Parachurch Ambivalence

Why take half-full or half-empty… Photograph by Padraic Moran.

Why take half-full or half-empty… Photograph by Padraic Moran.

While recognizing that through parachurches much good has been done, I’ve become ambivalent about the conduct if not the very existence of parachurches as such. Much of my concern regards what the Church is, but it also touches on more obvious distortions in spirituality.

As run, even if not inherently, parachurches displace rather than facilitate the interdenominational unity of local churches. Unmoored from these local churches, parachurches have separated ministries from the God-ordained ways of doing these ministries, leaving churches to feel free to do their own things in their own insular ways rather than engaging in any sort of meaningful dialogue with one another and with God’s holy word.

Catholicity & schism

There’s only one Church that belongs to YHWH: the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, apart from whom there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. Churches that separate themselves from this Church with schismatic and heretical behaviour preach a philosophy, not the gospel. Those who would be orthodox – or rather, those who are orthodox – refuse, because of what holy Scripture teaches about the Church, to form another church unto their own with its own idiosyncrasies held unaccountable to any but their individual consciences under the guise of sola Scriptura. Independency belongs to the schismatics, who cut themselves off.

‘Invisible Church’, or rather the concept’s misinterpretation, is not a valid basis for objection. There can be no ‘I follow Paul’ and ‘I follow Apollos’. As the one Church, we will decide together what to do, just as the Council of Jerusalem, by the authority of God’s word, made and sent out a binding canon to settle the circumcision controversy.[1] Anyone can imagine that secession would not have been an option for any congregation in response to this decision, even if they privately disagreed with the conclusions reached by the Council. So much for private judgement, as either the separatists or the latitudinarians would have it: we have debate, and we have decision, and we have unity from the apostles and the elders.

Parachurches have not done this, and indeed by nature they cannot work inside this authority structure. Instead, they’ve generally diluted doctrine in the name of unity – because they’re trying to minister to Presbyterians and  Methodists, Baptists and Papists, Lutherans and Pentecostals – or they’ve substituted their own doctrine for that of the various churches (racial reconciliation is a benign and otherwise commendable example), thus usurping the role of the real churches. Yes, some good things, even many good things, have come of the parachurches’ work, but the result we witness is purely by God’s sheer mercy and says nothing of our obedience (or lack thereof).

Ordination & ministry

By unwittingly trying to take on the role of actual churches, parachurches have left many issues unaddressed but presupposed a certain answer in the way they operate. One of these is the role of ministries ordained by the Holy Writ.

Without a proper view of their ministry, deacons can neglect their duties by outsourcing them to, say, Youth With a Mission (YWAM). Now YWAM does do a lot of important work, but it’s not the same as what holy Scripture says. It’s clear that what we have is not deacons from multiple church congregations working together to lead mercy ministry but rather deacons assigning money to outside agencies (typically through the vestry or some similar committee) and sometimes going themselves. You can tell simply by picking a church member at random and asking him what the deacons do: he’ll probably say something vague about the pastor-deacon board that runs the church. A major problem is that deacons are chosen for the very purpose of ‘daily distribution’, or ‘serving tables’ (Acts 6.1–7). They have no right, therefore, to transfer their God-given duties to YWAM, any more than they have the right to transfer these duties to the civil magistrates.

If the work of, say, YWAM in SF is to stay in its proper place, those who head up the mercy ministries in the Tenderloin district should be local deacons, and there should also be local priests (that is, presbyters, or ordained ministers of word and sacrament) to lead evangelism. What this kind of organization entails is decentralizing YWAM and devolving authority to local bases in order to submit it to churchly oversight.[2] This doesn’t mean, of course, that only ordained officers should be involved, but that ordained officers should indeed be involved, backed by the authority of their churches, in collaborative ministry. Like Stephen, full of grace and power, the deacons will do great things among the people, defending the faith with the faces of angels; perhaps they will even suffer martyrdom in the Name of Jesus Christ.

Though I’ve mentioned mainly the ministry of deacons, I expect that the reader can imagine for himself how the same principles apply to priests (presbyters), regardless of their church government, especially in university and prison chaplaincy. Suffice it to say that conquest of the world starts with worship done according to God’s word, from which we boldly sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (and benefit from George Herbert’s poetry), and therefore that distinctly churchly worship matters.

Low view of the Church

The result of the displacements occasioned by the prominence of parachurch organizations, which is not hard to discern, is that salvation becomes an individualistic affair, and any reference to community becomes law rather than gospel. Said Philip Schaff in The Principle of Protestantism:

The Church does not rest upon its members, but the members rest upon the Church. Individual Christianity is not something older than general Christianity, but the general in this case goes before the particular, and rules and conditions all its manifestations. So it is with every organic nature. The whole is older and deeper than the parts; and these last spring forth perpetually from the active presence of the first. The parts in the end are only the revelation of what was previously included in the whole. The oak of a hundred years, and the acorn from which it has sprung, are the same life. All that we behold in the oak, lay hid in the acorn from the start. So too the human world all slept originally in the common root of the race.

Now Jesus Christ, the Second Adam, the Son of Man, is the root of redeemed humanity, and none of us have a relationship with God apart from the Tree that has sprung from that Root. I am the vine, ye the branches. Included in the gospel, then, is that our human relationships will be redeemed as an integral part of our relationship with God being healed.

Without this component, many distortions emerge, including the blasphemous Jesus-is-my-boyfriend spirituality. The thought is that what matters is my own relationship with God, which is hermetically sealed from other stuff in a realm up above, an ecstatic realm of escapist bliss (perhaps this is the kind of spirituality expressed by the song ‘After the Music Fades’).[3] As Leon Podles has written, this ‘spiritual’ spirituality tends toward quietism, leaving the world behind except in service of feeling good about converting people and doing the occasional missionary work in Mexico.

Nor is not distinctly better to include community as a concept of something necessary, with incarnational as the buzzword. When the Church is a law and not an essential means of grace, it becomes an oppressive demand rather than the believer’s connexion with the life of Christ. The gracious dimension lost, what remains is law – and not even law, because it’s merely an arbitrary, dehumanizing dictate (or a ‘method’) that, without the promise of God’s powerful presence, does nothing for man in his fleshly condition but to predict ‘results’. The logical conclusion of this false law is Churchianity with abuses in church leadership in the name of unity (because the necessity’s known but not the meaning), a synaxis heavy on conviviality and light on Christ.

For the health of the Church, we need to reëvaluate the parachurch system, both the causes of bad practices and the unsound practices themselves that the Church may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.


[1] I guess in our day someone would instead send out a list of suggestions or a self-righteously divisive document to cast aspersions on the ‘false Christians’.

[2] One may see the parallels between such devolution and Henry Venn’s principles of overseas mission churches having to become self-supporting, self-governing and self-extending.

[3] But oh, nostalgia! Back when Jed was FCS director.


2 responses to “Parachurch Ambivalence

  1. Hey Lu. Came upon your blog. Mind shooting me an email explaining boyfriend-christianity? I know what it is but I’m trying to get the in depth explanations of what’s wrong with it.


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