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Parachurch Organizations
by Dr. J. Brad Bailey

Parachurch Organizations

 

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imply stated, any entity or organization that is functioning out from under the oversight and authority of a local church could be classified as a parachurch organization.  Some would define it as religious organizations that are not operated under the auspices of a particular faith tradition.  These are ministries that often feel smothered by local church oversight and so they choose to intentionally minister independently of it.  Within the context of the broader Christian church, a parachurch organization can be the means to allow Christians from different denominations to come together in pursuit of a common objective.  Because the organization is not accountable to any one denomination, the parachurch is free to function within the perimeters of its own charter and has only to account to the members of the organization for any actions taken.

         The prefix para- is Greek for “beside” or “alongside.”  Therefore, some claim that the parachurch ministry is one that seeks to come alongside the local church, providing in many cases, that which the church is less able to provide on its own.

Translating that behavior into the Independent Baptist realm means that often Fundamental Baptist organizations and ministries with an objective in mind will avoid local church oversight in order to accomplish that objective.  This mindset overturns the biblical teachings of local church authority and oversight.  Biblically, anything that God is going to do will be done through the local church.

However, what these organizations desire to accomplish is not always in conflict with the ministry of the local church.  The idea of a parachurch organization has been around for a number of years.  During the 19th century, abolitionist organizations that were not tied directly to one particular denomination provided a means for persons who were against slavery to unite their efforts without having to report to the hierarchy of any one Christian church.  During the early 20th century, parachurch organizations formed for other purposes, such as a means of providing relief in war torn areas of the world, or providing soup kitchens or other support during the years of the American Depression.  All of these are certainly noble conquests.

In the opinion of some, a parachurch organization can be built around any common set of values and goals.  This means that a parachurch organization may focus on promoting well-being among a particular gender, age group, economic group, or race.  At the same time, a parachurch organization may develop in response to a need present within a given community, such as assistance to the poor, or providing ongoing ministry to persons with mental disabilities.  Again, these are all noble deeds.

The work of the parachurch organization is often seen as giving expression to a particular religious principle that may not be fully possible within the scope of one single denomination.  “The defining characteristic of a parachurch is that it stands outside of the organizational structure of well‑established religious bodies. The autonomy of the parachurch from established religious bodies allows a much greater degree of flexibility for innovation than is possible within an established organizational hierarchy. Para-churches are often the creation of an entrepreneur or a small cadre of people who seek to achieve specific goals.”1

A great example of a parachurch organization is the typical Billy Graham crusades of the past.  The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) is instructive of the relationship between local churches and a parachurch organization.  Billy Graham Crusades were the culmination of an extended period of cooperation between the host community and the BGEA.  The process begins with an invitation from an inter-organizational ecumenical alliance from the host community.  BGEA brings its organizational resources and skills to the local community, but local groups carry the burden of enlisting literally hundreds of local churches and community organizations, and thousands of volunteers.  It was common knowledge that the limiting of the event to being hosted by one church or even one denomination would bring crippling restrictions.  Therefore, local church endorsements, names and personalities were intentionally omitted.


Jimmy Swaggart crusades were quite different.  Typically the parking lots of Swaggart crusades (before his sexual sins were exposed) were filled with busses from Assembly of God churches that were on board with the event.  The audience was substantially taken from the local Assemblies of God and the meetings were endorsed by that particular denomination.  Again, this limited the size of the Swaggart Crusade crowds dramatically in comparison to Billy Graham crusades.

So, if these organizations are doing good, you may ask, what is the issue?  The apostles in the Book of Acts made no attempt to form an organization of any kind for carrying on the work of the Lord.  The local church was God’s unit on earth for propagating the faith and the disciples were content to work within that context.  In today’s church world, every time a believer gets a new idea for advancing the cause of Christ, he/she forms a new mission board, corporation, or institution.  Many of these organizations have become competitors with the local church because they are assuming the functions of the local church.  The problem is with the belief that the parachurch organization sits at the same level of authority as the local church.

The biblical church (ekklesia) always describes a people and never a building, place, denomination or specific group of Christians to the exclusion of other Christians.  It doesn’t matter where people are gathered together for ministry or what corporate structure they take on, they are still “the church,” God’s called out people ministering in the name of Jesus.  Parachurch organizations lack this designation, making them a human invention.

 

How Has The Parachurch Phenomenon Affected Independent Baptists?

 

The Costly Transfer of Needed Personnel to Parachurch Organizations

 

One result is that capable volunteers, workers, teachers and preachers have been called away from their primary ministries in order to become administrators of these organizations.  For example, if more mission board administrators were serving on the mission field, it would greatly reduce the need for personnel in home offices.  However, recently we have seen a surge of missionaries actually coming home from their fields to fill administrative positions in their mission boards, which are mostly parachurch organizations.  Many of these missionaries are still very capable and are nowhere near close to retirement age, but they return to the states anyway under the call of parachurch organizations.

There is a limited number of qualified personnel available to operate the necessary ministries of the local church and fulfill the great commission.  These personnel are already stretched and overworked.  Taking them from scriptural positions in the church and/or the mission field to operate and manage the affairs of parachurch organizations leaves the body of the church with a visible deficit of qualified workers.

In one twelve month span our church was informed that several of the missionaries that we support were leaving the foreign field to accept administrative positions at mission board campuses.  That need is understandable, but you can see how the request to continue supporting these men financially would have drastically shifted our mission dollars away from the foreign-field-ministry of planting churches to maintenance the operations of mission board facilities and campuses.  Some of these facilities are elaborate.  It makes you wonder what could be done if those mission boards eliminated some of those facilities and focused more on starting and building churches on the foreign field.

The biblical discrepancy on this issue is plain: we are founding missions; the apostles founded churches.  The apostles deliberately founded churches, and they founded nothing else, because for the ends in view nothing else was required or could have been as suitable.  They evangelized the uninitiated and unreached.  They planted churches and trained pastors to fill those churches.  In each place where they labored they formed the converts into a local assembly, with elders (Acts 14:23, 15:6, 23, 20:17, Phil. 1:1) to guide, to rule, to shepherd, men qualified by the Lord and recognized by the saints (I Cor. 16:15, I Thess. 5:12, 13, I Tim. 5:17‑19); and with deacons, appointed by the assembly (Acts 6:1‑6, Phil. 1:1) to tend to the very important temporal affairs.

I do not want to overemphasize a particular parachurch organization over any other, but the issue of mission boards calling missionaries home to serve in their parachurch offices as administrators needs more emphasis.  Let me pose four simple questions for those who are contemplating this, or at least, are considering a transfer like this B just four questions: How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?  And how shall they preach, except they be sent (Rom. 10:14-15a)?

If you want to look at that from a reverse angle, think about it like this: Paul was saying unless they are sent they cannot preach, and unless they preach, unbelievers will not hear and if unbelievers do not hear, they cannot believe because faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17).

 

The Financial Burden of Parachurch Organizations

 


Another result of the proliferation of these organizations is that vast sums of money are needed for overhead, and thus diverted from direct gospel outreach.  I was a little addled when I discovered that a large part of every dollar given to many Christian organizations is devoted to the expense of maintaining the organization rather than to the primary purpose for which it was founded.  In cases where missionaries are connected to mission boards that withhold exorbitant amounts from the missionary’s hard earned support, our church has often sent the support of the missionary to their local church instead of their mission board.  It is counterproductive to spend valuable mission funds on those who are drawing salaries to stay in their own country.  So, in many cases at least, the parachurch has become a parasite.

From a purely financial standpoint, many parachurch organizations are doctrinally careless, but they give great emphasis to maintaining their tax exempt statuses.  That’s right.  Many of them share the same tax exemption that the local church enjoys in America.

 

The Compromise of Parachurch Organizations

 

Parachurch organizations often hinder the fulfillment of the Great Commission.  Jesus told His disciples to teach all the things that He had commanded.  We are expected to preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).  However, many who work for parachurch organizations find they are not permitted to teach all the truth of God.  They must not teach certain controversial matters for fear they will alienate their constituency, whom they look to for financial support and with certain parachurch groups, some doctrines are purposely avoided to allow for unity between those of different beliefs within the group.

The Gideons International is a well-known parachurch organization that places scriptures in the hands of thousands and make Bibles available in many motel rooms and lobbies.  The Gideons have been settled on the issue of the King James Version for decades, but recently they have decided to print other versions of the Bible.  This has left many of their die-hard supporters and volunteers bewildered and dazed, but they have no recourse, other than to resign the organization in protest.  Again, I love the Gideons, but there appears to be no doctrinal oversight in place that could have prevented this mistake.

 

The Structural Flaws of Para-Church Organizations

 

         These organizations don’t have the same structure as the local church, which is the “the pillar and ground of the truth.” (I Timothy 3:15). The local church is God’s plan for the building up of the saints to do the work of the ministry, and He has gifted believers to accomplish that goal (Ephesians 4:11-12). He has also designed for the church a structure that includes godly leadership who oversee the members, feeding them spiritual truth, ensuring that they are built up in the faith, and protecting them from false teachers and doctrine. There is no such structure in a parachurch ministry. In fact, in some of the larger ministries, workers come from all branches of Christianity and all denominations, which can lead to a tendency to water down the message to the lowest level of agreement among the ministry leadership. While most parachurch ministries have some sort of a board of directors that establish and oversee the direction of the ministry, these most often follow business models, not the biblical model for church leadership and accountability.

 

The Unscriptural Recruitment Philosophy of Parachurch Organizations

 

         To be a part of the church and to be an active part of the church’s ministry team, individuals must be saved and must have identified their spiritual gift (cf. Rom. 12:3-8, I Cor. 12:1-11).  Every saved believer has been given a supernatural spiritual gift that identifies his/her function in the body of Christ.  The Holy Spirit is the administrator and giver of these specific gifts (I Cor. 12:4-5).  Parachurch organizations will often have an application process that will involve questions regarding the special skills, or educational background of applicants that can be of use within the organization.  An application process means that some applicants may be turned down for service in the organization if their skills are deemed unfit or unnecessary.

         The Holy Spirit will never ask a believer to apply for a job in their church and reserve the right to exclude that individual from service in the local church if their skillset does not match the congregation’s needs.  In fact, some of us believe that any person whom God saves has been redeemed for the purpose of service in the local church in some supernaturally gifted capacity.  A person may be unattractive, have some sort of handicap, or impediment, they may even be emotionally unstable, but whatever their quirks are, if God saves them, they have a place of service in their local church.

         Parachurch organizations appear to be canvassing congregations through an application process, looking for our best, brightest, and most attractive members for the purpose of recruitment.  Those who do not meet their description of “suitable,” need not apply.  This is an unscriptural discriminate practice, to say the least.

 

So What is the Solution?

 

The Local Church

Parachurch Organizations

God’s Creation

Man’s Creation

Spiritually Effective

Sociologically Effective

Cross-Culturally Valid

Culturally Limited

Biblical Oversight

Business-Like Oversight

God’s Plan For Evangelism

Man’s Plan For Evangelism

Essential

Expendable

Eternal

Temporal

Divine Revelation

Human Tradition

Para-church organizations must be brought under the supervision and oversight of a local church. As stated earlier, there is no scriptural ministry that operates and exists outside of or away from the authority of the local church.

Like many other well intended ministries, parachurch organizations have noble goals in mind, and while they could never be classified as utterly useless or in direct violation of the Bible, they have curved away from the original intention that God had for ministries to be supervised by a competent local church.  The inherent problems of the parachurch arise from such an entity trying to fulfill a role for which it is not equipped.

So the solution is simple. There is no need to end the existence of these organizations. We need rather to bring them under the oversight of the local church and modify them to fit into that role.  Also, it is not out of the question that when a parachurch ministry seems to be losing its effectiveness in supporting the ministry of the local church, the local church should confront the leadership of the parachurch ministry and suggest modification or termination of that ministry.

On the other hand, if the parachurch organization would take up the challenge to work with the local church, there would be greater depth to the church’s ministry and the problems could be solved.

 

Sources & Notes:

 

  1. Jeffrey K. Hadden, Parachurch Organizations, University of Virginia, www.virginia.edu.com