In organizational matters, we in the United States have traditionally found strength in numbers. A single corporation or committee or movement would do for the rest of the world, but we Americans usually interject the principle of competition and free enterprise into a situation and opt for pluralism.

The historical record in favor of this principle is more than ample. But the idea is not entirely foolproof; more than once the results have been questionable. Nowhere has this been so agonizingly true as within the parachurch ranks of evangelical Christianity.

In the past 35 years, parachurch (meaning “alongside the church”) endeavor has grown increasingly from being a means of supplementing the work of churches and denominations into a thoroughly independent approach to ministry. Further, although only a reasonable number of organizations were in existence until the late forties, this structure for ministry has proliferated so wildly that today sound estimates indicate that more than 10,000 parachurch groups exist in the U.S. To many observers, this is cause for concern. A situation involving 10,000 groups must necessarily be rife with needless duplication of both fund raising and administrative expense, for, as numerous experts point out, most of these 10,000 organizations are too small to do much more than survive.

“One real difficulty in this work,” says Edwin L. “Jack” Frizen, executive director of the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association, “is the tiny mission group with more people on its board of directors than it has on the mission field.”

We need to ask, Has such proliferation hurt the parachurch arm of ministry?

I approach this question with the conviction that “parachurch” is a wholly positive term. Several such organizations have ministered significantly to both my wife and me, and we have supported a number for years. Furthermore, it is amazing how many genuinely spiritual leaders of evangelical Christianity have been substantially influenced by great parachurch ministries such as Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship or the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Other parachurch groups have had like influence, but I believe extravagant proliferation harms such ministries. The question nags at us: What has caused such a phenomenal growth in the number of such agencies? And why have the churches’ resources become so greatly proliferated over many organizations?


Let us first define “parachurch,” and look briefly at its history. Within the confines of this article, at least, we wall define “parachurch” work as not-for-profit, organized Christian ministry to spiritual, mental, and physical needs, working outside denominational control. We will also exclude educational institutions from consideration.

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The history of parachurch activity is brief when compared with Christianity itself. The origins are primarily British. The founding of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in 1699, and of the Society for Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts two years later, planted the seeds of parachurch thinking. Over the next century, not-for-profit service and ministry became less and less the private preserve of the clergy and ecclesiastical groups. This trend led William Carey to India and saw the birth of the voluntary societies in Britain between 1790 and 1800. These were the first truly parachurch works.

American evangelicals appropriated the idea with relish, although U.S. groups never experienced the widespread mortality of the British works of the late nineteenth century. Rather, the American groups continued to multiply until 1914. Between the two World Wars, U.S. parachurch work essentially regrouped, though it saw some growth. Then came 1946.

In his classic History of the Expansion of Christianity (Zondervan), Kenneth Scott LaTourette comments on the tremendous multiplication of new movements, new groups, and new directions within Christianity since 1800: “The proliferation of the Christian movement into many new sects, orders and congregations is an indication of a vitality whose manifestations have increased rather than decreased with time.”

He sounds a very positive note, and certainly this vitality has also infused parachurch activity, and is part of any explanation of the number of groups. But when we compare the levels of proliferation inside and outside the church, we quickly see that there must be additional causes for the parachurch organizational explosion, at least since World War II.

I believe two sets of factors comprise the dominant causes of unchecked proliferation. The first concerns how those aspiring to leadership in Christian work have compared their relative prospects in the church and parachurch sectors. The second set concerns the relation of parachurch organizations to the donors who finance them.

With respect to the causes of proliferation that are connected to leadership, we must first note the high degree of spiritual motivation some parachurch leaders display. Many have experienced a considerable moving of God’s Spirit in their lives. Those whom God has used mightily are almost always dominated by spiritual motives.

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But we are trying to explain the proliferation of parachurch organizations. We are seeking to understand why so many would-be leaders act autonomously rather than under formal church authority. We are not focusing here on the 1,000 or so parachurch groups who are daily ministering effectively in Christ’s name. Rather, we are dealing with the other 9,000 groups. They are the fruit of this proliferation. Their effect is like that of the algae in the fish pond: when they have multiplied enough, everything around them will be killed off.

So let us look at a set of values which, when not properly subordinated to spiritual motivation, leads to a mentality of organization for organization’s sake.

The Frontier View Of Life

We Americans are constantly learning that in certain ways we think differently from others. What has produced this?

Around 1891, most analysts believed that every causal determinant of American character had its roots in Europe, so historian Frederick Jackson Turner bucked the tide when he argued for a major additional influence: the “frontier.” By the turn of the century, Turner had gained universal acceptance of his view that an ever-expanding and more-or-less-untamed land itself did much to make Americans seem such a peculiar lot to the rest of the world.

Four characteristics of the frontier mind we Americans inherit still serve to increase our enthusiasm for the parachurch alternative: (1) less respect for tradition and traditional social structures; (2) communalism—an attitude favoring the autonomy of one’s own community or group; (3) self-reliance and an independent spirit; (4) infatuation with almost anything new.

Look for a moment at the younger person who aspires to leadership in Christian work and must decide whether church or parachurch will be his mode. If he has little respect for tradition, he can come to hold a weak view of the organized church. Such a person tends to demonstrate a marked tendency to model his life after a highly questionable interpretation of the apostle Paul’s style of leadership, building a game plan from certain Pauline statements taken in isolation. We are told to note that Paul advised us to “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). He also was willing to “boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up” (1 Cor. 10:8). Concerning response to criticism, he said, “I care little if I am judged by you or by any human court” (1 Cor. 4:3).

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A misuse of such statements has led many to start their own new works rather than to join organizations already in place Some, then, seeing little success in their ministry, keep a low profile. But sad to say, today we need not look far to find a parachurch leader who announces that he is answerable “only to God.”

The attempt to use the frontier spirit to reinterpret Paul proceeds then to develop a model of leadership in detail. For instance, the rugged frontiersman knew that the group or community with whom he was out there had to function as a tight, cohesive unit to survive. He bought the virtually total autonomy of the leader, and his life revolved around that group of which he was proudly a part—to the exclusion of the rest of the world. Given this level of adherence, it does not really take even a handful of the frontier’s modern progeny to form the nucleus, or the entirety, of a tightly knit little “ministry.” So the lesser parachurch leader, steeped in frontier mentality and prone to regale his followers with assurances that he is their Paul, knows there is no personal fulfillment to compare with that of leading an organization.

The American for whom these attitudes and values are so important, finds it incomprehensible that a Britisher such as John Stott does not see things the same way and start his own parachurch group. Even Stuart Briscoe has failed to become Stuart Briscoe, Incorporated. Why? It is because some, fortunately, reject the overemphasis on the frontier spirit and its version of Paul’s style of leadership.

Birth Without Death

Having seen how one view of leadership has led to the founding of so many parachurch organizations, let us now give attention to the way the internal workings of such groups lead to proliferation.

Note first the almost total lack of fatalities, closings, or windings down among these groups. In the not-for-profit world of such agencies, almost no organization ever goes out of existence. Try this experiment: name at least three parachurch organizations that have truly ceased operation (ignore whether they have ever been notably used by God). It is surprisingly difficult to do. No forces seem to operate to eliminate the unproductive and ineffective group, or the group that has exhausted its usefulness or fully accomplished its purpose. This is in sharp contrast to the for-profit world in which the weak yield what they have to the strong and then succumb, purging the system as they themselves are purged.

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When we thus take comfort in the great number of parachurch groups because of the virtue of competition, we fail to realize that these groups are not at all driven by each other to better and better performance. The weak and impotent can remain dormant without disappearing, never yielding their portion to their betters. To even the most casual observer, it is obvious what this does to the parachurch body count, as all the while new births continue apace.

The likelihood of birth without death is increased by a certain approach to fund raising: one built on the donor’s time-honored preference of desperate need over normal need. Because it is harder for a large organization to convince a donor it is in trouble, many evangelical fund raisers believe the donor concludes that big is bad. This leads them to do all they can to hide the size of their organization if it is large. I believe they are wrong in this. To the donor, bigness is not in itself bad. It is simply that a big organization has a harder time showing real desperation.

Probably nothing has hurt parachurch work around the world quite as much as the donor’s determined practice of bypassing need in favor of desperate need. It has had the effect of making the tiny a bit larger, and the large smaller. More often than not this has limited the more effective, and preserved the less effective. Donors should regard desperate need as a fault, not a virtue. They should reward with their support those groups who pursue such wise policies that they avoid desperate circumstances.

But some parachurch groups apparently feel that small givers should not learn that their ten-dollar gift joins millions of other ten-dollar gifts, and that these tens of millions of dollars are accumulated for purposes of ministry. I believe such a conception misunderstands the donor’s true attitude. After all, this same donor reads numbers like the U.S. defense budget and Exxon’s profitability in his local newspaper every day. He knows what big is. He certainly shouldn’t be shocked if large, successful Christian organizations receive annual revenues running into the tens of millions of dollars.

Conclusion: Donors Do Not Usually Regard Bigness As Badness

But donors do make a serious mistake: they encourage appeals for money that emphasize the desperate. Insisting on perpetual and documented desperation will drive the ministry in question closer to the sort of financial “mismanagement” that explodes into headlines from time to time. Jerry Falwell tells his constituency in a mass mailing that if sufficient money is not received soon he will be obliged to begin sending home the students of Liberty Baptist College. To some, this represents a sufficient degree of desperation, and a gift is sent. But many others throw the response envelope away, thereby telling Falwell they need to see him one step closer to virtual receivership. By doing this, such donors tempt leaders of these large ministries to steer their ship ever closer to disaster.

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Writing on Falwell in The New Yorker, Frances FitzGerald quotes him as saying he has never begun a project with enough money to complete it. The bigger you are, the bigger need you must show.

Falwell’s organization currently receives approximately a million dollars a week. World Vision, the largest parachurch relief group, is twice that large. Such figures should not lead us to think ill of these organizations. Rather, these facts should argue for their worthiness to receive the donor’s support. If an organization is big, it may be because it is doing something right.

It is hoped that the new Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) will cause donors to ask more about the organization itself, the honesty and integrity with which it is run, and less about its overwhelming needs. But in the meantime, charisma and the on-camera capabilities of leaders notwithstanding, big organizations find it harder to show desperate need than smaller ones, and the tendency toward proliferation is once again strengthened.

The Future

Will the mentality that leads to proliferation in parachurch work continue into the indefinite future? Or are there factors at work that will check the rate at which new organizations are born?

One possible check is visible on the horizon. The ECFA was formed three years ago to enable the parachurch community to demand certain financial and organizational disclosures. It has been surprisingly successful in making its membership seal important, making it, in effect, an endorsement.

In carefully enforcing its standards of membership, the ECFA may also make it more difficult to operate in the parachurch world as a loner, to ride one’s own trail, to make one’s own rules, to become the self-appointed Saint Paul of the Frontier.

A few groups joined the council with little or no change because they had been following the procedures for years. Many others have altered their behavior patterns significantly, and now make the financial and organizational disclosures ECFA demands.

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Still others have steadfastly refused disclosure. If ECFA continues to gain strength, this refusal should prove costly. It is only fair to assume that the groups refusing to disclose have more to hide than those who oblige. I doubt there is any way to restrain the less productive ministries other than through the influence of a more informed donor. If the ECFA can cut into the pattern of proliferation, and do so in a manner that favors organizations that have nothing to hide, then it will strengthen God’s work and help to reduce the proliferation that now dissipates a great deal of evangelical energy.

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