The best parachurch organizations will continue serving the ministry of the church by supplementing her in the spread of the gospel, not just the doing of good works or the promotion of good values. The mission of the church is to make disciples of Christ, to plant and grow local churches—not local utopias. When a parachurch ministry understands this purpose and sets its efforts alongside it—in development of and in deference to the local church—the work that the ministry does will endure into eternity with the good pleasure of our heavenly Father.
The phone conversation was going well until I asked a surprising question. I had been speaking to a missionary from an outreach organization who was soliciting a commitment of financial support from our church for his efforts, and I guess I asked something he hadn’t been asked before. Or, maybe he had been asked before and was tired of the question. In any event, I didn’t think I was coming out of left field when I asked: “In what way does your evangelistic work serve the local church?”
He could not answer right away. This fellow knew his work was valuable to the kingdom of God because it involved spreading the gospel in difficult places. But I wanted to know if those won to Christ were also won to local churches in which to be discipled. I wanted to know if converts were baptized not just into the life of Christ but into the life of the covenant community of Christ’s body. I wanted to know the church where he held his membership and the pastor or elders to whom he was in submission.
My new friend fumbled around for an answer. It turned out he was more of a “freelancer.” He had a very clear idea about how his work would benefit the Church with a capital C, the universal church. But he was less clear on how it served any particular body.
And therein lies an important matter for the future viability of many parachurch models and the churches they aim to support. But before we get too far into some potential parachurch pitfalls, we should make some clear distinctions.
The Meaning of Parachurch
While we do not clearly see the presence of what we today call the “parachurch” in the Bible, we can see some historic precedents for the parachurch in religious orders and organizations operating alongside and in service to local churches, fulfilling particular ministry endeavors and spiritual enterprises. From Christian organizations mobilized to feed the hungry to nonprofit publishing ventures, so long as there has been the church, there has seemed to be some form of the parachurch.
A parachurch organization is exactly that—an organization that operates alongside (para) the church. Parachurch organizations are groups of Christians, members of the universal church, who engage in specific areas of ministry that serve or supplement the ministry of local churches.
Really, there seem to be as many kinds of parachurch ministries as there are Christian callings. A parachurch focuses on one particular biblical ministry or vocation of the universal church, ideally to serve the local church in its primary focus to proclaim the gospel and make disciples. “Thus,” Jonathan Thigpen writes, “we could say the purpose of the parachurch is to support and enhance the work of the local church, not to replace it.”
And yet this purpose is constantly in danger of being muddied.
The Work of the Parachurch
I was sitting in the back row of a plane from Atlanta to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. A few others from my fellowship and I were on our church’s annual mission trip. It looked as though many others on the plane were on a similar mission. There must have been forty to fifty young people, mostly college students, all wearing matching T-shirts, on their way to do works of service and ministry.
Sitting near a few of these team members, I asked them where they were going and what they would be doing. It turns out that very few of them knew each other.