In this week’s Face Off, we have contrasting opinions on the role of para-church ministries as compared to the local church.
In my almost seventeen years of working in student ministry, I have witnessed a disdain for some para-church ministries by some youth pastors. I think I understand their skepticism and frustrations with para-church, but I have come to richly appreciate the value and reality of ministries who supplement and enable the mission of the local churches.
Youth ministers have seen some para-church organizations create entire sub-cultures where local churches and student pastors are not included or honored in that ministry’s work. This exclusion of youth ministers and churches from the work of discipling teenagers is hurtful, dangerous, and unbiblical. When a para-church ministry leads a student to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, part of the discipleship process is teaching and modeling that a believer and follower of Jesus is a growing, serving member of the body of Christ, the local church. It is the church that will be there when that student goes off to college or moves to another city. It is the Church that the Lord set up as his body and his bride to carry out His Great Commission on earth. Ministers who love Jesus, love his bride; they love and serve the church.
In the kingdom of God, there are many churches and many ministries carrying out His work. Para-church ministries can be allies and resources. They can be partners in the discipleship mission. Youth ministers enlist the services of para-church ministries all the time actually. Think about it. Isn’t that missionary organization that helps you carry out your mission trip a “para-church” group? What about the Christian school that you take students to tutor at during the summer? It too is most likely a “para-church” ministry! How about Campus Crusade? Aren’t we ok with those collegiate ministries doing para-church work because they are on campus and don’t pose much of a threat to “our programs?” We are completely at peace with “para-church” ministries like Compassion International “taking care of the least of these” or Student Life who helps us put on a camp. So often it is when a “para-church” ministry crosses over into “our territory” that feathers get ruffled.
Part of the problem can be that we youth ministers are prone to performance-based identity. We tend to measure our effectiveness by numbers. So if some students are “going to a para-church ministry” or being fed spiritually at one of those ministries, we think they are there when they should be in my ministry. In a sense, we may feel threatened.
Another part of the problem is that students are notorious for their fickleness and lack of commitment, especially in their devotion to the church. We want to see them fully devoted to our church student ministry. We see them devoted to academic achievement, or athletic accomplishment, or even to social activity and not to their church. At times, kids spread themselves thin, by attending some church events along with various para-church gatherings. This saddens us. It even discourages us.
A Positive Way Forward
After having worked on the staffs of several churches as a youth minister, I had the opportunity to work as a Camp Director with a para-church ministry called Infinity Sports. Infinity sent out teams of college students and young adults to lead children’s sports camps. We partnered with local churches to do sports ministry that proclaimed the Gospel. For two summers, I spent week after week working with local pastors and church members, teaching the Word of God and loving children in the name of Jesus. I believe the children saw a team of para-church ministers working alongside their pastors and Sunday School teachers and high school students doing Gospel ministry!
“Alongside” is the way to understand para-church. The Greek word for Holy Spirit enlightens our understanding for the word, “para-church.” Paraclete refers to the Holy Spirit, literally translated as “one who comes alongside of to comfort.” The prefix “para” meaning “alongside of.” Para-church ministries err when they forget their charter to work “alongside of” churches. Churches miss out on opportunities to invest in the kingdom and bring in the harvest when they ignore or marginalize Christ-centered, Biblical, and Church honoring para-church ministries.
After working with churches, and Infinity Ministry, the Lord led me to help start a para-church ministry called Bigtime Ministries that seeks to make disciples of students. Bigtime partners with the church and its pastors. Bigtime also partners with parents who God has called to be the primary discipler of students!
A few years back, when two of the students I help disciple called me to settle a conflict, I quickly realized an opportunity to partner with the church. Both of these high school seniors were members of the same church. They were heading out on an international mission trip with their youth minister, a close friend of mine. There was strife in the relationship between these two young men over a girl. Imagine that! They sought me out because I had a close relationship with each of them through my para-church ministry. I coached both of them in football in 7th and 8th grade and led a weekly bible study with them and their friends for six years. I called a meeting with them and their youth minister, and we brokered the reconciliation. It was a beautiful picture of the church and para-church working together for the glory of God and towards the discipleship of those two young followers.
I suppose in an ideal world, the church would be doing all the things that the good Christ-centered para-church ministries are doing. In that ideal world, we wouldn’t need para-church ministries. However, in reality, there are ministries that the Lord is using in conjunction with local churches and as part of His Church universal. Let us embrace and partner with those Gospel preaching, Church-honoring ministries for the sake of Jesus, the head of the Church. Let us live in unity and harmony. Let us not fear the success or fruit of para-church ministries. Let us be bold enough to rebuke those that do not exalt Christ or fail to work under the authority of the Church. Para-church is not a bad word if in that para-church ministry Jesus is the name above all others.