For the Church: Which Parachurch Ministries Should You Support?

Article
03.01.2011

Just about every week, I get a call or email from the representative of a Christian organization. They want to meet with me to tell me how they can help the members of my church do missions, or evangelize students, or understand postmodernism, or disciple children, or (most recently) use instant messaging to do evangelism. This kaleidoscope of Christian groups which are not churches, but which want to help fulfill the duties of a church, is enough to make a pastor’s head spin.

I do believe there is biblical precedent for parachurch activity, as when we read about in 2 John, 3 John, and Philippians about one church supporting workers sent from another church. Presumably, some sort of administrative structure may have helped manage these inter-church cooperative relationships. Still, how do you decide who to meet with, let alone who to support?

This topic is too complex to comprehensively address in a short article. But I can suggest a few principles that help me in deciding which parachurch organizations to consider cooperating with and which to simply pass over.

1. Look for groups that realize they are not the church.

Most parachurch organizations acknowledge somewhere in their official documentation that they are not the church, but are merely a servant of churches. But for many, the distinction ends with that formal declaration.

I recall a young man from our church who hoped to go to Asia as a student worker with one of the largest student-focused parachurch organizations in America. As he completed their application process he came to me perplexed that they never once asked him for a recommendation from a pastor, and never asked for any proof that he was a member of any church in good standing…nothing. He listed the name of the church he attended on a form once and that was it. They required lots of career references, lots of references from friends, some personality profiles, but there was no communication with or about his church at all—nada, zero, nothing.

And yet, on paper, this group says they exist to help, not to replace, churches. Really? I’m thankful this organization proclaims the gospel, but I’m afraid that their intention to partner with churches doesn’t mean in practice as much as it may sound like in theory.

When you are looking to work through a parachurch organization, try not to settle for this. Try to steer your people toward groups that, in their structure and actions, demonstrate a real love for Christ’s church. At a minimum this might mean the organization requires a church affirmation before accepting a worker. Amazingly, many groups don’t even do that. Much better, it might mean that the group partners with local churches in their actual work. Campus Outreach[2] and International Students Incorporated[3] are two examples of parachurch organizations that establish relationships with local churches before they start building relationships on local campuses. Such groups understand the unique role of the church as they come alongside (the meaning of the “para” in “parachurch,” by the way) the churches they mean to serve.

In short, look for parachurch groups that are happy with a limited, subordinate role. Bridesmaids who think and act like they are the bride are seldom helpful at a wedding, no matter how nice they look in their dress.

2. Look for groups that hold to acceptable theology, and that leave room for better.

I have a preference for relating to people, not organizations. So typically I work to support individuals with whom I’m building a relationship.  I don’t generally see myself as supporting the parachurch ministry for whom an individual works.

Having said that, I do care about what the group as a whole affirms.  I expect basic theological agreement between myself and the individual’s organization.  But if I find that a parachurch group is characterized by a position on secondary issues that I don’t like, I’m generally content to work with them so long as they don’t force those ideas on the people I support.  I’m content if the group merely leaves room for clearer, more faithful theology on the part of their members.

3. Prefer groups that are tied to a defined fellowship of churches.

I know this is not supposed to be the age of denominations, but many scholars have noted that parachurch groups such as mission boards have a much better track record when they are accountable to a particular denomination or a group of churches.[4] If parachurch organizations intend to serve churches, it only seems natural that they would want close relationships with actual churches, in order to know whether or not their service is truly helpful.

If a group doesn’t have specific churches to which it is accountable, it’s worth asking why.

4. Don’t support just any parachurch organization.

In the end, my advice is, just don’t do it. Don’t support just any parachurch organization. Instead, use them to support efforts, individuals or teams that you trust.

This means not giving money to a parachurch organization apart from significant knowledge of efforts the organization is doing, or of a team or an individual working with that organization that you appreciate and want to support. I realize that in practice, this is the way most people and congregations end up supporting parachurch groups anyway, but it’s good to be explicit that this is what we are doing. I know and trust and appreciate a person, so I use a parachurch organization to manage my support for them. But I am supporting the person or the team—I am almost certainly not merely supporting the organization (other than the necessary overhead).

In the case of “deputation” kinds of support, I want to consciously realize that I’m not supporting a parachurch group, but rather it is simply a useful but expendable means to help my church do the work given to it through specific teams or individuals.

With other para-church groups that advance a particular goal or mission (9Marks being an example of one) I want to make sure I understand not just what they say they are doing—“promoting healthy churches”—but something of “how” they are doing it.  This means doing a little bit of due diligence.  But if you are willing to fund just a few groups lavishly, rather than a bunch of groups meagerly, that won’t be nearly such a daunting thought.

5. Find a few groups that work well for your church members and focus on them.

Don’t be passive about your member’s relationships with parachurch organizations. Instead, be proactive. Identify groups that may help your church with missions or student evangelism and work to forge a relationship with these groups. This means that you should encourage members of your church to be sent out through a few more trusted organizations rather than a wide range of organizations you don’t know very well.

Then, as your personal relationships with an organization grow, work to become a church that is known to the whole organization. Invest in serving on committees or advisory boards. Get to know leaders who are directly over your members. Make the effort to help these organizations remain methodologically sound and appropriately connected to the churches. Almost certainly there will be times of frustration, but try to stick it out. Parachurch ministries need close accountability with churches, even if they are often not wise enough to recognize it. And this will help you to use the services of parachurch groups respectfully and wisely, too.

These are just a few ideas. At the end of the day, this is still a complicated matter. But we serve our churches well and we serve parachurch groups well by being both thankful and discerning about those who want to “come along side” and assist the only organization that Jesus himself founded: the church.

[1] Ott, Craig and Stephen Strauss. “Encountering Missiology” Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI USA, 2010, p. 203.

[2] www.campusoutreach.org

[3] www.isionline.org

[4] John Hammett, “How Church and Parachurch Should Relate: Arguments for a Servant-Partnership Model.” Missiology, Vol. 28, No. 2. April 2001, p. 201.

By:
Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson is an associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.