who knows of some common interests between both parties.
- Don’t teach the myth that “parachurch ministries only exist because the church wasn’t doing its job.”
- Do exercise great caution and nuance when saying, “too many students replace their church with their parachurch college group.“
- Don’t be territorial.As above, we need to celebrate and affirm God’s work regardless of whether it takes place within our ministries and ministry models. People can sense it from miles away when we cannot or when we possessively want them in our ministry instead of another. It is unedifying and poor Christian witness. An important marker of Christian maturity is the ability to direct someone to another ministry because you see strengths or characteristics in that ministry that could help that particular person thrive. God’s work will be accomplished with or without any particular ministry or ministry model and we need to serve with that mentality. One form of unhelpful territorialism I’ve experienced is criticism of occasional parachurch weekend conferences with programming on Sunday morning. There is no Biblical basis for every Sunday morning as the exclusive “turf” for local church programs. Pretending as such encourages “Sunday” Christianity and models legalism, distrust, and territorialism. Is checking the works-righteousness box of attendance at their particular local church every single Sunday more important than ongoing joyful, Gospel-motivated commitment to that church and the Kingdom of God? Is it possible that for a few Sundays per year God can do more in and through a student somewhere other than their local church? Can God’s work in these settings be celebrated?
- Do be honest about territorial concerns and ambitions (see comment to parachurch groups).
- Do learn to affirm and celebrate strengths and God’s work in other churches and parachurch ministries.A mark of Christian maturity is the ability to celebrate God’s work anywhere. Another is identifying, affirming, and sharing each others’ ministry distinctives without putting down others.
- Do affirm and be willing to encourage “dual citizenship.”Parachurch college ministries need to encourage church commitment, community, and often formal membership for students who are followers of Jesus. Local churches need to be willing to encourage student parachurch group participation; to affirm aspects of growth, discipleship and and kingdom work that that can uniquely happen in these settings and seek to bless these students.
- Don’t model legalism. Do model kingdom and gospel-centeredness.If we proceed because of God’s grace and seek to build his kingdom instead of our own, we will rejoice in Gospel work. Similarly, we will not perpetuate and model a “bare minimum” mentality or legalism and obligation with regard to church participation. Rather, we will long to see the Gospel furthered and the kingdom joyfully built and will rejoice in our partnerships with each other. I can’t say enough how rewarding these partnerships have been in my own faith and ministry journey; I wish for many more churches and campus ministries to enjoy such joy and complementarity.
I hope you’ve found this series helpful to your views on church-parachurch relations and that we can all pursue more partnerships in a manner that reflects and furthers God’s mission and kingdom.
For more from this series see my posts on why “the parachurch only exists because the church wasn’t doing its job” is a myth, why “too many students place the church with a parachurch college group” can be unhelpful, and some unique gifts from college parachurch groups to the global body of Christ.