The Church and Parachurch Groups

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: 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
-World Vision
-The Navigators
-Focus on the Family
-Samaritan’s Purse
-Youth With a Mission
-Gideons International
-Australian Christian Lobby
-The Gospel Coalition
-Scripture Union
-FamilyVoice
-Prison Fellowship
-Vision Christian Radio
-Wycliffe Bible Translators
-Ligonier Ministries

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.

The church

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: 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
-Fellowship

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: 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!

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15 Replies to “The Church and Parachurch Groups”

  1. I do not think that our church can move on unless it stops pretending that it does not know – what it knows.

  2. Thanks Bill.
    Let me take up one point in your discussion:
    “…it is impossible for the church to avoid all political involvement. If nothing else, politics is always encroaching on the church.”

    The fact is, courtesy of the militant Left, virtually all moral issues have been politicised: sanctity of life, prayer with and for homosexuals, prayer at abortion clinics, all the “gender-bender” nonsense, to name a few. Yet the shibboleth that “the church must keep out of politics” would forbid any discussion of these, Does this mean that we must therefore back off from these issues and stick to private, personal ethics? God forbid!

    The fact is that the notion that church must avoid political issues is nowhere in the Bible, and from the world’s point of view it sees the Christian church and its testimony through political glasses. In the early centuries the refusal to engage in Caesar worship in any way was for the Roman state a political offence; the fact that Christians saw it differently, as a theological issue, was of no interest to the Roman state. This meant a clash of wills and ideology, but most Christians were prepared to pay the price.

    Likewise now: just to take the local situation here in Victoria with this anti-conversion/gender fluidity law recently rolled out. For Andrews defiance is a political offence, but we see it as involving the Lordship of Christ over His church, and over creation (He created them male and female, etc.).

    Let’s get rid of this unbiblical shibboleth and be a prophetic voice to errant politicians and bureaucrats, never mind whether this voice is heard from churches of para-church bodies. Even Mark Steyn, who makes no profession of Christianity, has stridently condemned the churches for failure to speak out about the immorality of lockdowns, mandates, vaccine passports, and all the miseries which COVID measures have inflicted.

  3. Very interesting article Bill. I know this is a “bone of contention” in our church. Our minister does comment on current culture and this does not always go down well. I will be using this article in the coming weeks and praying about it. Thanks! Bless you

  4. A well considered and insightful article, Bill. I think spot on.
    While still a layman I was very involved with Campus Crusade for Christ and their program of evangelical outreach. The organization helped me spearhead a program within the church to reach out to the community around us, introducing the name of Christ and inviting them to our congregation or, if there was resistance to that, to encourage finding a place of worship that was Christ centred.

    Both as a layman and once I was called to ministry I embraced a Bible smuggling organization called Eastern European Bible Mission, a sister group to Open Doors. In both responsibilities I considered them a vital support group to my congregation, to the spiritual enrichment of the congregation, and other congregations in the community.

  5. Interesting timing as today I gleaned the following pearls that IMHO compliment your commentary:

    “John Neuhaus, made the same point quite concisely when founding First Things: “Culture is the root of politics, and religion is the root of culture.””

    “Eliot rightly insists that, “for the most part, it is inevitable that we should, when we defend our religion, be defending our culture, and vice versa: we are obeying the fundamental impulse to preserve our existence.””

    For those of us in the active life style, the melding of religion, culture and politics is essential as we are called to live faithfully in the world, not of the world (progressively unfaithful) as we are neither clerics nor academics pursuing the contemplative life.

    Simply thankful for your commentaries that address culture and politics from your sound theology that we are not exposed to in sermons nor homilies.

  6. The church may not want to get involved in politics but politics very much wants to get involved with the church. So our choice is either it will be a two way street with us involved in politics, and by extent political issues, and politics involving itself in us, and moral issues which are often one and the same as political issues, OR it will be a one way street with politics being involved with us, dictating to us what issues we are allowed to talk about and where, and absolutely no traffic from our side.

    This is the perfect place for deacons. Too often it seems that has become a mostly meaningless title or one of very little responsibility. With one or two deacons or deaconesses heading each group each one with a single focus you could have multiple groups per church that could collaborate and coordinate with each other.

    A pastor can’t handle everything, I actually like the idea of have youth pastors, one for Jr. Youth (up through 6th grade) and one for Sr. Youth (7th – 12th grade), under a main pastor to take the burden of the youth of the shoulders of the main, or senior, pastor. Having deacons to help on the side issues or important issues of the day through parachurch organizations would help too. The main, or senior, pastor is still the shepherd but the load is now spread out making it more bearable and allowing for a bigger load overall.

    Yes sometimes God won’t find who he needs among he people so he will speak using someone else. A sad thing indeed when nonchristians know more about the faith and God’s expectations that Christians!

  7. Also all Western schools, hospitals and universities started out as para-church organisations and this highlights the problems occurring with religious freedom. The pagan secularists want to to define religion as what happens behind closed doors. This, I would have thought obviously, is nothing like religious freedom. To have religious freedom would definitely include the Christian management of para-church organisations, for example.

    Also on the topic of not only religious freedom but fundamental freedom, is the right for people to get help with unwanted sexual attraction, especially for the young and vulnerable. The Catholic sociologist Dr. Sullens has recently come out with a study based on data from a homosexuality affirming organization showing that there is no increase in suicidality for those who have had therapy including for unwanted sexuality. In fact there appears to be a decrease.

    The current law in Victoria is like shutting down road transport based on anecdotal evidence from three people with stories of road accidents. Fairly obviously the chances of horrific outcomes are vastly greater for road travel than for professional counselling or church prayer and we already have laws covering dangerous behaviour in both areas. Clearly the absurdity and injustice of this law is profound. People are forcibly being prevented from getting help. This is absolute wickedness.

  8. Hi Michael what always gets me is no-one ever investigates these conversion horror stories. The people who give them, homosexuals, can give great detail about the torture BUT can’t seem to provide name of doctor or therapist, location, names of staff, name of business or clinic, or even exact dates they underwent these procedures. People try to excuse it as “well it was traumatic so somethings won’t be remembered” but it always only the verifiable details that are forgot the horrid one are VIVIDLY remembered.

    The church SHOULD call this out and start proving that these people are lying if details are given or challenge that if no details are given that the truth of such claims should be suspect and not used to pass laws. The church is piece by piece, bit by bit being outlawed and she doesn’t so much as defend herself much less go on the offensive. She “how dare you”s her way though these attacks on her.

    The church has gone from the church militant to the church subservient. A docile, feminized, lukewarm, shell of it former self. No wonder the Lord spews it out of his mouth! The thing is in the East and South it is not this way the church is growing the church is on fire. Only the in the West is the church neutered. And by it’s own hand!

    We haven’t as much had our freedoms TAKEN from us as we GAVE them up. It’s harder to get back freedoms you WILLINGLY GAVE UP than freedoms TAKEN from you.

    One big question for all in the churches in the West: are you willing to be a social pariah, hounded everywhere even your own home and have your physical person be endangered to stand for the truth???? Are you prepared to lose EVERYTHING??? Your house, car, bank account, job, reputation, friends, even family???? Are you prepared to be a nonperson??? If not Christianity isn’t for you. Christ suffered the CROSS for you, dear Christian, and you won’t even suffer a little inconvenience for him?? Jokes about France usually involve a white flag/surrendering. It appears maybe the church, at least in the West, is the one these jokes should be about!

  9. The modern church is a parody of church. The NT, 1 Cor. 14:26ff, for example is utterly different from the pretend captain of our souls, the pastor/minister/priest. The ‘pastor’ is a transmogrified priest, that’s all. The NT talks about a plurality of service and oversight; not ‘leadership and authority’. Yet we resist this at every turn.
    Sermons, lectures, would be the poorest of teaching modes. Something like tutorials at uni would offset the largely ceremonial waste of time that a sermon represents. Our church has started to recognise this and we reserve our serious teaching for short courses. Church is not a spectator sport, but in the West has largely descended into that.

    Special interest groups:
    Be wary of these. I like the idea, but ‘social ‘justice’ groups’ (an interest group so biblically bizarre that I had to use quotes within quotes), for example, will usually attract the left side of the church and will go on to interpret everything in the freedom and soul destroying doctrines of socialism; often without even knowing it. Such groups must be given instruction that is biblical, and not just cherry picking verses, but grounded in the whole teaching of scripture.
    Further, we must remember that political activism can only go so far. An unsaved ‘pro-lifer’ is as condemned to perdition as a hired killer. So goes for the unsaved solar panel maven, and so on.
    Our one core job is to preach the gospel. Not just ‘John 3:16-ing people, but…here’s an example of a friend.
    At his Uni there was a large Muslim forum on Jesus. He went along, ended up having a 90minute discussion with the mufti. The mufti was much challenged; but my friend know the Koran and the more prominent hadith, he was well versed in Muslim thinking and culture, he keeps reading and thinking and watching sources that analyse Islam; he keeps rehersing with every public Muslim he meets his talking points. He keeps track of what was successful, what was rebutted, and improves.
    At the same time as this function, the Uni Christian group contented themselves with standing by their tables hoping a Muslim would come along! No! We’ve got to go there, just as Paul did in Acts 17.
    It takes work, study, conversation and endless practice. There’s no time for ‘social activism’.

  10. Many thanks for this article.
    The legislation on “conversion therapy” and the establishment of buffer zones round abortion clinics show that the secular authorities are hearing us.

  11. ‘Fiscal Christians’ is another political paragroup that could be formed – personal responsibility as opposed to state welfare.
    Having women ‘attend’ a workplace so they can then receive family support payments and childcare rebates does nothing for their dignity, as most women actually want ‘meaningful employment’ at work – and be paid for doing so.
    I work with young girls — eager, keen etc. and I work also with ‘mothers’ — less eager, less keen etc. All of us are on the same payrates. That is not fair on the young girls and myself.
    A workplace is a workplace and dignity is dignity — ALL STAFF need meaningful employment.

    Thanks and God Bless Bill.

  12. One wise person related to me how the reason this may be so is because pastors are tied financially to their congregation. If they preach and offend too many people, they may lose their flock. So this reliance pulls them back from going excessively out of line.

    It’s good and bad. Bad, because they may well lose their prophetic voice. But also good, in that it provides a certain stability and smooths out rough edges.

    In my observation most churches go for a single role – a pastoral/shepherding role, or a teaching role – and give little to no room for a the wide range of gifts that God gives us. That creates a weak church, but, what to do?

    If we add a prophetic voice in the mix (alongside teaching and pastoring), it’s usually going to mean a different person – so perhaps putting both pastors on half time (I’ve seen this work really well in a number of churches). But the second pastor tends to be either more of a teacher or more of a pastoral carer, not a watchman type pastor: they appear to be excluded from consideration.

    But would we want a prophetic voice in our churches? I’ve noticed they tend to be voices in the wilderness: they speak against the mainstream. THey tend to be aloof because they are not interested in what everyone is thinking and doing, they are interested in what God is thinking and doing. So their position almost requires a parachurch existence, perhaps, to maintain that distance that their prophetic voice speaks out of. If they were financially dependent on a church, they may well be forced to tone down their message lest the people revolt against them.

    In this way, guest speakers work well, to shake things up with a hard message, without needing to regularly support such prophetic guests.

    I don’t wish to excuse pastors – what you say is good. But it just seems that the position description of being an effective watchman is usually going to require some distance, some aloofness, and some independence, to be effective. (This is not a firm position of mine, but my current limited understanding, so feel free to come back on any of this.)

  13. I left the institutional church long ago. The words of one senior elder still ring in my ears: “David, we just preach the gospel here.”

    The Founding Father and second President John Adams, in 1798, would I am sure have said this to him:

    “While our Country remains untainted with the Principles and manners, which are now producing desolation in so many Parts of the World: while she continues Sincere and incapable of insidious and impious Policy: We shall have the Strongest Reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned Us by Providence. But should the People of America, once become capable of that deep… simulation towards one another and towards foreign nations, which assumes the Language of Justice and moderation while it is practicing Iniquity and Extravagance; and displays in the most captivating manner the charming Pictures of Candour frankness & sincerity while it is rioting in rapine and Insolence: this Country will be the most miserable Habitation in the World. Because We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion (Christianity). Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other…”

    And let us also not forget this quote of Elizabeth Rundle Charles:

    “If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.”

    As James chapter 4:26 says, ” For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

    The question is do we want to continue being members of a dead church?

    David Skinner UK

  14. I do not think I could stomach the church where I live. I have attended several of them and without fail they are all wishy washy social clubs. Apart from the Sunday morning ritual, nothing happens outside of social events which are not bad in themselves but if that is all you are offered, what is the point.

    The church I came from in the UK was one that majored on the apostles teaching, fellowship, prayer and meals (breaking of bread). You know, like it said in Acts. If you didn’t get there early you didn’t get a seat. People came from all over the country to see what God was doing there.

    I have dropped hints here for that type of church but it has fallen on deaf ears. So it is a case of flogging a dead horse or nothing. Well almost nothing. I meet with a group of men on Friday afternoon for fellowship. We are very irreligious, we insult each other, share our humour, have a bit to eat and drink and a thought for the day from the Word. We have never fallen out with each other as we start every meeting with a clean slate.

    The priesthood of ALL believers is a priority for us so everyone takes part in whatever way they choose.

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