Searching for the Perfect Parachurch

Many of the most prominent and influential ministries in the world are not churches. But, the spread of parachurch ministries in recent decades has caused some to wonder: do parachurches help or hurt local congregations? Dave Terpstra, pastor of The Next Level Church in Denver, believes he has found the perfect parachurch model.

Most churches offer a wide variety of ministries to various demographics: men, women, children, youth, etc. Some even specialize more than that: singles, divorc?s, re-marrieds, single mothers, etc. Some even go above and beyond with ministries outside of their church: prison ministry, homeless ministry, food closets, etc. But for every ministry inside of a local church, there are dozens of ministries that meet those needs outside of the church. There is Promise Keepers for men, Women of Faith for women, Young Life for the youth, Focus on the Family for the whole family ? I think you get the idea.

But do these ministries supplement the local church, or take from them?

Perhaps you have had this conversation before with someone in your church. I had one recently.

Friend: I'm thinking about starting a parachurch ministry.

Me: Oh yeah, what sort of ministry?

Friend: Well, from my perspective the local church isn't doing its job with [fill in the blank].

Me: Well how do you propose we fix that?

Friend: I'm going to start a paraministry that focuses on [fill in the blank].

Me: How is that going to help the local church with its problem?

Friend: It's going to address [fill in the blank] so the local church doesn't have to.

Me: That doesn't really sound like you are helping the local church at all.

Most parachurch organizations I encounter are noble and have godly missions. They are trying to advance God's Kingdom and fill in the gaps for the local church. But in an effort to fill in the gaps, it seems to me that many parachurch organizations have, for some individuals, inadvertently taken the place of the local church. I would like to quickly add that I am not accusing the ministries I listed above of doing this; they are simply illustrative.

But let's play make-believe for a moment. What if we could snap our fingers and make all parachurch organizations go away? What if we could take all of the energies and leadership of parachurch organizations and put those resources back in the local church? Which would we choose? Would we go back to the world of the parachurch, or would we be excited to see the reengagement of those individuals in the local church?

February 21, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 15 comments


February 28, 2006  1:17pm

Bravo for speaking the truth Dave. I have often been confused as to the ecclesial value of many parachurch ministries. There is no question that numerous lives have been impacted and brought to a place of redemption through the work of groups such as Young Life, Inter Varsity, Navigators, and the like. But, often the question I have been left is how have these organizations prepared the people they minister to to be vital active parts of local congregations? How are they teaching these individuals about the corporate nature of their gifting and calling into the body of Christ? In high school I was actively involved in Young Life and I heard them say on a number of occasions that we want kids to get connected to the church, but nothing was ever done in the group I was part of to make that a reality. I think that parachurch ministries can offer ministries and resources that certainly aren't prevalent in our churches. But, isn't the fact that God has gifted and called people to these ministries a sign that he intends them to be part of the church?

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Mary Heathman

February 23, 2006  4:21pm

It's great to read Dave Terpstra's affirmation of our relationship with the Body of Christ. I also want to acknowledge that there are several local churches that have worked together with us or supported our efforts from the beginning. And I would like to say AMEN to Mike Reynold's comment, "when a church or parachurch reaches out to a real need; they can change the world!" It's great to partner with other Christians, wherever they are, to be grace and truth dispensers in the lives of people the Lord wants to reach! Mary

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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

February 23, 2006  9:48am

I believe in one church with many expressions. Parachurch organizations are as much church as local churches are. They function with different emphasis, but I find the term "parachurch" to be frustrating and even somewhat condescending (though now somewhat necessary for distinction). While you make some good points in your post, I think they are too generalized and simplistic. If your theoretical experiment were to happen, I do not believe the local church could ever fully replace what those groups are doing. The churches themselves would have to face such radical re-formation to deal with the realities that I am doubtful anything would get done for a long time. This isn't to bash the church. The "parachurch" would be equally crippled if forced to take on the local churches role. The old concept of modalities and sodalities is a healthy one, in this respect. Local churches represent the modalities of the Church. Alec Hill, at says: "Put simply, 'modality' refers to the permanent structure, the local church. Multi-generational and geographically limited, a congregation puts down its roots and makes a long-term commitment to its community. As theologian Darrell Guder observes: 'The parish must always be looked upon as the central and continuing form of the church.' "The second structure, 'sodality,' focuses on a specialized aspect of the Lord's purposes on earth. This 'laser vision' may target a particular people group (e.g. Laotians), age group (e.g. high school students) or spiritual discipline (e.g. prayer). "Parachurch ministries like InterVarsity are sodalities—expressions of the local church, but not churches in themselves. 'Para' means 'along side.' Historical examples of such extensions of church ministry include first century mobile missionary missionary bands and medieval Catholic orders. "In reaction to the Catholic Church, Martin Luther attempted to do without any kind of sodality structures. According to Ralph Winter, this approach had unfortunate results: 'In failing to exploit the power of the sodality, the Protestants had no mechanisms for missions for almost 300 years until William Carey.'" (For the full article go to This coming alongside may be literal on location or by doing specific tasks the local church cannot. Just a thought. Peace, Jamie Arpin-Ricci

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February 23, 2006  8:27am

Many comments seem to be presuppositions focusing on on what "things" churches are supposed to be doing. It seems the real questions are: what exactly (biblically speaking) is the definition of the "church"? And what is "its" role? Until we settle those issues, the question about para-churches seems lacking.

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Mike Reynolds

February 22, 2006  4:12pm

I love the line that you quoted from that parachurch mission statement about how a great ministry like that should have the goal of putting themselves out of business. It cracks me up though that my wife is speaking at a conference next month and when she brought home the brochure on it, every one of the dozens of speakers that work at a local church also have "founded" their own parachurch ministry. Almost every description says: John Smith, Associate Pastor of First Church, a church that has 5000 people in attendance and founder of "Youth on Fire Ministries" which puts on the annual "Youth on Fire Conference" here in Seattle. I don't know why, but I am skeptical of every one of them. Especially when their mission is just an echo of what the local church should be doing anyway. My cynical and skeptical nature causes me to wonder if they are padding a resume or finding another place where they can be the leader/speaker. I am however becoming increasingly aware that so much of the outreach in our country and so much of the justice/mission work that we are able to be a part of in other countries would not exist if not for great parachurch organizations. It's hard to put a finger on the difference, but if I had to, I'd say that when churhes and parachurches are worried about survival, and/or obsessed with their own growth and success,they are in danger of becoming redundant and ineffective. But when a church or parachurch reaches out to a real need; they can change the world.

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February 22, 2006  3:53pm

I love the's a shame that reality gets in the way. I wonder how many parachurch organizations tried to first go through the church but was told no or we don't want to do that this way or it costs to much money or we don't want to take those risks? Hence parachurch became code for "around the church." I hope to lead a church that has the grace and freedom to embrace the 'parachurch' mindset to ministry. Good words.

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February 22, 2006  3:41pm

I think some of the time parachurch organizations start to relieve a need not being meet by the church. I think many would say that they should have started these types of ministries within the church but, the reality is that many churches are not enablers and end up being more like wet blankets instead of encouraging these new ministries. The result: parachurch organizations.

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Michelle Van Loon

February 22, 2006  1:26pm

An observation: many churches have "x" number of slots that people with specific passions, callings and giftings may fill. If the people in the slots are able to nurture growth in that ministry, there is then room to invite others to fill additionl ministry positions. Otherwise, interested parties are invited to become benchwarmers. In addition, there are churches that have a distinctive culture that limits or defines ministry by doctrinal distinctives, unwritten rules and politics. For instance, I've heard creative and thoughtful parachurch efforts shot down by local church leaders because they weren't (pick one) deep enough, doctrinal enough, Calvinist enough, Arminian get the idea. There have been times when the concerns were justified, but there've been more times when the concerns seemed to be more about turf than kingdom. I agree with Dave's ideal hope/prayer - it would be amazingly biblical to see the Church unified, whole and holy, members empowered to do (and receive) ministry instead of the cafeteria plan currently in operation in EvangelicalLand. People who make a parachurch their main venue for spiritual expression are people who want to be a part of a community that is doing something, not thinking about doing something - and who want to use their gifts in service. Jesus' prayer in John 17 ("Father, make them one") is a prayer that should be on the heart of leaders in both local church and parachurch ministries, because it is the prayer on His heart.

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Tom Dillard

February 22, 2006  11:43am

I've just read Billy Graham's autobiography "Just As I Am". I don't think that anyone would disagree that the BGEA is one of the most successful parachurch ministries of all time, yet Billy Graham and his entire crew work with local churches and use local churches to continue and build on their works. There should be a lesson here.

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February 22, 2006  11:39am

The word parachurch ministry is an outsiders term that people outside of an entity use to group or categorize a non-church based ministry. A ministry like Young Life did not start as a program/ministry/resource for churches. It started as a mission and continues to be a misson today. It's unfair categorization for Young Life to be considered para-church. They are strictly a mission to reach teenagers with the good news of Jesus Christ.

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