How do Christian ministries not under the supervision of the local church fit within the grand scheme of God’s redemptive purposes in the world?
For some, a question like this may seem unnecessary. Why draw a distinction between church ministries and what is often called “parachurch” ministries? Are we not all part of Christ’s universal church?
From 2014-2019 I had the privilege of leading Grace Campus Ministries (GCM), our church’s ministry to Stanford undergraduate and graduate students. When asked what distinguishes us from the other evangelical groups on campus, I would always tell the interested student that GCM is a ministry of the local church. Some of the Christian groups on campus are affiliated with local churches, but are, in their funding and oversight, nationwide organizations with a local chapter at Stanford University. GCM, however, was founded by members of a local church just a few miles south of Stanford and is presently funded and overseen by that same church. Our most important concern for Stanford students, then, is to help them make fellowship in the local church their top priority.
But why do we emphasize the local church and distinguish our ministry as a ministry of a local church? We emphasize this distinctive because of where we believe Scripture ranks the local church in relation to other spiritual entities. In terms of spiritual institutions formed by and composed of Christians, the New Testament only knows of the church, and, more specifically, the local church. In light of this biblical reality, what relation do parachurch ministries have to the local church? It is this question I want to explore in this article in order to provide clarity to both local churches and parachurch ministries so that we might together serve our Lord Jesus Christ with biblical fidelity.
A Theology of the Church
In order to adequately answer any questions about parachurch organizations, we must first explore what Scripture teaches about the church. In my experience and the experience of other leaders engaged in both church and parachurch ministries, failure to correctly understand the mission and function of parachurch ministries is often a symptom of poor ecclesiology. In other words, if one doesn’t grasp what the Bible teaches about the church, it is likely they won’t fully understand what makes for a biblically-faithful parachurch organization.
The first time we find the word ekklesia in the New Testament is when Jesus responds to Peter’s identification of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God by saying “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).
Building upon Peter’s affirmation of Jesus’ identity and Peter’s preaching of the gospel, Jesus would establish a “congregation” of saints that would endure even the fiercest spiritual attacks. Unlike Israel, this new entity would be comprised only of those who had trusted in Christ through the gospel and experienced the heart-changing work of the New Covenant by the power of the Holy Spirit (Jer 31:31-33; Heb 8:8-13). While Israel was a mixed-congregation—unbelievers and believers were both members of the corporate Mosaic covenant—the church would only include members of the New Covenant, those who truly believed in God through Christ.
As we move through the New Testament narrative, we gain greater clarity on this new entity’s nature and mission. With regard to its nature, this global gathering of genuine believers would find expression in local congregations.
Later in Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus informs His disciples that the church gathered would possess the authority to make spiritual pronouncements upon professing Christians who persisted in unrepentant sin (Matt 18:15-20). That such a disciplinary function assumed the establishment of local congregations is clear not only in this passage, but in the way the New Testament instructs us on how to deal with sin among erring church members. The apostle Paul, for example, admonishes the local church in Corinth for not expelling unrepentant members from their congregation (1 Cor 5:1-13). Paul’s chastisement, however, only makes sense if he assumed that the believers in Corinth had gathered together in a formal and localized way.
Indeed, the word ekklesia is used most often throughout the New Testament to refer to local churches. Of the over 105 times it is used with reference to the church, approximately seventy times ekklesia makes an unambiguous reference to the local church (e.g., Acts 8:1; 11:22; 14:23; 15:41; 16:5; 20:17; Rom 16:1, 4; 1 Cor 1:2; 4:17; 6:4; 7:17; 11:16; 11:18; 14:19; 14:33; 16:1; 2 Cor 1:1; 8:1; Gal 1:2; 1:22; 1 Thess 1:1; James 5:14; Rev 1:4, 11, 20; 2:1; 11, 12).
Among the instances when the New Testament refers to what theologians have called the “universal church”—all post-Pentecost believers from all places and all times—each of these uses are given in letters written to local congregations. The implication is that Christians do not belong to some abstract ideal; they belong to a real, universal congregation that always finds expression in local groups of believers who have gathered together in an official way. Christ’s lordship over the universal church, therefore, is conducted through the ministry of local churches. A believer who belongs to the universal church is a believer who, by definition, should belong to a local expression of that universal entity. Failure to unite oneself to a local church, therefore, is a failure that stems from misunderstanding the very structure of New Testament ecclesiology.
With regard to its mission, the church is entrusted with the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, correct worship, fellowship among the saints, the celebration of the ordinances, and care for the Christians in their midst (Acts 2:42; Gal 6:10; 2 Tim 4:2; Heb 10:24-25). While Christians individually can find a multitude of ways to be fruitful in good works (Matt 5:16; Titus 2:14; 3:14), the church gathered must always do what only the church can do: preach the Word of God.
Now that we have articulated the nature and the mission of the church, we are now ready to consider parachurch ministries more specifically.
A Theology of Parachurch Ministries
Before we get too far into articulating a theology of parachurch ministries, we need to first define what we mean by “parachurch ministry.” Up to this point in the article I have assumed that we have a basic idea of what constitutes a parachurch ministry. Let’s now define it. A parachurch ministry is an evangelical Christian ministry that, more or less, operates independently of the local church in its governance and funding. I say “evangelical” because I am not interested in discussing the value of ministries that have departed from the historical Christian faith, nor am I interested in how such ministries relate to the local church. These ministries, by definition, have no spiritual relation to or connection with the local church. The parachurch ministries I am considering in this article are those that are rooted in historical Protestant doctrine.
In terms of examples, I have chosen to divide the various examples into three “types” of parachurch ministries: connected, cooperative, and complete. Each refers to a different level of connection with the local church which is why I have noted, in my definition above, that they operate, “more or less” independently of the local church. Here are a few specific examples of parachurch ministries.
- The Master’s Seminary, Sun Valley, CA
- The Cornerstone Seminary, Vallejo, CA
- Grace to You, Panorama City, CA
- Christ to India, Tenali, India
- The Southern Baptist Convention
- The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
- Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA
- Compassion International
- Youth for Christ
- Reformed University Fellowship
- The Gospel Coalition
- Desiring God
- Intervarsity Christian Fellowship
- Crossway Publishers
- FamilyLife Today
- Focus on the Family
- Athletes in Action
- Fellowship of Christian Athletes
- Answers in Genesis
Connected parachurch ministries are linked to a specific local church, but are, for important reasons, considered a distinct entity from that local church. A cooperative parachurch organization is not connected to a specific local church but is self-consciously associated with a collection or denomination of churches. A complete parachurch ministry is an institution that has, in terms of its governance and funding, no connection with a specific local church or collective of local churches. The complete parachurch ministry functions with total independence from local church or denominational oversight and funding and does not make church collaboration a distinctive in their mission and value statements. These categories, however, are not rigid; a parachurch ministry may have aspects of its governance, funding, and cooperation with local churches that fit into any of the three.
With definitions and examples in place, let’s consider the word “parachurch.”
The prefix “para” means “beside” or “alongside of.” The word “parachurch” therefore, literally means “alongside of the church.” It is helpful to note from the very outset of our investigation that the word itself identifies the organization with reference to the church and thus gives priority to the church over the organization that stands alongside it. The church must exist in order for parachurch ministries to exist.
While I do not desire to denigrate excellent Christian ministries that function outside of local church oversight (I was saved through a parachurch ministry, I went to one for college and seminary, and I currently work at one), it must be asserted, based on the Scripture we examined above, that these ministries, no matter how large or effective or well-managed, owe their very existence to the institution Christ established two-thousand years ago. Without the church, there would be no organization to stand beside it.
I offer this observation to underscore the priority of the church over the parachurch organization. A theology of parachurch ministries begins by rightly understanding the nature and mission of the church and then by acknowledging the parachurch’s secondary place in God’s ecclesiological economy. As I observe how various parachurch ministries function and articulate their mission in relation to the church (if they articulate their mission in this way at all), there seems to be, among many of these institutions, a failure to reckon with their status as a derivative (rather than original) entity.
The Present State of Parachurch Ministries
Survey the purpose and value statements of some of the more well-known parachurch organizations and you will be unable to locate, in many cases, any specific reference made to the church generally or the local church specifically. Of those organizations that do mention the church, very few define their mission with relation to the church or give the impression they view their ministry as subordinate to or contingent upon the church.
This failure to carefully identify their mission and vision in relation to the church has caused some parachurch organizations to find themselves in direct competition with local congregations. One young woman at Stanford told me she believed the parachurch campus ministry to which she belonged competed with the church because her parachurch ministry had the capacity to do things on campus that the church simply couldn’t do. On another occasion, when I attempted to partner with a ministry whose regional director had just proclaimed at a meeting with local pastors how excited he was to partner with their churches, I was discouraged by that same director moments later from partnering with his ministry due to concerns over territory encroachment. Other ministries have taken a paternalistic stance toward the church, publicly chastising her for failing to engage in various social initiatives and other pressing contemporary issues.
When these twin postures toward the church—competition and paternalism—are allowed to gain a foothold in a parachurch organization, however, both the organization and the church will suffer. In order for parachurch ministries to bear enduring fruit, they must view their purpose for existence with particular reference to the church.
But it is not enough to say, “the church.” We must say, “the local church.” By making the local church the primary point of reference for parachurch ministries, we encourage authentic commitment to a concrete reality rather than promoting superficial agreement to an abstract ideal. Like my meeting with the local parachurch’s regional director taught me, a Christian leader may be happy to say he wants to partner with the church until a specific local church takes him up on it.
The best and most spiritually useful parachurch organizations, therefore, will be those that self-consciously identify their mission and values with direct reference to the local church and weave those values into the very fabric of the organization. In my judgment, Scripture allows Christians the freedom to form institutions that are distinct from and independent of the direct authority of the church. Aaron Menikoff, a pastor in Georgia, says it well:
Every Christian should be under the authority of the local church because every Christian should be a member of a local church. But this does not mean that every Christian’s vocation must be guided, controlled, or directly overseen by a local church. Because there is no biblical prohibition against the parachurch, Christians have the freedom to serve in the parachurch.
Nevertheless, Scripture also teaches us that the church must take preeminence over every other Christian entity, whether it is a college, seminary, campus ministry, or radio program. The parachurch ministry exists to serve the local church.
Specifically, this means that sound parachurch organizations strive to avoid acting like the church. When parachurch organizations begin to structure their ministry around what Scripture defines as the church’s primary responsibilities (corporate worship, the practice of the ordinances, preaching and teaching of the Word of God, the collective exercise of spiritual gifts, evangelism, discipleship) there is danger that the parachurch ministry will slowly become a replacement of the church for its members. Nowhere is this unhelpful development more prevalent than on college campuses where commitment to the campus ministry is favored—implicitly or explicitly—over commitment to the local church.
I do not mean to suggest that Christian organizations can’t operate in some ways similar to the church or specialize in certain aspects of ministry (like campus evangelism, for example). But in such cases, the parachurch ministry should be careful to frame their goals, vision, and mission in ways that are most conducive to, not in competition with, the spiritual prosperity of the local church.
Sound parachurch ministries will also seek to partner with, support, and learn from local churches. As we determined above, parachurch ministries exist because of the church, not vice-versa. Therefore, a parachurch organization that is operating according to a biblical ideal will view itself as a servant, not a dictator or competitor, of the institution that Christ Himself has founded and purchased with His own blood.
Nevertheless, a reciprocal relationship exists between these two entities, and churches would be wise to consider joining with, supporting, and learning from local and national parachurch organizations. If there is going to be fruitful partnership between the church and parachurch, both institutions must acknowledge the status and strengths of the other. As I’ve argued throughout this article, a healthy parachurch ministry will be one that views its mission in relationship to what Scripture teaches about the local church. In terms of status, it is secondary to the local church. But it’s also the case that certain parachurch organizations, due to their specialization in a particular area of ministry, will have much to offer the church. Local churches, therefore, should not despise strong Christian ministries; rather, they should find ways to make the best use of them and support them where appropriate.
Finally, solid parachurch organizations will prioritize the local church. This is more than just positioning the ministry to serve the local church. To prioritize the local church means that the parachurch ministry has a built-in deference toward the well-being of the church at the expense of its own success. Like lightbulbs that supply homeowners with useful light for a season, parachurch ministries should operate with a stated willingness to serve a limited and temporary purpose for the benefit of the institution that will last well beyond it: the church of Jesus Christ.
God’s gifts to His people are rich and varied. Parachurch ministries can serve a useful and productive place in God’s global redemptive purposes, and we should be happy to see solid, gospel-centered ministries grow in their influence and fruitfulness. But the end game for any parachurch organization should be to humbly serve and strengthen local churches.
See, for example, Mack Stiles, “Nine Marks of a Healthy Parachurch Ministry,” 9 Marks Journal, April 2011:6-13.
I take Jesus’ response to Peter (“And you are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my church”) as a reference to Peter in light of his confession of Jesus as the Christ. Gregg Allison implies we make a false distinction when we argue that Jesus is referring to either Peter or his confession. “Whereas some evangelical theologians interpret ‘this rock’ as a reference to Peter, and others a reference to his confession, a more plausible understanding is that the rock is Peter in virtue of his confession.” See Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 182. In other words, it would be upon the truth that Jesus is the Christ and the preaching of Peter and the apostles that the Son of God would build his church. We see the immediate fulfillment of this promise in Acts where Peter and the apostles preach repentance and faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:14-47).
There are a few times in the NT when the work ekklesia refers to a generic gathering of people (e.g., Acts 19:39).
I say “unambiguous” because there are times when the word ekklesia is used where it is difficult to determine whether the author is referring to the universal church—all believers in all places at all times—or a local gathering of believers.
Intervarsity Campus Fellowship does not mention the universal or local church in their purpose statement. In the “What We Do” section of their website, Cru (formally Campus Crusades for Christ) mentions the church once, but only with reference to the local churches they partner with in their city ministry. In the “Why We’re Here” section of their site, Athletes in Action never mentions the church. The popular radio program, Family Life Today doesn’t mention the church in their mission statement. Another popular radio program, Focus on the Family, acknowledges in their values section that “God has ordained the social institutions of family, church, and government for the benefit of mankind and as a reflection of His divine nature,” but they do not mention the church in their mission statement or anywhere else on their vision page. Christian Union, a campus ministry that originated in 2002 on the campus of Princeton University, does not mention the church in its vision and mission statement. Answers in Genesis says nothing about the church in its mission statement. Alpha and Omega Ministries does not mention the church in the description of its ministry. While Desiring God and Grace to You were both birthed from the preaching ministries of local churches (John Piper and John MacArthur, respectively), neither organization describes their mission and vision with specific reference to the church.
Some examples of parachurch organizations that frame their mission with direct reference to the local church are the following: Youth for Christ states that they work intentionally with “local churches, agencies, and other partners to sustainable youth and family ministry.” The Gospel Coalition makes it clear that they exist to “serve the church.” Compassion International states that they do all of their work “through partnerships with thousands of local churches in 25 countries around the world.” The Cornerstone Seminary states that they seek to “produce pastors who can reproduce themselves in the church.”
Aaron Menikoff, “Are Parachurch Ministries Evil? A Defense of their Biblical Basis and Practical Usefulness,” in 9 Marks Journal (Spring 2011): 20.
Stiles, “Nine Marks of a Healthy Parachurch Ministry,” 8.