How Should a Pastor or Church Leader View Parachurch Ministries?

by Dave Harvey July 4, 2018

I’m a pastor. Cut me and I bleed local church. Cut the church and I’m spoilin’ to protect her. As a pastor, even the threat of a cut can evoke a negative or reflexive reaction.

Which leads me to parachurch ministry.

As a younger pastor, I saw parachurch ministries as ‘cutting’ the church. These works were the ‘alternative church’ – reaching for the church’s partnership, resources, and credibility while excising the corresponding organization, care and accountability that attended it. Parachurch was, in my opinion, a drain to the local church; legitimate only inasmuch as their existence revealed where the local church had failed to apply herself. They were the unpaid debt of the local church.

Not anymore.

What Happened?

First, I had to confront how poorly the church pastors people with entrepreneurial impulses. Let’s face it: Non-conformists, dissenters and free-thinkers are often tagged by church leaders as ‘proud’ or ‘not-in-synch-with-our-vision’. And it’s often true! But rather than meeting them in their reform-minded immaturity and stretching our categories for care to reach them, we can unintentionally shuffle them to the sidelines, where they remain–brimming with ideas—for maybe a day. Then they leave a start a parachurch ministry.

I’m not suggesting the church pander to artistic or creative impatience. We cannot sacrifice character in service of the cause. But we can move toward these gifted people with a heart to serve them, and ear to listen, and a willingness to engage their ideas on new ways to think and do. Reformers want to know they’re first understood; not first labeled as a troubler of Israel.

Now if this were the Roman Catholic Church, our non-conforming agitators would just remain Catholic and pour their energy into starting an order, a monastery, or a religious community. I’m a Protestant due to important theological differences with Roman Catholicism. But we’ve gotta admit: Catholics flex well in order to make room for entrepreneurial enterprises. I’m thinking about some fresh and creative ways to serve the poor, pursue holiness, enforce justice, and create diverse communities of faith. We Protestants sometimes have difficulty bending that far, and yes, sometimes it’s for good reasons. But my point is that while Protestants seems to have perfected the art of separating and starting new denominations, Catholics find ways to channel their innovation while keeping some radicals on their team. At least that’s my short view of parachurch history.

Yes, I’m oversimplifying things a bit, but blogs are brief and there’s much more to say.

Secondly, I’ve had some transformational experiences through the labors of parachurch ministries. I was converted into a campus ministry. Looking back, I realize my first two years as a new believer were primarily shaped by parachurch vision. I’ve also read countless books published by parachurch publishers, but that’s not all. There was my seminary education, various Christian counselors who helped along the way, the knotty work of conciliation ministries, frontier mission agencies which are translating the Bible and boldly reaching new people groups, my board involvement with CCEF, and the reality that I now lead a church planting network with a staff that could rightly be described as parachurch. These experiences helped me to see how God has used parachurch ministry in shaping my life and refining my gifts. I honestly feel an indebtedness to them. But there’s one final point that is probably the most compelling.

Lastly, I began to see the biblical continuity between Paul (and his helpers) and the existence of present-day parachurch ministries. Admittedly, it’s not a flawless connection since Paul’s ministry emanated from churches, existed to serve churches, and ultimately multiplied churches. But Paul’s extra-local enterprise is certainly an example of a ministry led by entrepreneurial, dare we say ‘apostolic’ types, who remained unbound to a local congregation as they labor to see the gospel and good works (Gal 2:19; Titus 2:7; Heb 10:24)  go forward through the Church.

One Example

Consider Robert Raikes, an Anglican layman. Back in the late 1700s, Raikes was doing prison ministry, working with inmates in Britain’s workhouse prisons. While there, he caught a vision for educating poor boys before they got in trouble. The best available time to teach the boys was on Sunday since they were often working in factories the other six days. So, in July 1780, Raikes started his own parachurch ministry—the very first Sunday School.

Yes, that’s right. The first Sunday School was a parachurch endeavor. It didn’t meet in a church education wing. It met in the home of a church member, a Mrs. Meredith, who helped Raikes teach. And Raikes, who was an independently wealthy newspaper man, didn’t have a church budget line for Bibles or curriculum. He funded the work himself.

Over the last century in America, there’s been a growing concentration of parachurch ministries serving high school and college age kids—the YMCA (which started as more than a gym), Young Life, Youth for Christ, Inter-Varsity, Cru, and more. The founders of these organizations, whether they knew it or not, simply followed Raikes’s lead. They saw the great numbers of unreached youth and their future without Christ, and they stepped in to fill a gap where local churches were absent or failing.

Over time, local churches and the parachurch ministries their members have birthed can come to see one another as competitors rather than as compatriots. The leadership in Robert Raikes’ church actually complained that he was breaking the Sabbath—by teaching Sunday School!

How Do We Change?

The parachurch impulse, which is often innovative thinking without the tolerance for the politics, processes, or culture of the church, will often, and perhaps even providentially, rest inelegantly within Protestant churches. How do we change that? And what do pastors do when the meet young man or woman who—like me–has been inculcated by the parachurch world but is looking to understand why the church really matters.

From Parachurch to Local Church

Imagine you’re a pastor or church leader with someone attending your church fresh from the fields of the parachurch world. Maybe a recent college graduate converted under the faithful outreach of a college ministry. Or perhaps a young couple came home from a mission trip bursting with zeal over what they encountered through their parachurch opportunity. Regardless, they are now regular attenders at your church. But they seem unsettled over the differences between local church life and the ministry under which they were oriented to Christianity. How do you help them find their way forward? How would you counsel a person who has been won to Christ or found a passion through a parachurch ministry but is struggling to be committed to a local church?

First, I would honor their path and thank God for His grace.

God uses remarkable means to open our eyes and bend our knees to Jesus. For this believer, the parachurch pathway was the providential passage of travel to Christ, and now to your local church. It was the path the Good Shepherd led them down for his namesake (Ps. 23:3). What will you say? When the road to Christ, or the road to some transformative work leads through a parachurch ministry, it supplies an opportunity for local church leaders to “give honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:7).

Honor is owed to parachurch leaders for the sacrifices they make to serve people like the one standing before you. More significantly, honor is owed to God for the remarkable grace he poured out through the means of this less conventional path. When a young person arrives on Sunday testifying to both God’s grace and the parachurch means of grace, the wise pastor is praising the Savior. He’s not pointing out the pitfalls along the parachurch path.

Next, I would encourage him to do a biblical study on the church.

New Testament ecclesiology has a self-attesting quality. You can direct them to the Word with full confidence that the Word would direct him or her to the church. You may want to focus their scope of study by saying, “What are some ways God seem to use the local church in the New Testament?” The main take-away here is don’t set up para-church ministry as a competitor and launch an assault. Rather, cast a beautiful vision for the God’s glory and purpose in the local church. If the believer is willing, you might also consider recommending great books on the church like Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion by Ted Cluck and Kevin DeYoung, or The Church: The Gospel Made Visible by Mark Dever.

Lastly, I’d train him in how to think circumspectly on para-church ministries.

Parachurch ministries are not going away. The leader who lives as if they are irrelevant is bubble-dwelling. He’s insulated from a useful understanding of the reach of this phenomenon. Heck, I’m a pastor committed to local church ministry! But recently I was at a banquet for a local crisis pregnancy center. Then, I left the next day for a conference sponsored by a parachurch ministry where I serve on the board.

Every day, entrepreneurial Christians are planting parachurch seeds producing ministries that populate the West. It’s not mere pragmatism to recognize this force; it’s wisdom.

Admittedly, I wasn’t always so accommodating on this topic. There was a time where I thought it was important to discourage parachurch involvement. And I still believe that if parachurch involvement discourages local church involvement or membership, believers need to vote for the church. But my voice is now less strident. Hopefully, it’s more pastoral in how I seek to guide those wrestling through these issues. Some of it came from re-considering some New Testament ministry patterns in a way that granted a greater legitimacy to parachurch entities. But there was something else. I began to encounter more ministries that were really serving the local church in tangible and fruitful ways. This kickstarted a more circumspect evaluation of the place of these ministries.

Circumspection

When calling for circumspection, David Powlison is always a helpful tutor. David leads the parachurch CCEF and would score a gold medal in the Olympics if ‘nuancing’ was ever introduced into the games. He has written:

“In my view, there are a number of valid roles for cooperative ministries operating in a wider sphere than parish or locale: education, publishing and other mass media, cooperative endeavors to meet particular needs (crisis pregnancy, marriage enrichment, prison, campus, military chaplaincy, etc.), hospitals, international and regional missions, and carrying a banner for particular causes within the large scope of Christian concerns. Such extramural Christian works need to remember that they are ‘barely legitimate,’ in the sense that they ought to exist only when they genuinely and intentionally serve the interests of the communities [local churches] whose mature functioning will put them out of business.”

Powlison says two key things about parachurch ministries. On the one hand, the best parachurch ministries are the ones that are doing what the local church can’t do. They are seminaries training scholars; Wycliffe training translators; local centers intercepting crisis pregnancies. On the other hand, the best parachurch ministries are those that are self-conscious about their tenuous legitimacy. They don’t try to become the church, replace the church, or compete with the church. They give more than an obligatory head-nod to the local church in their bylaws. Rather, the best parachurch ministries truly serve the local church. They require church involvement as a prerequisite for parachurch involvement, and they encourage local church accountability. In other words, they require every participant in the parachurch ministry to have a pastor.

Wrapping Up

Pastors and church leaders, be patient with people involved in and coming from parachurch ministries. Many have had their lives changed by that experience. You won’t win the person by attacking their path.  Win them instead by appreciating the parachurch ministry’s work and casting a glorious vision for the local church. Cast a vision that includes God’s work in the world through the Church.

Editor's Note: This originally published at Am I Called?