No other trait more sharply identifies contemporary American evangelicals than their parachurch pattern of organization. While many millions of Americans can affirm evangelical doctrines, the people and congregations who identify most strongly with “evangelicalism” are those who feel at least as much at home with this vast network of independent religious agencies as with their particular denominations.

“Evangelicals” and “parachurch” have become nearly synonymous in recent decades because evangelicals have been, by and large, the “displaced persons” of mainline Protestantism, whether or not they have actually left the older denominations. The fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s prompted evangelicals to found independent organizations to carry out their gospel mandate. Bible institutes, colleges, seminaries, publishing and broadcasting works, mission agencies, evangelistic ministries, interdenominational and professional fellowships, and eventually public action committees all have been spawned by evangelicals’ grassroots religious vitality and distrust of the liberal Protestant establishment.

Trends since World War II have accelerated this pattern. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a new generation of evangelical leaders began to emerge. They were impatient with both churchly and sectarian efforts to do the Lord’s work, seasoned in the methods of modern business and publicity, and hopeful of pursuing a “world vision” of Christian revival and expansion. From their efforts came the National Association of Evangelicals, Youth for Christ, World Vision, the Christian Business Men’s Committees, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, and scores of other ministries.

The success of these “flagship” agencies of evangelicalism has encouraged a seemingly endless proliferation of such groups. Parachurch growth accompanied later evangelical surges, such as the charismatic movement, the drive for evangelical social action, and the recent mobilization of the religious New Right.

The Parachurch pattern of organization has obvious advantages. It allows Christians to band together quickly in a common cause where there is an apparent need for collective witness. They need not lobby for support within a large and diverse denomination, or fear censure within a tightly controlled sect. Parachurch organizations encourage innovation yet pose no risks to other ministries. And because of new rules that enforce church-state separation, special-purpose organizations may provide the only opportunities for Christian witness in public affairs.

However, these independent agencies pose problems as well. Often controlled by one person or a coterie, such groups offer few chances for constituents to help shape their direction. And despite the standards set by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, the books of many agencies remain closed.

Since the Parachurch often favors corporate models of management and “marketing,” its agencies seem no closer to biblical standards for decision making and leadership than bureaucratic denominations. Self-seeking individualism threatens to unravel our churches and nation, but Parachurch groups, as enclaves of the like-minded, cannot reconcile diverse people and provide true community.

As long as evangelicals remain minority parties outside the Protestant establishment, they will need Parachurch groups to pursue their callings. But as long as they preach a gospel that accepts all penitents “just as they are” and grafts them into Christ’s body, they will need congregations and denominations. Para-church, after all, means alongside of, in support of, the church.

By Joel Carpenter, assistant professor of history, Wheaton College (Ill.).

Torrey M. Johnson

“It had to come,” said Torrey Johnson about Youth for Christ. Named chairman of the new national YFC organization in 1944 while still pastor of Midwest Bible Church, he became YFC’s first president the very next year, opened an office, and asked a young evangelist named Billy Graham to become the first full-time worker. By the mid-fifties, there were Saturday night rallies everywhere. (Johnson mortgaged his home so he could rent Chicago’s Orchestra Hall every Saturday to reach young people.) It is hard to find an evangelical organization whose leaders’ lives were not impacted by YFC.

Known as an evangelist, Johnson continues as minister-at-large for YFC. In 1968 he took the reins of Bibletown, U.S.A., Boca Raton, Florida, which he developed into a world center for evangelism, Bible teaching, and missions.

C. Stacey Woods (1909–1983)

Thirty years ago, Stacey Woods’s name was synonymous with campus evangelism. When Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship was organized in the U.S., the British student movement was mostly unknown south of Canada. H. J. Taylor urged Woods to begin the U.S. work, and hundreds of I–V chapters were organized on college and university campuses. Woods merged IVCF with Student Foreign Missions Fellowship and Christian Nurses Fellowship, and began His magazine and InterVarsity Press. But his vision was global, so the first “Urbana” student missionary convention was held—in Toronto. Founding head of International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Woods moved with IFES to Europe in 1962, and continued to direct its activities for more than a decade.

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William Bright

Bill Bright was a restless seminarian so eager to minister to the collegiate world that he abandoned studies at Fuller Theological Seminary only a few credits short of graduation. With his wife, Vonette, he launched Campus Crusade for Christ at the University of California at Los Angeles in the early fifties, and the overtly evangelistic ministry grew at a rapid rate.

From its Arrowhead Springs, California, base, his movement now encompasses a broad range of international evangelistic and training efforts. His “Here’s Life” campaign reached across the U.S. in the seventies, and eventually worldwide. Last December he and his colleagues scored an unprecedented technological coup when they produced Explo 85 utilizing a satellite hookup to train hundreds of thousands of Christians in 54 countries.

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