Episode #35: What Should We Think About Parachurch Ministries? Part 1

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In this first episode of a two-part series, pastors Derek and Cliff discuss the nature and purpose of parachurch ministries and how they should relate to the local church.


Derek: Welcome to With All Wisdom, where we are applying biblical truth to everyday life. My name is Derek Brown and I am here today with Cliff McManis, and we are both pastors and elders at Creekside Bible Church in Cupertino, California and professors at the Cornerstone Bible College and Seminary in Vallejo, California. And today we want to talk about parachurch ministries. But before we get to our topic, I want to point your attention to WithAllWisdom.org, where you will find a large and growing collection of resources on various theological, cultural, and practical topics that are all rooted in God’s Word and aimed to help you make genuine progress in your walk with the Lord.

Now, onto today’s topic. When I said the phrase “parachurch ministries” just now, some of you may have wondered what I was referring to. What do I mean when I refer to parachurch ministries or a parachurch ministry?

Well, let’s just define it right away so that we know what we’re talking about today. This is how we would define a parachurch ministry: a parachurch ministry is an evangelical Christian ministry that more or less operates independently of the local church in its governance and funding. So these institutions are Christian and they conduct ministry, but they’re not local churches. The word “para” means “alongside.” So the word “parachurch” literally means “alongside the church.” And you are probably already familiar with lots of parachurch ministries, even if you didn’t know that that’s how they’re referred to generally. With All Wisdom is a parachurch ministry, if you weren’t aware of that. And some well-known seminaries are parachurch ministries—Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, The Master’s Seminary in southern California, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and even the Cornerstone Bible College and Seminary where Cliff and I serve as professors is a parachurch ministry. Perhaps you’ve listened to some radio ministries like Grace to You, which hosts John MacArthur’s teaching every day or every week, or Insight for Living, which hosts Chuck Swindoll’s sermons or Desiring God, which hosts John Piper’s sermons in written material. Or maybe you’ve heard of college athletic parachurch ministries like Athletes in Action or Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

And speaking of college ministries, maybe you’ve heard of—or been involved in—parachurch ministries that serve college campuses and college students. Perhaps you’ve heard of InterVarsity or Reformed University Fellowship.

Globally, in terms of serving people worldwide and in terms of their needs—their physical needs—maybe you’ve heard of Compassion International or Samaritan’s Purse. These are all parachurch ministries. They’re not local churches, but they are Christian organizations led and managed by Christians and they’re doing various ministries. And so we want to talk about these parachurch ministries because we’ve noticed as we’ve just scanned the horizon of contemporary Christianity that a number of these parachurch ministries don’t define themselves in relation to the local church, which is ironic given their classification as a parachurch ministry. Like we just earlier said, “parachurch” literally means “alongside the church.” And so we’re a little concerned about that.

We’re not against parachurch ministries. Obviously, we serve in them. We work in them—Cliff and I do; other people do. And so we’re not against them, but we do want to think about them rightly. We want to make sure that they’re in the right place in our thinking theologically and in their relation to the church. So that’s why we brought up this topic for today. And I think in order to start, we need to start with a theology of the church. But before I get to that, Cliff, did you have anything that you wanted to say by way of introduction?

Cliff: Yeah. I think this is a really important topic. You referenced parachurch ministries in relation to college campuses. And I think about when I first got saved. I was not a Christian at age nineteen at college. And as a freshman, I remember on our college campus, this Christian would show up on campus talking to the students, and it turned out he was from one of these campus ministries, or parachurch ministries. And at the time it was called Campus Crusade for Christ. And he worked for them full-time. I was a pagan. I didn’t know anything about it. But he was a nice guy. I ended up getting saved and becoming a Christian my freshman year in college. And then I began to affiliate with—almost exclusively—Christian ministries that were parachurch organizations.

So in the first two years of my Christian life, I didn’t even really know anything about the commitment to the local church. Everything in my whole Christian worldview had to do with the parachurch organization. But I didn’t even know that. I was oblivious to it. It wasn’t until three years into my Christian life where I realized, “Oh, wait a minute. Jesus came and it’s all about the church. What have I been doing?” And that’s when I began to see the light a little bit, and then others kind of helped me along. And what was particularly helpful is they made a distinction between parachurch ministries and the church. That’s why I think this would be really helpful for a lot of Christian folks to understand those two distinctions. What is a parachurch—like you already defined—and how is that different than the church? Do they complement one another? And why is it important?

Derek: And that’s a great point you bring up, particularly about Campus Crusades for Christ, which is now called Cru. I actually attribute my salvation to God working through a particular man. His name was Alan. He worked for Campus Crusades for Christ, and he kept pursuing me on this college campus, even when I didn’t want be pursued. And so I’m thankful for that particular parachurch organization and for his commitment to evangelism, because it was through his work that I think eventually I was brought to Christ. Similar to what you said, my experience was also then immediately being involved in a Christian college, which was a parachurch organization. And so similar to your experience, my learning of the distinction and the clarifying of the distinction between church and parachurch definitely came later in my Christian life, because I did have significant interaction with parachurch organizations in my early Christian life. So that’s helpful.

Cliff: Well, for the record, you made me think of something that I wasn’t thinking of a moment ago in light of your testimony. I would say in light of where you and I are going in this discussion, and where we will probably end up, some people might be thinking, “Oh, are you dismissive of parachurch organizations, Pastor Cliff and Pastor Derek? Are you saying they’re not legitimate at all? Or God can’t use them?” And I am reminded that when I heard the gospel for the first time, through Athletes in Action and Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and I got saved in the context of those two ministries. Not the local church. So I thank God that he can use many different means, whether they are off-kilter or not. The issue is it’s the gospel that saves, so we’ll talk more about that.

Derek: Yeah. We will. And in order to have a clarity on how to think about parachurch organizations and ministries, we need to start with the theology of the church. And so the first question we want to ask is, what is the church? And when we talk about what the church is, we typically distinguish between the universal church and the local church. So the universal church would be all believers in Christ from all time periods and all eras up to this day. That would consist of the universal church—all true believers in Jesus Christ, post-Pentecost until today. That would be the universal church.

Cliff: People on earth who are saved, in addition to people in heaven.

Derek: That’s right.

Cliff: Maybe great-grandma was a Christian and died and went to heaven. And she’s part of this universal church.

Derek: Amen. There you go. So that’s the universal church. But then there’s a distinction between that and the local church. And so the local church is a local, concrete expression of that universal church. It’s a localized expression of that universal church. And this is now where we come to our definition of “what is the church?” or “what is the local church?” It is a gathering of regenerate Christians that finds its expression in local congregations led by qualified elders where the Word of God is preached, the ordinances are practiced, and people are shepherded and discipled. Anything you’d like to add?

Cliff: No, that’s excellent. And this is like on earth now, currently.

Derek: Yes.

Cliff: And each one of these local assemblies has some autonomy, by God’s design. And when you look at the apostle Paul, and you look at the book of Acts, he was a church planter. What did he do? He planted local churches. He wasn’t planting universal churches.

Derek: Right. And that’s an important distinction to make. When you look at the Greek word “ecclesia”—that’s the word translated “church” in the New Testament. It’s translated “church” in our New Testament English Bibles. And out of the—I think it’s referred to over a hundred times in the New Testament—upwards of 70% of the time that this word is used in the New Testament, it refers to local churches.

Cliff: Yep.

Derek: And I think that’s an important element, because when we refer to the church, we’re talking primarily about that local expression. That’s the priority of the New Testament—focusing on that local expression of Christ’s universal church. It’s finding its expression in these local churches, which is why you have over 70% of the time when that word is being used it is in reference to local churches.

Cliff: Yeah. That local expression of believing saints. Just to clarify for people out there, when we talk about the New Testament church over a hundred times, never does it refer to the church building.

Derek: That’s right.

Cliff: Or the facilities. It’s the people. It’s the assembly, right? It’s the group of saints. The congregation.

Derek: And just to keep things simple, what would we say is the mission of the church? I would say we even talked about this in our last episode. If you want to check that out it’s episode number thirty-four, and it’s on missions. What’s the mission of the church? It’s to make disciples. And would you like to add anything to that—fill that definition out or talk about the mission of the church and the purpose of the church?

Cliff: Yeah. The purpose of the church. I like that terminology. The “mission” can be confusing and fuzzy. It doesn’t have to be, but that’s the word that we use almost universally—mission. You don’t find the word “mission” in the New Testament Bible, because it’s a Latin term. It comes from the Latin and French around the 15-1600s, and then ended up in our language, so it can confuse people. But it simply means “to send,” which comes from a New Testament concept like in John 20:21. This is where Jesus said to Peter, “As the Father has sent me, I send you also.” So missions has to do with being sent by God to be representatives and ambassadors of gospel truth. And that’s the mission of a local church.

Derek: And so when we talk about the local church versus parachurch, what we are talking about is recognizing that you have an original entity. This is the language I like to use, and it kind of helps me just picture these things a little more clearly. You have an original entity, namely the church. Jesus says, “I will build my church.” That’s Matthew chapter sixteen. I will build my “ecclesia.” And then you see that as you work through the New Testament, this church that he’s building finds its expression in these local churches. But Christ is building his church and he’s building this one entity. He’s not building multiple entities. He’s not building multiple institutions; he’s building his church. And so you could say that the church is that original entity. So then the parachurch ministry is by definition and by its very nature a derivative entity. It’s not the original; it only has its existence by depending upon that original church. You can’t have a parachurch unless you have the original church. And so even by the very nature of the word, by the very nature of the church, we have to recognize that the priority in God’s economy of salvation is the church and primarily the local church. And that might sting for some who are heavily involved in parachurch ministries to hear. But it is the case biblically that that original entity and that priority therefore is the local church.

Cliff: Yeah. Let me read that—what you just referred to, Derek—because it’s so foundational. Towards the end of his ministry, Jesus is here in Matthew 16:18 with probably all twelve of his apostles, preparing them for his departure. And he made this promise talking specifically to Peter: “I also say to you that you are Peter and upon this rock I [and Jesus is talking] will build my church.” I will build my assembly. I will build my congregation. I will build my group of believers who follow me. That’s what he meant. And it was his possession. That was a promise. It had a beginning point. It didn’t exist in the Old Testament. It didn’t exist up until this point. He would build the church based on his work of death and resurrection on the cross. And that’s where it started. So, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades [or the gates of death, literally] will not overpower it.” Nothing is going to overcome or stop the growth and the progress of the church that Jesus builds. And that is just a summary statement. This is the church of Jesus Christ. It is the only institution on earth that Jesus promised to himself build and perpetuate.

Derek: Right. And again, that’s an important point to make when we are assessing parachurch ministries—their place, their purpose—as we’ll talk about them. Let’s transition to that. Let’s talk now about the kind of state of parachurch ministries as it stands currently. If you would go and just study the websites of various parachurch ministries, some of which I’ve already mentioned, you have seminaries, you have radio programs, you have international care ministries, and so on. You have these athletic ministries, college ministries, and so on. As you study those, rarely—at least in my experience, and I’ve looked at a fair amount of these websites to just kind of get a feel for how these ministries are thinking about themselves, about their own institution, and their purpose for existence—rarely would I find a parachurch organization that would say that it had a specific connection to the local church. In fact, sometimes the local church wasn’t even mentioned. They would talk about serving Christians or glorifying God and preaching the Word and doing these kinds of things—all of which are good things. And I would commend them for those. But there was something missing, and it was this connection to the local church and seeing their existence in relation to the local church—seeing their purpose in relation to the local church. And I’m not saying that was universal. There were some that were very specific to mention their purpose in relation to the local church. But it was few and far between. And I found that discouraging, specifically because of what we just got done talking about—how the original entity is the church and the priority entity for that reason is the church. That’s the institution that Jesus is building so that when you see these Christian organizations—as they express and articulate their reason for existence and their purpose—having no relation to the church, that was discouraging, to say the least. And a little confusing, to be honest.

Cliff: Yeah. And in relation to that, many of these parachurch organizations, like you said, purpose to do things that aren’t bad. Like a lot of them will say they exist to share the love of Jesus, or most of them would say they exist to do ministry or Christian ministry. Yet many of them have no reference whatsoever to the church. They’re oblivious to the local church.

Derek: Exactly.

Cliff: Which you and I—as pastors in a local church—that’s just confounding. It doesn’t even fit into our worldview. How can you share the love of Jesus? How can you do ministry and serve people in the name of God apart from the church? You can’t. That would be our position because that’s what we think the Bible clearly says.

Derek: And this kind of thinking definitely makes its way down into the people who are part of these organizations. Just as an example—as a kind of anecdotal example—our church used to have a ministry at Stanford’s campus. We would go up there and there were other Christian ministries on campus. And so I would always get the question, “What makes your ministry distinct?” And my first answer was always, “Our ministry is distinct because we’re one of—I think there was one other one, otherwise none of them were this way—we are a ministry of a local church. We’re not a parachurch organization. The people that are serving in this ministry are members at our church. I am the pastor at this local church, and I oversee this ministry here at Stanford.” And so I would always be clear to distinguish our ministry as a ministry of the local church. And then we would get into conversations about why that was important. And one particular conversation was with a young lady who was part of one of the larger parachurch ministries on campus. And she described her relationship in this ministry to the local church as one of competition—she used that word. I remember it as clear as day. She said, “I do see our ministry in competition with the local church because we’re able to do things that the local church cannot do.”

Cliff: Wow.

Derek: She admitted that. And whether or not she had been taught that or just kind of thought of it by the way the ministry was structured and all that, I’m not sure. But she did at least articulate that that was her view and that’s how she felt about it. And that was stunning to me.

Cliff: Which goes back to the definition of parachurch, which you said means, “come alongside of the church.” Subservient to the church. Help the church. Aid the church. Not be in competition with the church.

Derek: And I don’t remember exactly where the conversation went, but that is where I tried to take it to help her recognize that because the church is the original entity, that whatever ministry she’s a part of that’s a parachurch, her job and reason for existence in this parachurch organization is to come alongside the church and help and assist the church. Perhaps this institution or this ministry is particularly good at campus evangelism. That’s awesome. But don’t organize yourself in a way that places you in competition with the local church. Instead, join local churches and help local churches be more effective in this way. Equip the people in these local churches to better minister to the college students and so on.

So that happened. Here’s another anecdotal story that highlights what I’m talking about. Even when some organizations will kind of, it seems, give lip service to the idea that the local church is the priority, this very thing happened to me. I was at a local pastors’ gathering and a gentleman from one of these campus ministries was there. And he was asked to present his ministry to us guys as pastors. And he was wanting help in his ministry up at these college campuses here in the Bay Area. And he was talking with us and sharing what his ministry was, and I’m right in the thick of doing Stanford’s ministry. Right after he was done presenting, I walked up to him and I said, “Hey brother, I’m really excited. Like, let’s join. Let’s partner. Let’s do this. What can I do to help you? What would you be able to do to help our group?” and so on. And it was interesting because for all of his promises about wanting to work together, when I went over and started talking to him about what we could do and being very practical and concrete about it, the first thing he was concerned about was territory encroachment.

So in that situation, where there seemed to be some sort of desire to be in partnership with the local church, practically it seemed to be stalled because, well, what do you do if I start taking people from your group or vice versa? And there was no real kind of way of thinking about how to partner with the local church. It sounded good, but when it came down to it, it wasn’t going to work. I’m not blaming him. It probably was because of the ministry he’s working with, but I just found that to be incredibly interesting, if not ironic.

Cliff: Right. Parachurch—to come alongside. To partner with. Not be territorial. So just a quick question, as I think we’re wrapping up this session here. From your experience, as you’ve interacted with parachurch organizations or leaders of those, would you say they typically know that they are a parachurch organization and they’re okay with that title?

Derek: That’s a good question. I’m not sure that they’re self-consciously classifying themselves that way.

Cliff: I’m not sure either. I do know some parachurch organizations that welcome that title, while at the same time, they’re very independent of the local church. That’s the irony. It’s “We’re parachurch.” Well, then you need to be partnering with and working alongside of and subservient to the main organization—the church. There seems to be a disconnect a lot of times.

Derek: Yeah. That’s a good question. I think in my experience, as I’ve worked with and talked with folks involved in these ministries, they would refer to themselves just by the ministry names. I’m not sure that they referred specifically to themselves as parachurch, and when they do, you’re right, there is some irony if there’s not this deliberate action to come alongside the local church.

Well, this has been a great conversation, Cliff, and I appreciate your insights on this issue of church and parachurch ministries. And we hope it’s been helpful for you as you’re thinking about these issues. And we thank you for joining us again. I want to encourage you to check out WithAllWisdom.org, where you’ll find a lot of resources there to help you think about these and other practical, theological, and cultural issues. And until next time, keep seeking the Lord in his Word.

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