In Autonomy of the Local Church we looked at how some Christians believe that a completely autonomous local church is the body of Christ. In its most adamant form this doctrine teaches that a person in that church needs no one outside of the local church for complete spiritual fulfillment.
A parachurch ministry represents the polar opposite of that ideal. Parachurch means “alongside the church”. Parachurch organizations help the church by specializing in areas often at levels higher than almost any individual church could produce. The vision of parachurch ministries is that each church in the world has many resources from people not in that church as any one of these parachurch ministries acts to come alongside the people in that Church and increase the level of service available to people in the church.
Parachurch ministries include organizations like radio and TV teaching ministries like Joel Osteen and Charles Stanley; counseling ministries like Focus on the Family, Family Life, Family Talk, Smalley Relationship Center, Marriage Encounter, and New Life Live; Evangelistic crusades like the Billy Graham Association; discipleship ministries such as Promise Keepers, The Navigators, and Campus Crusade for Christ, Christian Motorcycle clubs, ministries to the poor like the Salvation Army and the many city missions as well as Habitat For Humanity and Compassion International, and bible distribution ministries like the Gideons. And there are many smaller, more localized movements offering emergency shelters, pregnancy centers, food pantries, and independent bible studies. This list is far for all-inclusive, there are many groups out there serving the body of Christ. Some estimates put the number of Christian non-profits at over 100,000 in the U.S.
What makes parachurch organizations unique is that in order to be effective in a Christian world with tens of thousands of denominations most parachurch ministries have to promote a theology that can be acceptable by most if not all.
This is where Christians unite in accepting a close to universally agreeable theology. What you don’t see in the operations of parachurch ministries is debate over infant versus believer’s baptism, the events of the end times, the presence of the gifts of the spirit or any of a number of divisive topics. A lot of the leaders and speakers are women. The Christianity presented is one that stays close to universally accepted themes, salvation, deliverance, forgiveness, Christ’s teaching, the Lordship of Christ, and so on.
That is not to say that there are no taboos. Parachurch organizations generally follow a form called orthodox Christianity. Orthodox Christians don’t universally accept any group just because they lay a claim to Christianity. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are prime examples of groups whom orthodox Christians would not consider genuine Christians because these groups don’t meet certain tests of orthodoxy primarily including accepting the trinity and the deity of Christ. Other non-acceptable groups, identified as cults, to orthodox Christians include Christadelpians, Christian Scientists, Oneness Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, The Way International, the Unification Church (Moonies), and Unitarian – Universalist Churches.
Even with these taboos against groups considered cults, individuals with beliefs outside of orthodox Christianity may find more tolerance for their views than in their local Church and certainly more than in dogmatic mainline churches.
Parachurch ministries offer a “common ground” theology where people from various denominations and theologies can fellowship together across denominational boundaries. Men in Promise Keepers come together over men’s issues. Callers to Focus on the Family, Family Life, Family Talk and New Life Live focus together on marital and family issues from a Christian perspective. Prison ministries focus on basic Christianity and rehabilitation issues. These issues become the focus rather than the broader theologies that the church presents that will include a number of divisive issues.
I have participated in a number of parachurch ministries, and am always surprised at the interdenominational fellowship generated there. For example, “The Pittsburgh Experiment is a Christian inter-denominational ministry, which provides spiritual resources to business, professional and working people (including senior-management levels) and to area churches. Built on helping Western Pennsylvanians to apply their faith in day-to-day business relationships, The Experiment also has focused on and assisted individuals suffering from job stress and corporate downsizing.” [i] In attending meetings I was surprised by the amount of sharing, fellowshipping, praying and caring in the group.
There is a caveat with parachurch organizations. An inherent danger concerning parachurch organizations that are religious non-profits is that the really big ones tend to lose their Christian focus as they bigger and the decades pass. Christian Children’s Fund became Childfund International. YMCA is more secular than it used to be.
Another stated concern of many about parachurch organizations is that there is possibly no oversight on the organizations.
But the value of parachurch organizations is fantastic to those who take advantages of their services. They provide levels of expertise often not available within the local church. Parachurch organizations offer opportunities to get involved and serve with other Christians outside of the doors of the local Church. As a group they work to supply services to the body of Christ in a wonderful way.
[i] From the group’s website: http://www.pghexp.org/about.html