Why Para-Church Ministries are the Best and Worst Thing to Happen to the Church

In the early decades of the 20th century – for the most part – the church dropped the ball.  Secular philosophy, spiritual anemia, poor leadership, locked-in traditions, and more were keeping the church from making a real impact in the culture.  In some cases, local churches farmed out the work of the Great Commission to their respective denominations, but even many of those efforts were poorly executed.  Seeing that impotence, a generation of entrepreneurial thinkers moved outside the Church to accomplish what the church wouldn’t do.  Here’s a few examples:

– When it came to global evangelism, Billy Graham stepped outside to launch the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
– To reach college and university campuses, Bill Bright started Campus Crusade.
– To harness the media, men like Oral Roberts, Paul Crouch, Pat Robertson and others stepped away from the Church to create national television programming and build their own networks.
– Plenty of others followed in their wake, building humanitarian outreaches, universities, and medical missions.

It was the best thing that could have happened, because it shook the church.  It exposed the lethargy that invaded church leadership.  They inspired a younger generation to action.  Perhaps most of all, whether or not you agree with any particular one’s theology, they often made a powerful impact on a global basis – and in some cases, are still making a positive difference.

That’s the good news.  But there’s bad news as well.  Some of those same leaders built empires that far exceeded the task they were created for.  Without any real accountability, some made their founders rich beyond belief, which in certain cases paved the way for abuse, failure, and embarrassment to the Christian community.  The  organizations became so big they lost sight of the very culture they were created to reach.  As a result, they built mountains of debt.  As many successful organizations do, they became locked in a bubble – not seeing that the world was changing, and shocked when their donors and supporters had moved on.  As a result, today many of these organizations are struggling or collapsing altogether.

But now a new generation of pastor’s has picked up the football that a previous generation of pastor’s fumbled.  Today, many of the most exciting outreaches and projects in the Christian community are being created out of local churches.  In the 1950′s or 60′s few (if any) local churches were building water projects, feeding programs, or media outreaches.  But today, you don’t have to look far in your community to find multiple churches doing all these and more.

Today, it’s the local church that’s leading the way in social media, homeless ministry, and stopping sex trafficking.  Local churches are involved in training a new generation of Christian leaders, and conducting massive evangelistic campaigns.

While some will certainly fail, and a few will overstep and make mistakes, the vast majority are doing very well.  As a rule, local churches have better accountability, and to be honest, that’s the model the New Testament set up.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with para-church ministries, and I’m proud to have worked with many of them.  The truth is, when the Church dropped the ball, I’m grateful these visionary men and women picked it up and created organizations to accomplish the Great Commission.

But there’s no question a shift is happening, and for me at least, I think it’s a welcome change.

What do you think?  Are you seeing the same shift?

This entry was posted on Monday, October 24th, 2011 at 6:32 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • MJ

    I have been privy
    to reading numerous first hand feedbacks from viewers all over the world who’ve
    had a life changing experience through the message of a Para-Church founder on
    television.  These Para-Church Ministries
    are the best thing that has happened outside the church. More and more are
    springing up it seems. Many founders/Visionaries are called to a specific “nitch”,
    a place where a need is not being met through the church. A place in life where
    someone has personally walked and knows HOW to reach that nitch of people, i.e.
    sexual abuse, homosexuality, child abuse, substance abuse, addictions of all
    sorts. The church as a whole may not be equipped to know what to do with these
    people long term, but a Para-Church who specializes in one of these nitches do.
    That’s why they’re so important and greatly valued in my opinion. 

    • MJ

      Correction: Niche 

  • Truett Hancock

    Phil,
    I really think you have hit the nail on the head this time. I am seeing more and more young pastors and their exuberant staffs taking on more and more ambitious projects. The beauty behind all of this is the accountability they have to their respective churches and the support of the church family as well. The Internet has helped local pastors extend their reach and provide a new way to mobilize their congregations in new and exciting ways.

  • Corgi78

    The plural of pastor is pastors. No apostrophe. I let that kind of thing go on other blogs, Phil, but I know you like to look professional.

    • http://philcooke.com Phil Cooke

      Thanks for the grammatical covering….   :-)

  • Gershom Arul

    So true Phil. With this shift accountability of doing what has to be done and can be done is so true to a local church. I am sure parra churches picked up what the local church could not do. In India, a majority of the mission work is and was done by parra church groups. They practically brought civilization, education and better form of living for various groups in remote village areas. They took to doing literature of creating their own dialect and translating the Bible. This was the work they have done goes beyond measure. But the truth remains the same being the New Testament Church. Thank God that the shift is happening now and believe that they will change.  What I strongly believe that they can cause the shift way easier than a local church. Hope the Local Churches take on more to do more for their community and if possible expand to the neighboring cities.  

    Thanks for the article Phil. God Bless.

  • Ashavictoria

    Well said Phil!! 

  • Mark Dreistadt

    When I was coming of age in ministry (many years ago) the Evangelical world looked down on churches who were focused on social issues. If a church was focused on feeding the hungry, battling for social injustice, or seeking relationship with leaders outside of the Evangelical circle of faith, it was a foregone conclusion that this group must be liberal and spiritually dry. This was also true of para-church organizations.  If the focus was not on evangelization, the organization was somehow second-class.  Those organizations – like the ones you mentioned – who taught the word and invited people to know Christ were esteemed and supported.  Changed lives were what it was all about.  Unfortunately, until the last few years Evangelicals did very little to sustain these new converts in their newfound faith. However, in recent years the church has once again caught the vision to meet the practical and social needs of those they want to reach. Today there is a trend toward much better balance between practical and spiritual outreach efforts. If the church is stepping up to the plate, is it possible that some of these para-church organizations may find their efforts are being replicated by local communities of Jesus followers?  Will they need to refocus their strategies to embrace this missional shift? Will churches and para-church organizations find ways to utilize their respective strengths in ways that maximize their Kingdom impact?  Time will tell…

  • Peter Crichton

    Few points I would like to raise…The end of the year 1999, this mission shift from para-church back to the church began to erupt. While para-churches were effective prior to that time, they also noticed a gradual decline in their support from local churches, finance & personnel. Reasons being, the church had indicated their “come back”, by refusing to send their support both finance & personnel, so the para-churches began to struggle in these areas. As from year 2000, a continual decline disrupted the flow of para-church and resulted in a lot closed their doors. This of course was noted as the clear sign of a “mission shift”. Now I personally agree with this “shift” as being taken place, but this is the thing! The para-church is not totally out of the scene. It’s just changing its “role”. It’s role now, is to work with the church which is now the main “ball carrier”. How? “BY RESOURCING TRAINING< DEMONSTRATING THE CHURCH OF HOW TO DO EVANGELISM, MISSION & WITNESSING ETC." While the Mission is now back on the hands of the Church, the Church unfortunately is still ignorant of how to do Great Commission effectively. The para-church had been trained professionally and specifically for this task. Can you now see not only the new role of the para-church, but also a partnership with the church. In other words, no one is left out. I wish I can write more as space cannot allow me, but that's my observation. 

    Peter Crichton