Parachurch Organizations

If one were asked to define what is the main characteristic of the church in the 1900s, what is that one feature of her life in this century which sets the church apart from the church in other centuries, that unique trait which stands out from all others as definitive of the church in modern times, most people would probably say: ecumenism. The church has, in this century, been especially busy with merger, been occupying her time and efforts in the cause of unity, and has stressed this aspect of the church’s life more than any other. While ecumenical pressures have eased a bit in the last ten years or so, and while the hard realities of ecclesiastical life have muted the strident cries for unity which were echoing throughout the world a decade or two ago, the idea of church merger is still alive and well in the thoughts of church leaders. 

Another feature of church life in this century, running a close second in importance to ecumenism, is the rise of parachurch organizations. No other period in all the history of the church has seen such a proliferation of parachurch organizations as our century. Sooner or later one, if he is at all interested in the church, comes face to face with the question: What about these organizations? Are they good, bad, indifferent? What ought we to think of them? Ought we to join them when the occasion is present? 

What is a parachurch organization? The question is not all that easy to answer, for the lines are not always sharply and clearly drawn. The word itself, “parachurch,” means, “alongside the church.” It refers to organizations, therefore, which are in some way related to the church, especially because of their interest in and concern for spiritual matters, but which are nevertheless independent of the church. J. Alan Youngren, in the November 6, 1981 issue ofChristianity Today, defines parachurch work as that which is a “not-for-profit, organized Christian ministry to spiritual, mental, and physical needs, working outside denominational control.” 

Although educational institutions are specifically excluded from consideration by the author, he does have a broad definition which could conceivably include such institutions as Pine Rest Christian Hospital, and World Vision, which is one of the largest Christian relief organizations in the world. 

While it is certainly true that parachurch organizations can include all such organizations, it is also clear that a certain distinction has to be made here. This distinction arises out of a common yet very important distinction in the nature and idea of the church. All theologians in the Protestant tradition since the time of the Reformation (and including even the pre-reformers, Wyckliffe and Hus), made a distinction between the church as organism and the church as institute. The former refers to the church as organism and the church as institute. The former refers to the church as the body of our Lord Jesus Christ to Whom the church is organically united and with Whom the church composes one unity. To this church belong only the elect; the attributes of the church (her holiness, unity, catholicity, apostolicity) are attributes of the organism. The institute, however, refers to the church from the viewpoint of her institutional and organizational form. God has willed that the organism of the body of Christ, as it exists on earth at any given time, come to visible manifestation in institutional form. This happens when the believers, functioning in the office of believers, appoint officebearers (preachers, elders, and deacons) through whom the church performs the work which Christ has given her to do: preach the Word, administer the sacraments, use the keys of the kingdom in the discipline. 

Two things have to be said about this. The one point to be made is that the organism of the body of Christmust come to institutional manifestation. This is the calling of the church which she must perform in obedience to the command of the Scriptures. And, in fact, only when the church assumes institutional form can the church perform her God-given task. The organism cannot preach or administer the sacraments. Only the institution can do this. The other point is this: the individual believer walks as a living member of the body of Christ in the world. He must do this in all the relationships of life: in his home, at his place of work, in his country, in his relationships to his fellow saints and the ungodly around him, etc. All this walk and all this calling are his as a member of the body of Christ. But this is not the institute. The believer must train his children in the ways of the Lord; must honor and respect his employer; must submit to the magistrate; must witness to the world about him; must help the needy and ease the suffering of the sick. All these things he is called to do. But this is not the institute. 

Not only is he called to do these things, but he may even join with other Christians of like faith to do these things in common. He may form a Christian School Society and establish a Christian school to teach his children. He may form an organization to establish a clinic to help those with mental problems. And he may do this with many others because he cannot do it alone. He may even form some kind of organization in which he cooperates with others of like faith to help the poor and needy. There is nothing wrong with this as such, and, indeed, he has a calling before God in many of these areas of Christian endeavor. But this is not the institute. 

Parachurch organizations, therefore, which engage in these activities are surely not to be condemned. They belong to the calling which comes to God’s people to walk as living members of Christ. Whether or not all such organizations, such as World Vision, e.g., are faithful to the Scriptures in their work and are Scriptural in their theology is another question, into which we shall not enter. The idea is not necessarily wrong, but the carrying out of the idea in actual fact may be very wrong. 

But all these activities are possible for the believing child of God only because he is a part of the church institute. In a very real sense it can be said that the church institute is the mother of believers. From her the believer is born; at her breast he is nourished through the preaching of the Word and the sacraments; in her fellowship he grows up; to her welfare he devotes his life. In her arms he dies. The point that needs stressing is exactly that all the believing life of the Christian is possible because the Christian is fed and nourished, instructed and strengthened, encouraged and rebuked by the institute. Without “mother’s” constant attention, he would not be able to walk in any respect as a believer in the world. 

But there are other parachurch organizations. These are also for fellowship, but these differ from the organizations mentioned above because these organizations, while operating independently of the church, nevertheless claim to perform the work of the church

Most probably parachurch organizations had their inception in the formation of independent mission societies, especially in England, societies which were not only organized to encourage the people of God to support mission work, but organizations which did, in fact, send out missionaries. It was not, however, until the last century or so that the number of parachurch organizations proliferated. And in proliferating they assumed many different forms. Some were organized for mission purposes; some were formed with a view to “saving souls” or bringing about revival; others were formed as substitutes for the church. 

It was especially during the sixties that parachurch organizations for young people became common. Perhaps it was the spirit of rebellion and what is sometimes called “counter-culture” which persuaded numerous young people to abandon denominations and churches and to become part of various youth movements. Apart from the far-out hippie organizations and “Jesus people,” some of the more familiar parachurch organizations are: Youth for Christ, which is mainly interested in high school students, has organizations on about 1000 campuses, and has recently broadened out to include Young Life, which is mostly urban and is quite socially oriented; Campus Crusade, found mostly on college and university campuses; Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, which is known for its famous missionary conventions in Urbana; Navigators, primarily concerned with the men and women in the armed forces; Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which makes a great deal of the analogy between the Christian life and sports activities. Perhaps the best known of all parachurch organizations is the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which sponsors especially the Billy Graham crusades. These are, however, only a few. It has been estimated that the total number of parachurch organizations may exceed 10,000. 

What makes people join such organizations? Many studies have been made to try to answer this question—studies, as often as not, which are sponsored and financed by worried ecclesiastics who see their membership rolls dwindle as the churches are abandoned in favor of these organizations. These studies, as is true of almost all such studies, have come up with a variety of answers. There is little point in listing all or even some of these answers here, although they range from the close spiritual bonds established in these organizations to the frontier mentality of the American people.

Whatever may be the true reasons, however, two truths stand out, and that so clearly that a high-powered study is not needed to learn them. In the first place, it is certainly true that there is little or no understanding today of the truth concerning the institute of the church. It is at the command of Christ that the church is organized as institute, and to this institute is entrusted the task of the church: the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline. (I need not go into detail on these points, because Rev. Slopsema has discussed them in a recent article in the Standard Bearer, which at this writing is going to be continued.) This means that only the institute of the church through her offices can preach, administer the sacraments, and exercise discipline. No Classis or Presbytery can do this; no Synod or General Assembly, no self-appointed organization of young people bent on winning souls for Christ, no independent mission organization, no foundation for revival, no association for crusades. Only the church can preach. 

Furthermore, it must be emphasized that the preaching is absolutely indispensable for salvation. This is the teaching of Romans 10:13-15: “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. 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? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!” 

And so: it is wrong for an organization to operate independently of the church, but nevertheless to perform the functions of the church. Those who do this go against the will of God and must expect God’s disapproval upon them. But it is equally as wrong for people, young or old, to abandon the church for fellowships, organizations, communes, and the like. God has ordained that we be saved within the church. We must not be wiser than God. 

Secondly, one main reason why so many leave the church and seek fellowship or a part in the work of the church outside the established church is that they have become thoroughly disillusioned with the church. This is not always their fault. They have been fed pablum and pap for the meat of the Word; they have been summoned to social action rather than sent to the cross for forgiveness and pardon; they have been entertained by two-bit entertainers who think the way to draw crowds in the church is through movies, guest speakers, plays, special musical numbers, etc., etc. And people, wearying of it all, have forsaken churches which have no understanding of their calling and have sought fellowship and spiritual food in parachurch organizations. I am not excusing people, for the Word is still being preached in churches faithful to their calling. But the guilt rests heavily upon the church which makes herself wiser than God and is no longer content to instruct God’s people with the lively preaching of the Word. 

So all the solutions to the problem of the parachurch organizations lie in the church being faithful to her calling to preach the Word. The hungering and thirsting souls of God’s people shall then find rest and peace and be nourished unto life eternal.