When Churches and Parachurches Drift Apart

Peter Greer (@peterkgreer) is president and CEO of HOPE International. Chris Horst (@chrishorst) is the vice president of development at HOPE International. Together with the support of Anna Haggard, they coauthored Mission Drift and Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing. They wrote this essay with support from HOPE intern, Andrey Bobrovskiy.

Public perceptions about religious expression continue to narrow, with recent high-profile faith-based organizations facing scrutiny of all varieties about how they practice their faith.

At California State University, evangelical groups who require leaders to sign a statement of faith are close to losing their official recognition with the administration. At Vanderbilt, Bowdoin and dozens of other universities, religious groups have already lost their official standing over the same issue.

For faith-based campus outreach groups, Christian colleges, urban ministries, adoption agencies and global relief and development organizations, the question society is asking is this: Just what makes your campus group, humanitarianism, education and service “Christian”?

It’s an important question. And it’s a question leaders of faith-based organizations, specifically, should be asking. Because in recent years, the connection between the church and parachurch ministries has been weakening. And if we are unable to clearly articulate the centrality of our faith to our work, how can expect others to?

For centuries, the local church was the centerpiece of outreach and service. The rapid creation of separate parachurch organizations is a relatively recent phenomenon. Para, parachurch’s prefix, is Greek for “alongside” or “beside.” The purpose of parachurch organizations is to come alongside, to support, the local church.

These organizations flourished, in large measure due to the forbearance produced by their faith and by God’s good provision. In their book, Sacred Aid, scholars Michael Barnett and Janice Gross Stein state that organizations “driven by religious faith also might be more willing to endure hardship and personal sacrifice for a longer period of time.”

Following the wars of the early 20th century, Christians undertook concerted efforts to respond on a massive scale to the devastation in Europe and Asia grew. The result was the rapid increase of Christian relief and development organizations motivated by faith, but in many cases, largely disconnected from the local church. Parachurch ministries and outreach organizations worked beside the church, but some ignored her completely.

More significantly, a philosophical and subtle separation developed between the “works” of justice and the “message” of salvation. Slowly, the church was given the responsibility to share the Good News verbally while the work of restoration went to nonprofits. Our crumbling ecclesiology has created a fissure we ought to work hard to mend.

On Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed, Jonathan Storment describes how the separation of parachurch ministries from their roots has dangerous implications:

The people who have started these non-profits or have tried to serve the world in Gospel ways through their business or parachurch organization are primarily people who have been formed in a local church. They have been taught to care about the world in a way that is in line with the nature of God, and adjust their bottom lines and values accordingly. But when we create a culture that is more in love with the fruit than the tree (and by tree I mean Jesus) we eventually lose both.

This has resulted in many parachurch organizations—including prominent once-parachurch organizations like ChildFund (formerly known as Christian Children’s Fund)—to divorce themselves entirely from the Christian faith of their youth. ChildFund was launched by a Presbyterian minister and initially was closely hinged to the church and exemplified robust Christian distinctiveness. But as ChildFund, and many other parachurches, grew, they have cut ties with the local church. As they’ve done so, they’ve secularized and abandoned their core faith convictions.

Cutting ties with the local church became like cutting the ropes to the anchor which enabled them to resist the cultural currents of mission drift.

As leaders of HOPE International, a Christ-centered microfinance organization, we know how messy partnering with the church can be.

“I know the church is described as the Bride of Christ in Scripture, but too often it acts like Bridezilla,” Gil Odendaal, vice president at World Relief, once remarked.

We’ve experienced these challenging realities as we’ve worked with churches in countries all over the world. It becomes quickly understandable why many parachurch organizations prefer to operate alone.

Despite the imperfections of every church this side of heaven, the church is God’s Plan A. There is no Plan B. His work continues through His chosen instrument. With a supernatural origination and divine mandate, the church is Christ’s hands and feet bringing the Good News as we love God and our neighbors. As parachurches, we remember we are the bridesmaid, not the bride. Our job is to gird and strengthen Christ’s church, not to replace it.

Parachurches cannot remain true to their mission without a rigorous ingratiation with Christ’s body—the church. Working under the authority of—or in close collaboration with—like-minded churches is perhaps the easiest way to stay on mission. When a religiously apathetic culture asks why faith-based organizations are any different than our secular counterparts, an adhesion to the church makes our response much clearer.

The reason parchurches should bind to the church is so they can stay aligned to their full mission. The church grounds all good works in the grander vision of humanity’s fall and God’s redemption. For organizations desiring to stay true to their mission, our question about partnering with the church should be “How do we partner?” not “Should we partner?”

We must remember that we are not just world-class humanitarians and educators and social workers, but Christians. Our faith compels us to serve the most vulnerable and to challenge the most powerful. We do this not as individuals and organizations divorced from Christ’s Church, but as vital members within it. The more visibly and practically we evidence this, the stronger our work will become and the clearer our picture to culture will be.

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  • http://www.jonstallings.com/ Jon Stallings

    Hey Peter very important topic. I have also seen this similar issue in the church itself. Social Justice becomes the only purpose and the gospel and making of disciples is cast aside. I recently finished a book on being more missional. It talked a lot about caring for the poor and helping to tutor kids (which the church should do) but the gospel on received a light dusting. The author felt it important to tear down the “institutional church” to show how great his ideas where. Christians in the West have had it fairly easy. The day is coming when we will need to make some hard decisions. Will we really follow Christ wherever he leads?

  • Gabi Vehrs

    Are there some causes that should not be served by a parachurch organization, but by a more secular non-profit, like pro-life advocacy in the public square? A Bible study training organization obviously exists to serve and nurture the church, but what about a humanitarian organization that seeks to develop infrastructure in developing nations?