What is parachurch?

Me and my esteemed friend – Stephen Watkinson – recently did a podcast about parachurch ministry and the local church. You can listen to that episode here. But somebody asked a question that probably warranted a slightly longer answer than a single tweet. What exactly is parachurch and is it always a problem?

My simple definition of parachurch would be this:

Anything that exists to support or supplement the work of the local church in its mission as the local church that is not itself the local church

Is parachurch always a problem? No. Parachurch is at its best when it is doing what the local church is unable to do by itself.

So, for example, are mission agencies parachurch? Yes they are. They exist to support the local church in its mission to make disciples but they are not local churches of themselves. But are mission agencies problematically parachurch? Not necessarily. If a local church is unable to undertake all the practicalities of sending missionaries to where they think missionaries need sending, it makes perfect sense to have a mission organisation facilitate their sending. In those cases, the mission agency is helping the church to fulfil its mission and is facilitating the church to send people as part of their mission making up what the church is unable to do by itself.

If a local church runs a Christianity Explored course, for example, this is not a parachurch ministry but is clearly part of the ministry of the church in pursuit of its mission. It is not being run by an outside agency. The church is simply utilising some content that it runs itself for the purposes of fulfilling its mission. This would not be a parachurch ministry. If a non-church group was setup to engage in evangelism – which may or may not also utilise Christianity Explored materials – this would be a parachurch organisation that is not running under the auspices of the local church and is not accountable to any local church.

The only vehicle the Bible really knows for fulfilling the mission given to it by Jesus is the local church. The church is Jesus’ plan A and he does not have a plan B. The mission of the church was specifically given to the church and ought not to be readily farmed out to anything that is not the church.

Does that mean every parachurch organisation is a problem? No, not necessarily. I would tend to the view, however, that whatever parachurch ministry might exist ought to be somehow under the auspices of the local church. It is not to say there should be no organisations that exist to do things that the church cannot easily do. It is to say that whatever organisations exist to support, supplement and facilitate the mission of the church ought to be under the oversight of the church itself.

The issue with many parachurch ministries is that they end up operating entirely apart from the local church. They develop their own structures that do not easily map onto the biblical data, they often do work that the local church can very well do itself and they frequently operate outside the auspices of any local church oversight. When these things happen, the parachurch is taking over the primacy of the local church. They are no longer aiming to support or facilitate the local church in their mission but end up supplanting the local church and usurping its mission.

To take an easy example of how this can happen, let’s think about Christian Unions. Is it good for students to be equipped to reach other students on campus with the gospel? Of course it is. Local churches in university towns ought to be equipping their people to be effective witnesses on campus in exactly the same way as they ought to be equipping other of their members to be effective witnesses in their workplaces. If all the believers from various local churches wanted to meet together each week to pray for and with one another as they seek to reach their colleagues or fellow students, I doubt many people would see any issue with that. Each of those people would be under the authority of their own local churches who are (or I would hope would) be seeking to equip them to be good Christian witnesses where the Lord has placed them.

The problem comes when superstructures are created. Roles that are a bit like biblical offices, but aren’t biblical offices, are formed. Biblical criteria for appointments, unless those biblical criteria don’t quite suit, are applied. Meetings are setup that look and feel quite a lot like church. The structures and meetings are entirely separate from the local church and have no church oversight. The ministry develops its own aims and priorities that begins to usurp the God-given role of the local church. The parachurch ministry and the local church may even be pulling in different directions – with slightly different foci – and one can inadvertently end up undermining the other when only one of those has any God-given authority.

The same might be said of any parachurch ministry that lacks local church oversight. It can happen with Bible college, mission agencies, evangelistic organisations and all manner of other groups setup to supposedly support and facilitate the mission of the church. They can take on a life of their own, be difficult to map biblically and end up undermining rather than enhancing the ministry of local churches which God has uniquely called to do his work of mission.

Again, that is not to say every parachurch ministry is a problem. Nor is it to say parachurch organisations are necessarily wrong to exist. It is to say, where parachurch organisations have no local church oversight and take on their own priorities apart from this, we may run into all sorts of problems. You will have to listen to that podcast to hear some of how that might work itself out.

But as a basic definition, parachurch is anything that exists to support or supplement the work of the local church in its mission as the local church that is not itself the local church. It can work well and helpfully, it can be more of a problem. It all depends on what it is, what its doing and how it is doing it.