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  • Writer's pictureMcYoung Y. Yang

What is the Nature of a Parachurch Ministry?



A Need for Distinction

 

As a professor of theology at a small bible college, one of my most intriguing assignments centered around the question: is the college herself considered a church? Yes, or no? The school mandated chapel with worship songs and preaching, mentoring between professors and students, accountability, instituted the practice of the Lord’s Table from time to time, and more. By her sheer practice, should the college be considered a church? 

 

To my chagrin, many of the underclassmen concluded, yes, the college was a church. 

 

This misconception (in my estimation) is not privy to private Christian bible colleges alone. The establishment of campus ministries were stabilized with the intention—good intentions at that—in reaching young people who have left their home church context and, in addition, were being won over to the pagan worldview of modernity through secular universities and institutions. As a response, campus ministries like InterVarsity, Cru (formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ), and Navigators were organized with hopes to support local churches in combatting the onslaught of unbelief.

 

However, since the beginning of the parachurch ministry movement of the early 20th-century, there has been a blurring of lines. Meaning, the lines between what a church is and what the campus ministries were striving to do have been truncated. The inability to draw necessary distinctions between the two respective entities has hampered the saints’ ability to, in one sense, revere the intentions of each ministry themselves and, in another sense, acknowledge the necessary hierarchy between the two. 

 

The Nature of the Parachurch Ministry

 

I believe what is part and parcel to this conversation is the discussion surrounding the universal church and her relation/expression within the local church. Though space does not permit us to delve into each intricacy, for further analysis please click here. With that being said, it’s imperative for the Hmong sector of the church to reconcile these theological, doctrinal prose—as it pertains to what the church is and what a parachurch organization is—if she wants to cement her understanding and practice within any coherent, consistent principle. In addition, without such foundations, the Hmong church’s tendency to submit herself to tribal authority structures may cause her to forfeit her priest/king mantle (especially within a local church arena) which has been given by Christ to exercise and execute within biblical stewardship. For further examination, click here

 

Therefore, the aim of this blog article is to identify three key markers which may help to distinguish parachurch ministries from the local church community herself. First, by its nature, a parachurch ministry is distinct from the church. Meaning, it is not the church. Second, it is designed to assist the church, not to replace the church. And, thirdly, partnership between church and parachurch ministries must fundamentally be built upon this central understanding. 

 

What is Its Nature? The etymology of the term parachurch provides a glimpse into the nature of its usage; that is, the prefix para comes from the Greek παρά which means “from”, “alongside”, “by”, and “beside.” The prefix, then, serves as an inflection to the base word which gives provision for identifying it as distinct from and in support with the church herself. Practically speaking, parachurch ministries were designed to come alongside local churches and her mission to equip, train, and serve the saints. Therefore, parachurch ministries by their nature are distinct from the church and must not be mistaken as the church. Or rather, to belabor the point, the parachurch’s etymological nature gives rise to its being as one who comes alongside and is notably different from the church herself.  

 

What is Its Aim? By establishing the nature of the parachurch ministry, the next question is: what is its purpose? If the parachurch ministry is beside the church, its aim is to come alongside and support her in her mission and goal; that is, the parachurch ministry is supplemental. Or said more concretely, as defined by Jared Wilson, “Parachurch organizations are groups of Christians, members of the universal church, who engage in specific areas of ministry that serve or supplement the ministry of local churches.”[1] For example, bible colleges and seminaries are formed with the specific task of training ministers theologically, linguistically, and historically; not that the church can’t do these things in and through herself, but rather the parachurch ministry; namely, colleges and seminaries, specialize in this task for the sake of the church. Parachurch ministries, then, stand distinct from the church while existing to serve her toward her divinely mandated ends. 

 

What is Its Relationship? Now that we’ve established the nature and purpose of the parachurch, what should be its relationship to the church herself, if any? If (the proposition is established within a conditional form with intention) partnership between a local church and a parachurch ministry is to be formed, it must be confirmed under the guise and heading of the previous two points. Meaning, the parachurch ministry must not misplace nor misconstrue her identity as well as her aim in light of the primacy of the local church. The hierarchical structure must remain foundational to the relationship between church and parachurch; that is, the parachurch’s existence is for the church, not vice versa (an important point for questions that will be probed in the concluding section)! A disregard to this third and final point will be detrimental to the nature and aim of the parachurch as well as (and more importantly) the church herself. 

 

Further Conversation For Further Considerations

 

Understanding the biblical identity and significance of the local church is paramount to being a faithful witness within the economy of God’s redemptive aim to a broken and fallen world. Therefore, church polity, ecclesial identity, and her relationship with other partnering entities play a rudimentary role in the outworking of the church’s fidelity and devotion to the Lord. Making these necessary distinctions provide a much-needed, much-appropriated platform to further discuss the landscape of Hmong evangelicalism and her future. Meaning, organizational structures within the traditional framework of Hmong evangelical ministries must not be absent nor anemic to the theological underpinnings of biblical foundations. We must examine and reexamine our principal structures to see if faithfulness is upheld. 

 

Thus, the following questions may be helpful in assessing our contextual location as well as the broader landscape of Hmong evangelicalism. For instance, how must the local church see and comprehend herself in light of the biblical witness? What authority structure has been given to organize the local body of believers? What biblical themes substantiate your findings to the previous questions? Meaning, are you using secular entrepreneurial principles? Or are your findings biblically rooted? In addition, what is guiding your partnering standards; that is, on what grounds and by what standard will you partner with parachurch entities whether it be for the sake of Christian education, church planting, or more? 

 

More broadly speaking, what is the relationship between your local church and the “governing” entities attached to your local church? For example, in the Hmong Baptist world, which is congregational in their polity, how does the Hmong Baptist National Association (HBNA) function in light of the local church? What type of authority does it have, if any? Should it have any authority? Is there a desire for it to exercise authority? If so, why? How do we navigate through those conversations with the ideas that this article attempted to cover? Similarly, the Hmong District of the C&MA oversee well over 100 churches nationally. What is its understanding in regard to its own identity? Is it a church? Is it a parachurch? What is its purpose, then, in relationship to the local church? Does the local church exist for HD? Does HD exist for the local church? If so, how should that impact ministries flowing from it as an entity? 

 

Though the initial question—What is the nature of a parachurch ministry? —may not have at first glance seemed relevant, these probing questions hopefully (and convincingly) have showcased that the question needs to be asked and taken seriously. How we answer these questions may shape and form our relationship with these entities as well as what we expect these entities to provide for us as the local church. In the end, my hope is that the church is magnified and, in so doing, Christ be glorified. Soli Deo Gloria!


 

Footnotes



 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, SBTS; ThM, MBTS) is the husband to Debbie and a father to their four children. He is a Pastor of Preaching/Teaching at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN and the Executive Editor of Covenant City Church Content Team. Along with his ministerial duties, he is a homeschool dad. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO, and his ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.

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