The Future of the Parachurch in God's Mission

This post is the fourth post in a nine-part series reflecting on InterVarsity's Ambition conference. For more posts in this series, check out the series frontpage (Series: An Ambition for Mission)

During the Q&A session with Alan Hirsch, a series of small missiles were launched from the stage (I'll paraphrase them here):
"The parachurch movement is coming to an end"
"The church is no longer outsourcing mission"
"Negotiate a new contract with churches."
"Better yet, break the contract and start your own churches."

I've struggled over the years with working in "parachurch ministry." On the one hand, people talk about our work as if it is less than legitimate, as if real ministry takes place inside buildings with steeples. On the other hand, there can be a real arrogance in specialization.

But I know my work is meaningful.
And I want to avoid arrogance.
So, what do I do with Hirsch's small missiles?

First, I deeply respect him for launching them. In a room of 300 people who have deeply committed themselves to a parachurch ministry, Alan Hirsch had the courage to tell us he thought our time was coming to an end. His commitment to God's mission is deeper than his desire for approval from a crowd. And I deeply, deeply respect him for that.

Second, I need to take the harder edge of Hirsch's words as the wounds of a friend. This is not a man who believes (as do some disparagers of the parachurch) that real ministry requires ordination or denominational affiliation or steeples. Real ministry happens when Jesus' disciples follow him into the world. And when Hirsch tells us that the parachurch movement is coming to an end, he isn't denigrating our work, our passion, our service or our commitment. He's trying to care for us.

[If we evangelical Christians would receive wounds from friends as signs of love and compassion rather than offers to fight, I suspect the gates of hell would be reduced to rubble by now]

Third, I am reminded of my weaker justifications for parachurch ministry:
  • We go where the church won't go (weak)
  • We go where the church can't go (very weak)
  • We go where the church shouldn't go (extremely weak)
Those of us who work in parachurch ministry do, at times, find ourselves struggling to justify our existence. And not all justifications are created equal.

If we exist merely because the church historically decided to outsource mission, we would have no place in the picture if the missional movement consumes the church and re-engages her.

But this is perhaps where I would tell a different story.

From my vantage point, InterVarsity doesn't exist because the church has decided to outsource mission to us. I see churches all over the country that love college students, that want students to know Jesus, that will pursue students to the ends of the earth.

And to these churches ...
We are a two-way bridge, connecting church to campus.
We are a force battling for the life of the mind.
We are salt and light in a very particular place.
We are an environment for polyecclesial collaboration.
We are indigenous guides and experienced coaches.
We are a forge and a crucible for church leaders.
We are a blessing.

We are ... or at least ... we can be all of this.

As churches becomes more missional, we will find ourselves doing better, not less work on campus. And this may mean, as Alan urged us, that we may need to negotiate new social contracts with churches. At the very least, we need to stop saying "Give us money and leave us alone."

But a missional shift in the church is good news for InterVarsity.

Great news ... if we position ourselves correctly.

What do you think? What would happen if InterVarsity broke away from local churches?

In the next post, I'll take some time to write about the seminars I attended on planting ministry in community college contexts. This is a very practical application to the ideas about church, structure and eschatology we've been wrestling with so far in the series. A link will be published here when the post gets posted (Insights into Planting at Community Colleges)


  1. Interesting concept Steve. Did you agree with Alan that parachurch was coming to an end?

    A question that comes up for me is, "Why now?" The parachurch has been around since the beginning (see Ralph Winter's article on Sodality/Modality). What is special about now that after 2,000 years the parachurch will go away?

  2. I think Alan is right that there is a significant shift in the role of the parachurch. The out-sourcing mentality is waning. Churches (and people in general) want to be more hands-on, more involved. And I think this is a great thing.

    But there is still a place for the parachurch. Whether IV or Cru will fit into that place, however, will depend a lot on how we respond to those shifts.

    Winter's Two Structures article is helpful, but I wonder how whether we really operate as sodalities in partnership with local churches. In Winter's article, he presents the idea that modalities and sodalities waver in partnership (synergistic with Paul, weak until the Middle ages, synthesized then confused). Back and forth.

    How can we sodalities better coordinate with modalities? Will the missional movement (if it continues) force us into better and deeper partnership?