Click Here for Part Two.
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.
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.
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!
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.
If you’re interested in hearing some thoughts on those questions, join me for my next and final post on this important topic.