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The Parachurch: A Parasite?

(I recently was asked to address the question of the “parachurch” by the Canadian Council of Christian Charities. Here is a brief summary of my main argument.)

What are we to make of World Vision, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, freestanding Christian schools and colleges, evangelistic associations, and the myriad of other “special purpose groups” (as Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow has termed them) that have proliferated within and especially beyond the congregation-denomination structures of Christian organization?

These groups are usually, but mistakenly, called “parachurch” as if they are not the Church (that is, the worldwide Body of Christ), but instead occupy a shadowy zone “beside” the Church. I use the term “shadowy” to allude to the suspicion and even outright hostility with which they are viewed by some Christians—not least by many clergy and denominational leaders. For such groups often are seen as distractions and diffusions of the Church’s resources, not least its money. Thus we hear pastors urging congregations to tithe first to the local—which is to say, the “true”—church, and then (perhaps) to other ministries.

I respond that such groups are not churches (that is, congregations or denominations), but they are certainly part of the Church. Indeed, I see them as the Church of Jesus Christ deployed in particular modes to accomplish particular purposes.

In particular, I want to dispute with a typical rationale offered for such groups—sometimes by their own representatives. I affirm that they are not, as “parachurch” can imply, “stopgap” devices to “make up for” some kind of deficiency in the work of congregations or denominations. Most of them do work that no congregation or denomination can do, and could ever do, as well, precisely because they are both more focused than congregations and are ecumenical to at least some degree.

For example, such organizations on university campuses—such as the Navigators or Campus Crusade—have blessed several generations of students by introducing them to age- and context-appropriate Christian education in an ecumenical environment. This experience has introduced their members both to other traditions and to the Christian consensus that binds them together in a way unlikely to happen in any other form. A Baptist or Pentecostal or Anglican campus group in the nature of the case may well offer particular benefits to its members, but not these crucial benefits.

Furthermore, by drawing from across denominational lines, groups such as these can achieve a critical mass of members and funds, and thus can accomplish certain things on campus that an array of disassociated, small denominational groups never would. Such is not always the case, of course, but my point is that there are important limitations to denominational divisions here, no matter how lively the denominations, that can be overcome by such ecumenical special purpose groups.

Again, they are not churches per se and normally do not aim to be. Churches are what I would call integrated and integrative communities. They bring together disparate people (rather than the relatively homogeneous groups brought together in special purpose groups) around a core of liturgy, doctrine, ethics, and mission in a single fellowship—in short, around the standard trio of worship, fellowship, and mission.

As such, however, they cannot do what special purpose groups do, which is precisely to focus similarly-concerned people on an area of mission and to do so, at least sometimes, across lines of denominational distinction. And, it must be added, often these groups engage in particular ministry that is not even attempted by a particular local church, but is in fact part of the calling of only some of its members.

Grey areas do exist in some special purpose groups, to be sure, particularly around the sacraments: Should they be administered, and, if so, by whom? But most do not ever consider baptizing or serving communion. And their utterly voluntary nature means that church discipline is not exerted (although one must allow that church discipline is hard to find anywhere on the ecclesial landscape today).

Yet such groups clearly are Christ’s Church mobilized and active in worthy pursuits. Thus the term “parachurch” really won’t do. I suggest instead the term “paracongregational.”

Congregations do some important things well—indeed, some nonnegotiably fundamental things well—and the “normal Christian life” entails belonging to and participating in such bodies. They truly are our “church homes,” our ecclesiastical family units. And paracongregational organizations ought to expect and urge people to join and function well in churches, being vigilant not to encourage people to substitute the easier affinity of the relatively homogeneous special purpose group for genuine church fellowship.

Yet paracongregational work has a long and significant history in the Church. Thus churches need to support this work as well, and should think about how to do so better. For example, church leaders can help their congregations choose well among the welter of paracongregational choices out there.

Furthermore, congregations should beware of acting like special purpose groups—particularly like youth groups or campus groups, with the same musical genres and songs, the same preaching topics and styles, the same transdenominational/generic doctrine and practice.

Why would young people come to your church instead of just attending a youth group or campus organization if you are not offering them something different: tradition, maturity, diversity (of people, liturgy, and ministry), integration, and discipline? And why would anyone else come if it’s just a kind of big youth group—including churches that cater to Baby Boomers who often flatter themselves that they are “forever young” and so remain in a weird kind of arrested ecclesiastical development? No, congregations should act like what they are, so that their “use” vis-à-vis paracongregational groups becomes obvious.

Why not support both, therefore, with glad hearts, open wallets, and ready hands? For the New Testament churches supported and benefited from the apostle Paul when he was resident in their congregations, and they supported him in his independent, organized ministry to benefit others when he was away. Maybe I’m just an old-fashioned and simplistic Bible believer, but this idea doesn’t seem all that difficult to me.

(For more description, theology, and evaluation of paracongregational ministries, please see “The ‘Parachurch’: Promise and Peril,” chap. in my Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day [Baker Academic, 2002].)


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