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"IT is difficult to overstate the significance of parachurch organizations in contemporary American evangelicalism." So writes historian John G. Turner in Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America. That's due in part to the size and scope of such organizations. Evangelical Christians donate billions of dollars annually toward humanitarian, political, and evangelistic causes, from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) to Youth with a Mission to Young Life to Prison Fellowship to the Evangelical Environmental Network—the list goes on and on.
The extraordinary anxiety—and relief—over World Vision's (WV) twin policy statements about hiring married gay men and women signaled again the centrality of parachurches to evangelical life. In fact, the incident suggests that parachurches do not merely come alongside the church in ministry, but also lead it in crucial ways.
Parachurches have played a long and important role in our movement, beginning with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1810. But since World War II, evangelicalism has more or less been defined by parachurches like BGEA, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Compassion, and WV. Michael Lindsay, in Faith in the Halls of Power, argues that cosmopolitan evangelicals—prominent leaders in a variety of fields—"are more active in parachurch groups than in local congregations." The most gifted and ambitious influencers in our movement serve and take their cues from the parachurch. In short, the parachurch has become a de facto leader in contemporary evangelicalism.
It's still very much true that the parachurch comes alongside the local church to help its ministry. World Relief, for example, doesn't replace local churches' calling to tangibly show compassion to the poor. But World Relief gives those churches a place to send people and resources so that the poor can ...