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.
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.
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.