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Parachurch — Parachute or Parasite?

In the recent CT article entitled, “The Tiger in the Academy” Asian American Christian Fellowships sound like the necessary ingredient in the strategy to bring more Asian Americans into the fold of Christianity, and while the impact of parachurch organizations like Intervarsity, Campus Crusade, and the Navigators can’t be denied, I think there is a tension between parachurch and church. You may not think so, because well, it’s simply not discussed in either place, but as with many relationships, you can’t discern whether or not something is a sore subject by its absence in conversation.

Many parents see a good university education as the fruit of a strong youth ministry; One that teaches temperance, self-control, discipline, sacrificing today for tomorrow…all those sorts of good “Christian” teachings. However, what is a reality to many youth groups is that this type of support often doesn’t always translate into strong college ministries. In fact, many college students stray a bit, begin to ask questions not “safe” to the youth group, perhaps delve deeper into academic study and testing the “grace” of church friendships and loyalties. In the case that they don’t leave the faith altogether, there is always the possibility that they begin to participate in parachurch organizations like the ones mentioned above. I want to submit that the draw to such an organization is much stronger when there is an absence of a strong local Asian American church OR there is a plethora of Asian American churches that do not have a strategic goal and appear as organized as ethnic-specific arms of Intervarsity or Campus Crusade.

For this reason, parachurch groups are seen in one of at least two lights by the Asian American church. To some churches without resources for college students or perhaps have some sort of barrier to student involvement (travel, staff, etc.), the parachurch is seen as parachute. In other words, thank God that someone else is there to take care of the college students. They may have the perspective that it is good to have other laborers in the field.

Another view of the parachurch is parasite. This is when churches feel that parachurches take the cream of the crop of churches away from the local church body and then goes even a step further. The insult upon injury comes when parachurch groups ask the church body to support their students to go on parachurch mission trips, retreats, outreaches, or even careers for the parachurch.

While they each contribute to the spiritual formation of a particular college student, it is not always easily defined as to which party gets the better end of the deal. Many times, parachurch groups provide opportunities that the students never had before and can provide better forums for discussion in the campus setting. The church however is a place where college students can interact with the larger community of believers and here also they have a place where they can contribute and be invested in as well.

I had a young college-aged friend very troubled by the tension when he was trying to be faithful to both his local Asian American Christian Fellowship and his church college group. I could see how both of them together demanded a great deal of him and perhaps led to some burn-out and disenchantment. There was a point where he stopped and asked me, “What’s the difference between the parachurch and the church?”

We had been talking about how the body of Christ doesn’t often work together, even working against different parts of the body all in the name of Jesus. I could only respond to him, “Ideally, nothing. There shouldn’t be a difference.”

But there is…and just as with interpersonal relationships, just because we don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem.


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

One response to “Parachurch — Parachute or Parasite?

  1. josh ⋅

    Perhaps the best relationship role for a parchurch group is that of paraclete. Parachurch groups, whether campus ministries or other, provide critical prophetic leadership to the body as a whole and are often the leading edge of what God is doing more generally, but because the “local church” is weighed down with more broad concerns than any single parachurch group, they often miss or are slow to respond.

    It is no secret also that much of what has become powerful in the local church is the fruit in the lives of people who were shaped or even developed by the parachurch. Inductive Bible study is one example; small group is another.

    Your assessment is correct though, and not only for the AA church, but others as well. All too often parachurch groups are seen as parasitic at worst or parachutes at best, but certainly always a second best contribution to God’s work. Some of this can be chalked up to good old fashioned sinful pride as leaders in both places (church and para) want to protect their fief of ministry. More of it though comes from what I believe is an inadequate ecclesiology that places the whole weight of representing the kingdom of God on the “local church” which means that pastors feel the burden to be end and do all — essentially denying the need for the body of Christ in any corporate sense. It also creates the absurdity that any group declaring itself to be the “local church” has some inherent greater witness, authority or whatever even though they may have less effective ministry, mission, worship or anything else than a parachurch group AND may be less diverse than a parachurch group. I mean is a group of all white grannies meeting in a church building and calling themselves “church” more the body of Christ than a group of all asian young adults meeting on a campus and calling themselves intervarsity? Especially if the all asian group is doing more in missions, evangelism, etc than the grannies?

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