I want to be as clear as possible at the outset. I, in no way, want this post to be received as a vitriolic rant against parachurch ministries. Rather, it is my hope that it will be received with pastoral sensitivity and concern. I actually have great appreciation for many parachurch ministries, and am personally involved with several different parachurch ministries.1 When I was a boy, my parents had my sister and I involved in the Skilton House–one of the most wonderful parachurch mercy ministries in the Vietnamese section of Philadelphia. I have attended two seminaries, which, by their very nature (whether the seminary professors there would acknowledge it or not), are parachurch ministries. I fully believe that there is a place for parachurch ministries, and that many have been blessed by them. That being said, I do have a growing concern about the (often inadvertent) negative consequences of parachurch ministries; and, I believe that a higher priority on the individual’s commitment to a local church is the cure for this deficiency.
1) Parachurch ministries tend to make their thing the thing. Sometime last year, I attended a parachurch fundraiser for a significant adoption agency. The keynote speaker stressed the importance of Christians either adopting or supporting adoption agencies in order to make the process easier for Christian families who are themselves eager adopt. While I am entirely supportive of this agency and their ministry, what I am not supportive of, is the way in which the keynote speaker made those present feel as though–if they were truly wanting to live obedient lives for Jesus–they should be either adopting or supporting agencies like the one he was representing. A deep sense of unjust guilt came crashing down on my conscience after the talk, because the speaker had crossed the line and entered the sphere of unbiblicaly binding our consciences. This, in turn, got me asking myself the question, “Why am I so bothered by the manner with which this was pressed upon us?”
The next day, I called a close friend to talk about my concerns about the obligatory language that was used at the event. My friend responded with what I deem one of the most profound thoughts on this subject. He said, “Nick, every parachurch ministry makes their thing the thing.” They are not there to talk about matters of salvation per se. They are not there to talk about how to live godly lives in the covenant community and in the world per se. Neither are they there to talk about the call of our Lord to carry out the evangelization of the world through the local church. Rather, they exist to make a niche (albeit good) cause the thing of Christian living. Herein lies the danger. Adoption is a good, right and beautiful thing. It is one of the best ways for us to battle the evil of abortion. It is something gloriously used by God to bring children to Himself–who might otherwise never hear the Gospel–by placing them in Christian homes where they are taught the Scriptures and the Gospel. But, it would be wrong to suggest that it is commanded by God. To bind the consciences of the people of God with a specific cause (no matter how good and lawful it might be), if it has not been commanded by God, can become a dangerous thing.
2) Parachurch ministries tend to fuel erroneous models of what God intends the Church to be – Another concern that I have with parachurch ministries is that they tend to give a false expectation about what the church is, and what the church should look like. I especially see this with college-focused parachurch ministries. Whether it is a highly concentrated one-on-one discipleship college ministry, or one in which an ordained pastor spends the majority of his waking hours hanging out with students, the benefits of such ministry is often met with unintended negative residual effects. I have noticed a pattern among young adults who have benefited from having a personal pastor at their disposal 24/7 to expect that sort of communal relationship (wonderful as it is during that stage of life) to continue in the local church. This is impractical, as ministers of local churches have many more responsibilities than college ministers. This is not to minimize the difficulties and time-restraints of college ministers. It is, however, to make the observation that the commitments of local church ministers and college ministers are of a different order, and, therefore, will look much different at points from the college ministry that they so valued. Additionally, this is true of the one-on-one discipleship ministries at college campuses. As important as one-on-one discipleship may be, it is not the model that we see in the pages of the New Testament. Rather, discipleship takes place largely within the context of the gathered Assembly of the saints in a local church. One of the significant features of a healthy local church is that there will be variegated ages and a diversity of stages of life among the congregants. Additionally, there is an expectation that the members of a local church, reflecting these different ages and stages will be living life in community with one another. This will take a different shape and form than that of a group of 18-21 year olds living communally.
3) Parachurch ministries often results in a self-appointed community without God-ordained authority. While many would not formally categorize the homeschooling movement as parachurch, it certainly fits the mold with regard to the approach and pitfalls. Over the past thirty years there has been a resurgence of interest in homeschooling. Over the past 10 years in the church in America it has become trendy–and, even in some cases an expectation. On the one hand, I welcome the homeschooling renaissance as something with great potential benefits. On the other hand, it is a movement fraught with dangers. One of those dangers is that in making homeschooling the thing in the Christian life, many inadvertently make their homeschooling community more important than the local church to which many of them belong. One of the greatest negative consequences of making a community outside of your local church community the most important community of which you are a part is that there is no God-ordained authority structure for the well-being of those involved in the community. Sure, the parents are the God-ordained authority figures over their children; but there is no governmental structure for the well-being of the community. In contrast, God has ordained elders and deacons for the well-being of the people of God–the covenant community. This is not simply for vision or guidance, it is for the care of the souls of the people of God and for the peace and purity of the church. One other negative consequence of the homeschooling movement is that it can become a temptation for families involved to give the best of their labors to the homeschooling community rather than to the local church in which they are called to use their gifts and serve the members of that manifestation of the body of Christ.
While nothing may seem more foreign to the homeschooling movement than the Christian hip-hop movement, there is actually a striking similarity of dangers highlighted above. I love what is happening in CHH; but, am concerned that what you functionally have in smaller communities of the Holy hip-hop movement is, what amounts to, functionally self-appointed ministers and a community of artists that allow their “ministries” and community to take the drivers seat to their place in the local church. I know of a situation where one artist had fallen into sexual sin and was submitting himself to the discipline of the elders of his local church. One of the brothers who had introduced him to the Holy hip-hop world, took it upon himself to publicly call this brother out online and to warn the others in the hip-hop community nearby to have nothing to do with him. This was a tragic example of what it looks like for parachurch ministry to trump local church ministry and cause great harm to the cause of the Gospel through the local church. This too is sometimes seen in other parachurch ministries and communities.
The solution to these dangers is not to stop supporting adoption agencies and seminaries, quit placing ministers on college campuses, stop homeschooling and discourage those engaged in Christian hip-hop or other communities of music ministries. The answer is, of course, found in embracing the wisdom of God in ordering local churches full of diverse people, in diverse ages and stages of life and with diverse commitments. Every New Testament epistle was written–not to individual Christians, but to a corporate body of believers making up a particular local church. When we put the local church first, our ministries outside of the local church will be given an adequate amount of our focus without jeopardizing our need to use our time, energy, money and gifts serving the body to which God has called us. We will seek to fulfill the one another passages in a way that will actually benefit the other members of the church. We will have a healthy assessment about the unique features of a local church, and will stop trying to make it look like a particular parachurch ministry that has made their thing the thing. We will encourage those who homeschool and will help foster gifts among the members of the body who are called to use those gifts outside the walls of the local church–yet all the while making sure that the “one another” passages which are placarded across the pages of the New Testament are first and foremost being fulfilled in the local church to which we belong. When we do so, I believe that parachurch ministries will be needed less–and that where they are needed they will do less damage. After all, Jesus didn’t die for a parachurch organization; he died for the church.