May 1, 2012

Posted by in Missional Communities, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Church vs. Parachurch

I few weeks ago my blog entitled Stop Praying For Me generated quite a buzz that I hope led to meaninful conversations on the important subject of how to pray for the disabled.  This week I’d like to give some thought to another divisive issue: Church vs. Parachurch.

Parachurch Criticism

Recently I was at a gathering of college pastors, most of whom were college pastors of various churches. There I heard them express the longstanding criticism of collegiate parachurch ministries: “Students involved with parachurch groups graduate and then do not know how to integrate into the local church.”

In response to this common criticism, I throw these thoughts out to you for your consideration. I welcome your comments and feedback too. These arguments are certainly just one side of the coin and are by no means thorough, but they do raise important questions for those who question para-church ministries.

Church Criticism

At the gathering I mentioned above, the pastors began to speak about how to make their students into good “church-going kids.”  While there is nothing wrong with getting students connected in churches, I wanted to ask,”What kind of churches?”

In the midst of this friendly dialogue, I presented the parachurch side of things and expressed  my criticism of the church. I said, “My concern is exactly the opposite. I fear that students connected in our ministry who have learned to live and share their faith, integrate their faith and work, and become missionaries to their people groups, will join a church who will simply ask them to serve by being an usher or helping with parking on Sunday morning.”

I was being a bit sarcastic of course, but I expressing a real concern of mine. Will the students that parachurch ministries disciple and equip for ministry really get plugged into churches who will continue the same degree of discipleship and equipping?  Will these churches teach them how to do ministry outside the four walls of their church buildings? If not, then I too have a concern.

If students do not plug into local churches it may be too simple to point fingers at the parachurch and say, “See. You did not teach them how to integrate into the local church.” It may be that there are fingers pointed back at the local church that say, “They are not integrating into churches for a reason. You’re not challenging them like they were challenged in their college ministry.”

Thankfully there are a growing number of churches in Austin, Dallas, and Houston where we are confident students will be discipled and sent out to impact their neighborhoods, workplaces, and “playplaces.” We gladly encourage graduates to connect with these churches.

Parachurch Churches

One of the facets of the parachurch criticism is that the students are not learning to integrate into the full body of Christ, meaning they are not multi-generational. I happen to share this concern to a certain degree, but also recognize the value of age specific ministry (or at least I recognize it’s reality). Students want to be around others in their same stage of life, as do singles, young marrieds, young families, etc.

I believe that most college ministries out of churches, in effect, function like parachurch ministries. They may be based out of a local church with elders and a governing denomination, but they are often no more multigenerational than a parachurch group. There are always a handful of students who volunteer with the children’s ministry, lead the youth group, or join a small group with adults, but in my experience these students are the exception, not the rule in church-based collegiate ministries.

Make Disciples, not Churches

Sometimes I think we’re putting the wrong emphasis on the syllable. Jesus called us to make disciples, not plant churches. I wonder if the emphasis on making good “church-going kids” is sometimes contrary to making disciples. It  does not have to be of course, but sometimes it feels like it.

The disciples were sent out. Sometimes in churches there is a tendency to keep the people contained in the four walls and serving there instead of equipping them to go out into their cities to bring the gospel and disciple others “out there.” There is a subtle but profound difference between building churches and making disciples. Are we making members or missionaries?

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I’m happy to say that at the University of Texas this debate is relatively dead. That’s not to say that pastors of parachurch and church groups do not have slightly different convictions on the issue. It means that here, like is happening on so many campuses around the country, our love for God, for one another, and for the forty-five thousand students who are not yet following Jesus is greater than this whole debate.

When I think about the debate of Church vs. Parachurch, I remember what author Reggie McNeal once said to a group of pastors from UT (church and parachurch). He said, “There is a bigger question than ‘What is a church?.’ The bigger question is, “What is the Church?’ ” This is the bigger question we’re wrestling with at UT.


Justin Christopher is the director of Campus Renewal Ministries at the University of Texas and author of Campus Renewal: A Practical Plan for Uniting Campus Ministries in Prayer and Mission. He gives leadership to the Campus House of Prayer and the missional community movement at the University of Texas.

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  1. As a leader in church-based ministries for many years, and as someone who gained a passion for the mission of campus ministry in a church-based ministry, I certainly feel that we need to seek a greater integration for students into the body as a whole. But you are absolutely right, many churches do not do this well, or they do not continue to infuse them with a passion for the mission of God that they often feel in their campus ministries. So even in church-based environments, there is still often a post-graduation “let down.”

    But I don’t think there is a battle between church and parachurch ministries. Indeed, they should all have the same mission – producing disciples who have a passion for the kingdom and mission of God. This is also what all of our churches should be about. Unfortunately, there are too many that are focused on their own survival or comfort levels to do this, but this is also true of some of our campus ministries, church and parachurch.

    I, too, was at the gathering you mentioned and was disconcerted by some of the “churchmen” talk. We have definitely got to think bigger. But that’s exactly what the job of the church should be, and it’s why we need to effectively help students live into that mission *with* the church, not outside of it or distanced from it. It’s a difficult task, but worth it.

    • Justin Christopher says:

      Thanks for our thoughts Cary. I do hope we can learn to integrate and work together – church and parachurch on campus and church and non-profits in our cities. We have to, eh? Our cities and campuses need the Body scattered and working together everywhere!

  2. Justin,

    Great points.  Particularly:

    1.) Your “on the flip side” concern that students who have learned a lifestyle of discipleship “will join a church who will simply ask them to serve by being an usher or helping with parking on Sunday morning.”

    2.) Your point that if former students don’t get plugged into a local church, that problem may be happening in part because they can’t find churches that are “challenging them like they were challenged in their college ministry.”  (Counterpoint: What should we do if we have trouble finding a church who’s doing that well?  How about joining one of those churches, and helping them deepen their lifestyle of discipleship?  We can do that in small, relational ways–like by joining a small group at that church, and sharing our passion there.  If the church we’re visiting is missing part of healthy true discipleship, then maybe that means they need our strengths!  And surely we’ll find that we’re edified in ways we didn’t expect, also.)

    3.) Your point that church-based college ministries “may be based out of a local church with elders and a governing denomination, but they are often no more multigenerational than a parachurch group.”  Amen.  That was my experience in my college ministry during grad school.

    4.) Your question, “Are we making members or missionaries?”, and “Sometimes in churches there is a tendency to keep the people contained in the four walls and serving there instead of equipping them to go out into their cities to bring the gospel and disciple others “out there.””  Very true.

    But I have mixed feelings about “Jesus called us to make disciples, not plant churches.”  I think we’re probably on the same page in substance, and I definitely support the re-emphasis of discipleship.  But I’m equally concerned that we re-emphasize & deepen our understanding of the Christian community we’re called to.

    I sort of like the Reggie McNeal quote, “There is a bigger question than ‘What is a church?.’ The bigger question is, “What is the Church?’”  That’s the bigger question, yes–what is the universal Body of Christ called to.  But since the answer includes “being in community with fellow disciples”, we can’t attempt to answer either question without the other.  They’re intertwined.  All the more because that community is where we feed one another for the work of the mission.

    In other words, we need healthy Christian community with maturity & inward care & nurturing, along with an outward passion for equipping & encouraging everyone to serve and pursue and share the message of the Gospel.

    So when we talk about church vs parachurch ministries (and “traditional” church vs “house” church, for that matter), we should all be asking, “What should be happening in Christian community?  Where is my community strong, and where is it weak?  How can we pursue more of what Christ calls us to, with more love, wisdom, humility, passion, and Bible-saturated, Spirit-filled grace?”

    I appreciate what your post does to help answer that.

    • Thanks Tim. I agree that sometimes the calling is to be the one that helps make churches better places of discipleship and challenge. I hope some UT graduate actually go do that too… change the face of churches across the world :-) .

      Agreed that we can’t answer the bigger question without dealing with the smaller one too. Sometimes we just get too caught up in the “what makes a church ‘A church’ ” question that we miss the church being God’s people scattered throughout a city or campus.

      Glad to be a part of our local church, Hope Chapel, with you!

  3. Brother, I stumbled across this article as I was trying to understand the American view of church vs campus ministry (I am not from America but now involved in a church in America) and I must say that I am pretty amazed at your argument – brother, you create and destroy a straw-man and your rational for campus ministry is based upon fear and bad/sad experiences of church (which I am sure are sadly true). From this article, I can only assume that you have never been part of a healthy, Biblical, disciple-making, missional, vibrant and community transforming church. What churches have you been to where students are asked to be part of the car park or usher team?!? I don’t doubt you are telling the truth – but I am from a country where amazing churches locate near students so that they can bring them to Christ, train and equip them to be pastors, business leaders, missionaries etc and do it within the context of the church. Campus ministries are small and focus mostly on evangelism. But churches are where the vibrant student communities are. I have come to this country and am dismayed to see campus ministries protecting their ‘turf’ because they don’t feel churches are good enough to do what they are doing. It might be a solution in part, but my fear is that campus ministries in their current form in monopolizing the time of students and leaving their involvement in the local church to ‘Sunday attendance’ is doing long term damage to the Kingdom in this country.

    Furthermore – making healthy disciples is necessarily a sub-set of being part of a healthy church or planting new churches. To think they are mutually exclusive is astounding wrong. I won’t go into it now, as there is no need but to point you in the direction of any of Tim Keller’s papers on church planting. He proves unequivocally that planting churches is the most effective way to evangelize and see Christ’s kindgom advance in our world and the main mission of missionaries.

    • Thanks for your time and thoughts Gerard.

      My thoughts were mostly based out of a gathering of church leaders where several of the pastors were talking about making good “church-going kids.” So I was certainly reacting to one strange conversation for sure.

      I’m actually part of a great church that has a campus ministry and has planted 6 other churches in our city. It is a great disciple-making church. It is also a church that partners with the “parachurch” in many ways to reach the campus and our city. Ironically our church was birthed out of the parachurch – a group of students from Chi Alpha who continued to meet together after graduation started the church in the 1970s :-)

      Our ministry at UT focuses on the “what is the church” conversation. We’re uniting “the church” at UT – 66 campus ministries and local churches working together.

      While I admitted I was being sarcastic when saying kids are asked to usher or work the parking lot in churches, I do see many churches that are more concerned with making members than missionaries. This is a very real concern for me.

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