Who’s Afraid of the Parachurch?

What on earth is a *para*church? “Para” means beside, or alongside, but how can some activity, which is done by Christians, for christian purposes, be “alongside” the church. Isn’t it being done by the church?

Anonymous Hobbes at Castle Sands recommends “The Church Alternative Virus” for our reading enjoyment, which asserts that “that parachurch activity is an aberration, and all Christian ministry should be performed by the church.” And again I’m getting lost here. I mean, I get the point. Jesus Christ founded the church. He didn’t found the parachurch. So why do we have one?

But see, how can something which is done by Christians… okay, I’m repeating myself.

Honestly, I think the term “parachurch” may in fact be a misnomer, complimentary to an equally incorrect understanding of what the “local” church is. “Parachurch” refers to a christian organization which is organizationally separated from the administrative government of the church, i.e. an individual congregation, or a conglomerate, such as a denomination. Why are they run by a separate administration? Because, unlike in former times, when all the Christians in a given area were considered to be “the church” of that area, today any given community of Christians could have an uncountable number of administrative organizations which run individual congregations according to a wide array of principles. “Parachurch” organizations are called para-church, not because they somehow function outside the church (insofar as everybody in the organization is a christian, and working toward christian ends, the organization is de facto part of the church), but because they bridge the gaps between these administrative divisions, gaps which the individual congregations are otherwise unwilling to cross.

It seems to me that the “parachurch” organization will continue to exist so long as the “local” church continues to be divided. Without having read his article, I think Dave Harvey at Triablog is probably right, but it sounds like he doesn’t realize how right he is, or maybe he doesn’t realize *in what way* he’s right. He says, “Where capable churches exist or emerge, parachurch ministries should recognize the Scriptural legitimacy and primacy of the church. After seeking to equip the local church from their expertise, they should gradually reposition themselves to function under church leadership.” The problem is that the kind of church which would have to arise in order to be “capable” enough to maintain direct adminstrative control over all the local para-church Christian functions would be the kind of church we haven’t seen for over 500 years: a single administrative structure for each community, town, or region.

“The church has drifted” Harvey says, but I’m not convinced that it has drifted in the wrong direction. The monolithic structure described above makes me nervous, and I have some doubt that it’s biblical. I’m much more comfortable with a kind of presbyterian model: such organizations which run paralel to the administrative structure of individual congregations should submit themselves to the collective authority of the *consensus* of **all** the churches they associate with. In this way, these organizations wouldn’t be subsumed into a burgeoning burueaucracy of church structure, but would still be under the authority of proper Church leadership.

Author: KB French

Formerly many things, including theology student, mime, jr. high Latin teacher, and Army logistics officer. Currently in the National Guard, and employed as a civilian... somewhere

2 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of the Parachurch?”

  1. You say “It seems to me that the “parachurch” organization will continue to exist so long as the “local” church continues to be divided.”

    I think that is the key issue, Kyle.

    I favour churches that are autonomous and self-governing, but I think parachurch organisations exist because of the fragmentation of the church into thousands of small-ish autonomous, independent churches. Small churches and small budgets are limited in what can be done practically. There’s no avoiding that fact. The Universal Church can do much more together than divided. I’m not in favour of radical ecumenism (where matters of conscience or theology should be sacrificed simply for the sake of working together), but I believe there must be a greater cooperation between churches with similar vision and values. There has to be.


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