Five Things I Wish Parachurches Would Consider More
I remember ten years ago, the tension between local churches and parachurches used to be pretty high. Parachurches were often labeled as "unbiblical" and accused of trying to replace the local church in the life of a collegian. Consequently, some pastors had a negative view of parachurches - and perhaps some still do.
But from my perspective, this tension has somewhat subsided. Perhaps pastors now realize that parachurches are here to stay, so why fight it? More so though, I think pastors see the positive effect that parachurches have in the life of a collegian. But credit should also go to the parachurches themselves. A lot of them have grown in their understanding of how to function as a "parachurch" (lit. "alongside the church").
Personally, I have always been supportive of the parachurch, and I always will be. But with that being said, I think parachurches still have some ways to go - particularly in the way they function alongside local churches. I feel there are still a few things parachurches do and don't do that may hinder their partnership with churches.
So in light of that, here are a few things that I wish parachurches would consider more.
1) Scaling Back on Social Events
I wish parachurches would realize that whenever they plan a social event, it often creates a sense of competition with local churches. For example: If a parachurch plans an end-of-the-year banquet, it'll make the local church's end-of-the-year banquet feel either repetitive or superfluous. Or if a parachurch plans a retreat in February while a local church plans a retreat in March, it will make college students feel weary (due to fatigue) or feel forced to choose only one (due to finances).
Therefore what ends up happening is that local churches or parachurches will each try to plan their event first or make their event better than the other. But this creates a competitive relationship rather than a complementary one. By no means am I saying parachurches shouldn't have social events. But why so many? The only reason I can think of why parachurches do this is to "build community," which leads me to my next point.
2) Clarifying the Parachurch Community
I wish parachurches would clarify the difference between a parachurch community and a local church community. Now what is that difference? The answer is admittedly confusing, which is all the more reason why it may need to be addressed. On the one hand, the local church is what the Bible seems to have in mind when it talks about the "one another's." Therefore a collegian should find spiritual growth and accountability primarily with their church.
But on the other hand, collegians share everyday life with parachurch members. Since they all live on the same campus, it makes sense that they feel more like a community with one another than with local church members whom they see only 1-2x a week. Therefore collegians will naturally gravitate towards their parachurch community and look to them as their primary source for spiritual accountability/friendship.
An obvious problem with this is that once they graduate, collegians end up feeling lost. But more so, this often hurts what the local church is trying to do. Rather than getting collegians looking for a spiritual community, churches end up getting collegians that already have a spiritual community. Therefore students won't feel it's necessary to invest in their churches; or they will end up bringing their campus friends with them to that church and create parachurch cliques. This is a complicated issue in need of clarity.
3) Relieving the Amount of Work for Student Leaders
I wish campus ministries would lighten the load of their student leaders. I have never met a student who served as a parachurch leader that has not complained about how tiring it is. In fact, it's often so exhausting that their service will sometimes affect their studies and almost always affect their church participation. As a result, you end up having a lot of parachurch student leaders struggling with their grades and unengaged in their local churches.
The problem though is that if a student leader decides not to serve the parachurch as much as they do, that parachurch will suffer. This makes me realize that this situation is not created by the student - it's the nature of the "job" that causes this. And while I understand why there is so much demanded of student leaders, I'm not sure if this is healthy. I'm also not sure what the solution is (more staff?), but I feel I can at least identify the problem: Student leaders are being asked to do too much.
4) Engaging the Campus More
I wish campus ministries would engage their campuses more. Why so? Well, this is the one thing that parachurches can do that local churches can't. More than local churches, campus ministries have the ability to engage with collegians who have questions or doubts about the Christian faith. After all, parachurches are located right on campus and are filled with familiar faces, whereas local churches are further away and filled with unfamiliar faces.
But the problem is that most parachurches don't take advantage of this. Instead, they often function as a safe haven for all the Christians on campus to band together and keep each other warm. Thus parachurches will focus mainly on "community," which (as mentioned above) creates tension and confusion with the local church community.
But if parachurches shifted their focus more on the unbelievers on campus, there wouldn't be as much confusion. To create an arena like this, a campus ministry must go beyond having an "outreach" or a "bring-a-friend" event. Instead every weekly meeting should be shaped in a way that anticipates unbelievers coming. I know this is uncomfortable for many Christians, but by not doing so parachurches are missing out on the one unique opportunity they have.
5) Transitioning Students Better After Graduation
A familiar narrative for a lot of students who are heavily involved in campus ministries is that they'll lead and serve God like crazy during college but later abandon the faith within 2-3 years after graduating. It's a very confusing drop-off from being leader of a Christian organization to an unbeliever in such a short amount of time.
By no means is this necessarily the fault of the parachurch organization. However I do believe that parachurches often give lukewarm Christians a false sense of security in their faith by offering them easy access to community and easy opportunities in leadership roles. Therefore a lot of collegians think they're more mature than they really are and, after they graduate and leave these temporary spaces of worship, they end up lost in their faith.
The solution? I think this is where parachurches need to really emphasize involvement in the local church. In my opinion, a collegian's status in a local church is far more indicative of their faith than any leadership role that a collegian has in a parachurch. And more is needed than for collegians to simply attend a local church - they need to be involved. Otherwise I fear the drop-off of faith after graduation will continue.
In light of all this, should parachurches still exist? Absolutely - and I would still encourage any college student to participate in one. However, can parachurches get better? Of course. And I know there are not simple solutions to these concerns. But just as there was progress in the last ten years, I hope there can be progress in the parachurch during these next ten years too.