Are "parachurch" ministries legitimate entities?

To some, this question may seem odd, but many consider mission agencies and all other nonprofit ministries to be a second best option for the Body of Christ. The real work of the Church should be done by local congregations – the only legitimate expression of the Church. Ralph Winter wrote a powerful article in the early 70’s that dealt a decisive blow to this thinking, but it still persists. I had to deal with it during my tenure in ministry in Richmond.

The reasoning goes something like this: since we see the local church doing the work of the ministry in the Bible, and since the leaders of the Church are associated with the local church, all legitimate authority rests there. So parachurch organizations should be under the authority of a local church. The only problem with the argument is that both premises are false. As Winter points out, parallel structures that were interdependent with the churches existed back even into Old Testament times.

A further problem has to do with the reality of the different kinds of ministries. Mission-type ministries can fall into one of three categories:

  1. those that grow out of the need of a local fellowship to coalesce around a shared vision to reach a given target group or place. An example would be a church’s outreach to single mom’s.
  2. those that grow out of a need so great that only by pooling resources can they adequately meet the demand. A great example here would be the local Pregnancy Resource Centers (formerly Crisis Pregnancy Centers).
  3. those that begin out of the heart of an individual or group who can find no backing from either of the first categories.

The latter represents a breakdown of unity within the Body of Christ, but it isn’t necessarily the fault of the organizers of the new ministry, though it all too often is. In this case, we are talking about people who may have a legitimate call on their lives to start, or at least participate in, some needed ministry direction. The problem is a lack of preparedness, accountability, or maturity. These ministries give parachurch groups a bad name. How often, on the other hand, do visionary and competent leaders have a burning passion for something but struggle to find proper backing from a vision-less church community?

The designation “parachurch” implies something that comes alongside the real thing. But what if they actually represent the Body of Christ in no less an important way than the equipping-worshiping wing?

I have tended to see the Body of Christ in a given community as comprised of three parts:

  • the equipping-worshipping branch (congregations)
  • the mission branch (mission societies)
  • the scattered-salt branch (workplace Christians)

Is any less critical to the work of the Kingdom than the other?

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