Parachurch work is my lifeblood. I’ve been shaped and sustained by countless parachurch ministries. I’m pushing five decades of involvement in numerous parachurch organizations. I’m even writing this article for Radical, a parachurch ministry.
None of these ministries are the church.
First, it’s important to say that it takes nothing away from parachurch ministries to make the observation that they aren’t the church. It’s not an insult. Lots of important things we do aren’t the church: family devotions, mission agencies, Christian conferences.
Problems only start when we confuse the role of the parachurch with the church. And that confusion can harm the work of Jesus and stunt your spiritual growth.
There a many reasons for that, but here are four foundational things that help us clear up the confusion.
1. Jesus loves his bride.
Hey, you can talk badly about me, but talk badly about my bride and you’re in trouble. She’s dear to me. I’m called to protect her and care for her.
Jesus cares about his bride. He protects her and cares for her. He sees her with loving eyes. Christians would do well to love what Jesus loves when it comes to the church. And we do that by loving the community of believers who commit to each other, just like in marriage.
Do we love the lost? Yes, of course. Do we have a special place in our heart for the poor, the unreached, the down and out? You bet. But loving the community of God in the church is a special display of God’s glory. Jesus says clearly that when we love one another we show the world that we are his disciples.
I’ve been a part of churches where loving one another has been specifically written out in a covenant. A covenant lists the Scriptures that tell us how the community of the church loves each other. Obeying Jesus’ commandments to love one another is how we honor and love Him. The good news is, when we love the bride of Christ, despite all of her warts and foibles, Christ is honored and pleased and glorified.
And in my experience, when I love the local church, the local parachurch ministry of which I am a part has flourished.
2. Define “church.”
I’ve been directly involved in two US church plants and two church plants overseas. Perhaps the most surprising thing about church planting is that many who plant churches can’t define “church.” Okay, true confession: there were times when I was planting a church when I didn’t know how to define “church.”
So what is the church and how does it differ from parachurch? A seemingly boring, but incredibly important definition . . .
The church is the God-ordained local assembly of believers who have committed themselves to be in a loving community with each other. They gather regularly, the Scriptures are taught, they sing, celebrate communion, practice baptism, discipline their members, establish biblical eldership, they pray and give financially to support the church and gospel proclamation to the world. Churches are free to do more, but these are the irreducible parts of a church. Take any away and you no longer have a New Testament church.
On the other hand, parachurch is less; parachurch ministries have a narrow slice of the Christian life. It may be narrow in that it only ministers for a certain period of time in a person’s life—university ministry, for example. Or it might be narrow because it focuses on one aspect of our Christian commitment: ministering to the poor, learning how to study the Bible, or targeting an unreached people group.
If this basic distinction is lost, or even rejected by a parachurch ministry, then you’re in trouble. It’s as if you are exercising one part of the body while other parts atrophy.
3. Church is real life.
When a para-church ministry becomes the primary place of fellowship and spiritual nurture, those para-church members often criticize their churches for not being more like a parachurch ministry.
In one sense who can blame them, they have warm memories of experiences in their parachurch ministry. That great fellowship and spiritual intensity of the high school youth ministry was a fantastic experience, not just because God was at work in their lives, but also because everyone was young and beautiful, dealing with the same things, and loving the same songs. They didn’t even have to pay for it (that happened because churches usually funded it). But those short years (or months) are not real life.
In my years in student ministry, I would often tell students that they were a place of rare and unique opportunity for witness. That’s because the place they lived (college dorms) was the same as the place they worked (college classes) was the same as the place they socialized (college football games). Graduation would bring fragmentation of those three parts of life for the rest of life, because student ministry is not real life.
And remember that parachurch ministries often have the luxury of forgoing practices of the church that they find uncomfortable: church discipline or membership, for example.
Church ministry, on the other hand, is real life. It’s for the long haul: the ministry of the church is for people from the nursery to the nursing home. Unlike a parachurch ministry, it’s for all believers, not just a certain set of believers, so for a church to target a certain group of people based on race or ethnicity or class or education is not just forbidden, it’s wicked.
Of course since church is about all of life, it’s harder . . . just like real life. But just like real life, we don’t get to opt out.
4. Church is required.
You are not required to be involved in a parachurch ministry. The church, on the other hand, is required for all believers.
The simple basic command is found in Hebrews 10:24-25 and instructs us not to “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.” Or, to put it another way: show up. Many Christians act as if the biblical command in Hebrews is optional and flexible, but let’s face it, the command is clear. Besides, showing up is usually not that hard.
I know a wealthy American man who heads up a parachurch ministry yet he doesn’t go to church. It’s just too darn hard to find a fellowship that meets his requirements. So, he says, he does church on the internet. To me that seems like a dodge for any sort of accountability in his life.
Regardless, contrast him with a friend of mine who comes from the country of Eritrea where Protestant churches are under harsh persecution. He and his wife went to two different services of the same church so that if one was arrested the children would not be without a parent. Eventually he was arrested and jailed. After his release, the family fled the country. Their commitment to church was based on the command in Hebrews 10:24–25.
Don’t you think my friend from Eritrea stands as a witness to much of our modern superficiality about church? I don’t know about you, but if I were going to the church on the internet, I would have a hard time looking him in the eye.
Recently David Platt was speaking at a mission’s conference in Europe. He told the gathered missionaries that they needed to be in church. If there was no church, start one; if it’s an unhealthy church, make it better; if there is a good church, plug in.
That’s because church is required.
Have parachurch ministries been used by God? Yes. God has prospered parachurch ministries and we should be grateful for them, but it’s the advance of the church that will shatter the gates of hell according to Jesus. So until that day, remember the love Jesus has for the church, be able to define what church is, understand the full-orbed ministry of church, and don’t neglect the gathering of believers.
 Eph 5:32
 Jn 13:37
 Jn. 13:34
 James 2:1, 8-9