What is the difference between a church and a parachurch group?
Most folks know what a church is – well, at least they have in their minds an image of a biggish building with steeples and the like. But they still have a rough idea that a church is a place where religious folks go to, usually on Sundays. Fewer folks may know what a parachurch ministry is. So here I want to discuss both briefly.
And the context is this: yesterday I wrote a piece on the silence of the churches. I lamented the fact that most churches and church leaders are not speaking out on the key issues of the day. Abortion for example is a very serious moral and social issue that Christian churches should not remain silent on. That piece is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/04/05/woe-to-the-silent-churches/
One fellow sent in a very good comment which I decided could not be properly answered in a short comment, but deserved a full-length article to do it justice. Thus this article. He is presumably from England, and his comment is as follows:
In the UK, there are evangelical organisations such as the Christian Institute, Christian Concern, Christian Voice etc. which do speak on such matters. Should churches, in the sense of places of worship, be the forum for discussion of political and social matters? Where there is reform in a nation, it seems to be led by individual Christians or parachurch groups rather than by churches. Are there historical examples what to do about the silence of churches?
Yes, good questions and thoughts there. And since he is basically raising two questions (What is the church and its role? What is a parachurch group and its role?), he needs to be answered in some detail. As to the former question, entire libraries exist on the subject. But let me deal with the latter question first.
As the name suggests, a parachurch ministry is one that exists outside of or alongside the church. It does not take the place of a church, but supplements it, often focusing on single issues such as marriage and family, or abortion, or various social issues and the like. Evangelism, missions and help for the poor and needy are also major works of some parachurch groups.
While it is a somewhat recent phenomenon in church history, we have some precedent for them. Perhaps the Acts 6 episode of those called to wait on tables is an early example. And more recently, Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect could be refered to as doing the work of a parachurch group.
And they are not usually directly under, accountable or responsible to a church. So these are bodies of Christians that assist the church in various specialised ministries,. Many of them come to mind, such as:
–InterVarsity Christian Fellowship
-Focus on the Family
-Youth With a Mission
-Australian Christian Lobby
-The Gospel Coalition
-Vision Christian Radio
-Wycliffe Bible Translators
There would likely be many thousands of such groups. As I say, they are not meant to take the place of churches, or do everything that churches do, although sometimes they can move in that direction. For example, when I was with YWAM in Holland, while they encouraged staff and students to attend local churches, because many of us did not know Dutch, worship services were also held at the mission as well.
So sometimes there can be the danger of a parachurch ministry that DOES supplant or take over the role of the local church – whether intentionally or unintentionally. The ideal is for the parachurch group to seek to work with and be in close contact with local churches, and not act in competition to them.
And if there can be dangers on the side of parachurch groups, there can also be dangers on the side of churches. I have known of some churches that have become so focused on, and one-eyed about (some might say obsessed with) a single issue that it almost acts like a parachurch group. For example, I have been in some “peace churches” where it seems that every sermon is about pacifism and opposition to war.
What is a church and what is it meant to do? As I said, entire libraries are filled with books on this. For more on this matter, especially in terms of further reading, see this article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/08/29/recommended-reading-on-ecclesiology/
But many would argue that at least four main duties or activities take place (or should take place) in a local church:
-Corporate or collective worship of God
-Teaching, training and disciplining of God’s people, especially through the preaching of the Word
-Administering the sacraments
Thus when I and others speak about how the churches are too often silent on some key social, moral and cultural issues, I do need to qualify things a bit. Primarily the pastor or priest is to help facilitate the above tasks. Evangelical churches will primarily use the Sunday service to preach and expound upon the Word of God.
But if a church leader is preaching or teaching on a passage in the Old Testament that deals with the pagan practice, it would be perfectly sensible to offer modern-day application – and that of course would mean talking about contemporary child sacrifice: abortion.
And this leads to a related matter. Should churches be involved in partisan politics? Should a pastor get up and say that at the next federal election this is how members should vote? Again, this needs to be teased out more carefully. While the pastor perhaps should not tell his people specifically how to vote, it seems he certainly can mention some key things about the major parties, and where they stand on crucial issues, be it religious freedom or the sanctity of life.
While a church must present the whole counsel of God, and not just major on a single issue or two, there is a place for a church now and then emphasising certain issues. Some churches, like that led by John Piper, have one Sunday a year set aside as a ‘Life Sunday’ where sanctity of life issues are focused on exclusively. See more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/02/17/some-home-truths-on-abortion/
And while the pastor’s main role is to feed the flock, it is impossible for the church to avoid all political involvement. If nothing else, politics is always encroaching on the church. The state is always making laws and enacting policies that have a direct impact on the church. It could be about things like religious freedom, or the ability to openly proclaim the gospel in public, or who can be allowed in to worship (eg, the vaxxed versus the unvaxxed).
So politics is always making an impact on the churches whether we like it or not. Here in Victoria for example a new law has come in that will result in a Christian or Christian leader who simply prays with someone about their sexuality being thrown in jail for ten years! So pastors SHOULD have been speaking about legislation like that before it was passed.
But because there is a need for specialised ministries such as pregnancy counselling centres, help for the homeless, campus ministry, Bible distribution and translation, or lobbying politicians for godly outcomes, there will always be a place for parachurch groups. These groups may be able to do more fully and properly what a church cannot do.
At the very least churches can support and encourage such groups. And if a pastor is too busy to be up on all the latest social and cultural issues, he should support members within his congregation setting up a social action group where they learn about the issues and offer some advice to the pastor about key issues of the day.
So a good parachurch group will not be seeking to replace the church, or do the job of the church, but will come alongside it and offer additional help and ministry in various areas. Just as a deacon is a servant, so the deaconate of parachurch groups should be involved in serving and supporting the church.
Yes there will often be some overlap here, and boundaries will not always be clear cut. But these groups primarily assist the church, and should not seek to replace it. So we can thank God for parachurch groups, many of which have done so much good for the Kingdom.
Whether all this answers the questions raised by my commenting friend, it did at least help me to put some thoughts on paper (or computer screen) concerning some very important issues. So thanks for sending in the comment!