For the Church: How Can You Support Parachurch Ministries?
For months, even years, you’ve heard your pastor preach on the need for Christians to be salt and light in the world. You’ve listened to expositions of Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations” so many times you could preach it yourself. Your minister has exhorted you from Luke to emulate the Good Samaritan’s compassion for the needy, and to avoid the rich man’s callousness toward Lazarus in his poverty.
And finally, it sinks in. You step out in faith to explore compassionate gospel ministry to the homeless or international students or battered women or veterans. You even discover other Christians who are doing the same ministry. In fact, they’ve formed an organization to coordinate their work more effectively. So you join up. And then you tell your pastor the good news that at long last you’re putting his words into practice.
To your shock, he doesn’t celebrate this new venture of faith. He begins to lecture you! He talks about the dangers of parachurch organizations and the centrality of the local church.
Are there dangers and theological challenges for parachurch work? Yes, most significantly, there’s the danger of replacing the bride of Christ with another organization that Jesus didn’t establish. The parachurch can easily become a pseudo-church.
Other articles in this Journal will address these problems. But assuming, as I do, that there is still a legitimate role for a parachurch ministry (like 9Marks!), I want to address the question many pastors may have: How can our local churches support parachurch ministries?
PASTOR A HEALTHY CHURCH
The most vital thing we can do to help the parachurch is to foster healthy, biblical churches.
All followers of Jesus, including those who serve in parachurch organizations, are called to grow as members of local congregations. We all need to be fed by regular, gospel-centered, expository preaching. We all need to be encouraged and prayed for by a committed body, inspired by the role-modeling of godly elders and deacons, and fortified through baptism and communion. The New Testament vision of discipleship is church-shaped.
Unfortunately, some Christians gravitate toward parachurch work because they are repelled by experiences in unhealthy, unbiblical congregations. They have experienced superficiality and trendiness, lack of discipleship and shallow teaching, legalism and traditionalism, complacency and indifference. They’re disillusioned by churches where the members seem more concerned with feeding sacred cows than with working in fields white for the harvest. And so they move into parachurch work, sometimes making that ministry their de facto church.
Pastor, do you want parachurch workers to love the church? Then don’t merely argue for the centrality of the local church from the Bible. Show them what biblical church life looks like. These brothers and sisters need the church to grow in grace, so let’s strive to lead attractive churches filled with the Word and the gospel, holiness and love, where they can flourish spiritually and be equipped for their work.
PROVIDE ACCOUNTABILITY—FOR YOUR MEMBERS
This leads to a second way the church can support the parachurch: providing spiritual accountability for the members of your church who work with parachurch groups.
As church members, we are called to submit our lives to one another, both for encouragement and for scrutiny. Further, God appoints shepherds to watch over these local flocks, and he calls members to submit to their leaders. Jesus even gave authority (“the keys of the kingdom”) to churches to exclude members from the congregation who embrace sin and won’t repent. Just like being in a family, belonging to a church includes being open to the loving audit of others.
A church can support its members who are parachurch workers by providing this biblical accountability. Although a local church may not have direct authority over a parachurch institution, it can always challenge and encourage members who work in those institutions. You may not be able to keep a prison ministry or a food pantry from error or imbalance, but you can lovingly broach concerns with a church member serving in that prison or pantry.
Pastors can chafe at parachurch organizations because they sometimes appear to pick the pockets of the church and take the keys to the kingdom, usurping the church’s calling to provide spiritual oversight. But are we providing accountability for our members? Let’s not assume that because a church member leads a vibrant local ministry, she has no need for pastoral care and oversight. Learn about, love and lead your members who compassionately minister the gospel outside the doors of the church.
PARTNER AND PROMOTE
A third and final thought: take advantage of the synergy afforded by church and parachurch partnerships.
Most congregations already do this with missionaries and missions agencies. The missions agency (a parachurch group) helps churches to send missionaries by supplying logistical support, a coordinated strategy, and more.
Why not also promote the work of the sister who leads the Bible study as a volunteer staffer at the home for pregnant teens, or the brother who spends hours each week sharing the gospel at a nursing home with a chaplaincy organization? Certainly we can find ways to highlight their ministries and partner with them without supporting every cause financially. Lend your facilities, libraries, people, and prayers. And as your church grows in biblical health, don’t be surprised if it spawns new parachurch efforts.
Simply acknowledging these ministries might ignite lethargic church members. Sometimes people need concrete ideas about how to put our sermons on service, evangelism, and missions into practice. Seeing a fellow church member serving in a parachurch effort might inspire that revolutionary, life-changing thought, “Maybe God could use me too!”
GO WITH THE FLOW
A healthy church has a strong tidal rhythm. We flow in as a congregation, gathering to display God’s glory (this means getting serious about church polity, biblical worship gatherings, membership, discipline, and fellowship). And then we must flow out with the tide. We disperse into the world to be fishers of men and to care for the broken man in the ditch on the road down to Jericho.
Let’s support those groups that beckon us outward into the ocean where the fish are.