“Stay in your lane!” is a popular phrase at the moment. It is a rebuke to those who presume to take on too much, step outside their proper role or expertise. Parachurches need to be regularly reminded to stay in their lane.
My recent article ‘Think Beyond Your Local Church in Ministry Training and Recruitment’ focussed on encouraging churches to work with one another and their denominations in raising up the next generation of leaders. The article’s headline and pull quote (“If your ministry training was entirely local-church-focussed, it’s more than likely that your mature leadership patterns will be similarly insular”) gave the wrong impression to many that the article was about the superior benefits of parachurches as a place for training and recruitment. It thus became something of a Rorschach test for people’s ministry experiences and complaints. A good reminder that much discussion of articles shared on social media revolves around what people who haven’t read the article think it is about!
The issues raised in these discussions around negative patterns of parachurch ministry were significant and relatable. So in this article I will address the very real issue of the presumptuous parachurch. It is common for parachurches to gain more momentum, finances and enthusiastic support than surrounding churches. If they are not careful, they can leverage these advantages in a way that undermines rather than strengthens local churches and denominations—even other parachurches. There are both theologically principled as well as big-picture practical reasons why such presumption should be reined it.
Principled Commitment to the Local Church
A baseline commitment for my argument is the special importance of the local church. The local church is an earthly manifestation of the universal church, specially entrusted with the preaching of the gospel in word, baptism and Lord’s supper; and the discipleship and discipline of God’s people (Matt 18:15–17; 1Cor 5:4–5, 11:17–26, 12:14–31; Eph 4:1–16; 1 Tim 3:15). I am assuming here that the local church is something more formal than simply any gathering of Christians around the word of Christ. I am also assuming that however valuable the many kinds of ministry and good deeds that Christians engage in beyond the local church, that these activities are not best described as some equal and complementary ‘mode’ of church.
If local churches have a special place in the outworking of God’s purposes then other Christian organisations, especially those which gather in regular local fellowship—organisations like chaplaincy, AFES, City Bible Forum, Christian Surfers, Navigators, Scripture Union and theological colleges—should affirm a commitment to the local church. They should find ways to uphold the special importance of local churches in practice. Parachurches should determine not to explicitly nor functionally take the place of local churches; not to double as quasi-crypto local churches.
Parachurches do well to articulate the value of the local church in their key strategic documents, such as their mission, strategy and values. They should consider where their policies and practices should express this commitment. But values which are only found in formal documents can easily become hollow ideals. They need to be diligently implemented.
More, the value of the local church should be articulated in the day-to-day teaching, discipleship and vision setting of parachurch ministry. Leaders should be on their guard against slogans and truisms that reinforce in their community a presumptuous superiority in some aspect of doctrine or disciple-making.
In what follows I will unpack two specific examples of where the presumptuous parachurch should be reined in.
Recruitment, Support and Discipline
Local church membership/adherence should be the ordinary requirement for staff and other parachurch leaders and volunteers. It is best to invite explicit support from a potential recruit’s local church, not simply for matters of safe ministry screening but to invite support of a proposed appointment. Parachurch leaders should welcome conversations with local church leaders about suitability, spiritual and practical needs, and competing ministry priorities of potential leaders. When it comes to recruiting volunteers, we can do better than a tug of war between pastors and parachurches—raising significant appointments as early as possible makes it possible that a constructive both–and approach can be found. Sometimes generous and strategic sacrifices are called for. A parachurch leader might concede “I now see how important it is for your church to have Darsh leading your youth ministry this coming year. I see that he cannot realistically also work with us is he does that”, and so defer to the local church.
Second, in ongoing support as well as the painful necessity of formal discipline, there is a great place for collaboration between parachurch leaders and pastors. If parachurches encourage their members and leaders to find a spiritual home in local churches, then they do not need to assume primary responsibility for all their spiritual, emotional and practical needs. This outlook not only has the potential to draw the local church into more full engagement with parachurch members, it also takes unnecessary pressure off parachurches, so they can focus on their core mission.
What is true of regular support is also true of formal discipline. There is something seriously wrong if parachurches ignore acts of church discipline or fail to communicate the outcome of their own organisational discipline to the local church. Yes, there are matters of privacy that need to be navigated responsibly and respectfully, but there are grave issues with Christian organisations that become sealed off from one another when it comes to heresy, ungodliness and gross misconduct.
Restraint in Programming
It can be so easy for parachurch leaders to get carried away. There are so many good things we could do. And because Christian life and ministry is an integrated whole, we can justify anything as aligned with our mission if we put our minds to it. Add to this the confidence parachurch leaders have in their ministry; our zealous striving towards noble spiritual goals and evangelistic targets. This confidence and zeal is often mingled, rightly or wrongly, with a sense of superiority to many nearby churches; and it is easily tainted by sinful pride and competitiveness. For this reason parachurches are very prone to mission creep. We add more and more programs, meetings, conference, training days, and social events. Without realising it our programs enter into competition with similar programs already offered by the local church or denominations (or other parachurches). Our slowly expanding offerings squeeze out the time, energy and attention that our members might be able to give elsewhere. Our capacity to raise funds beyond a weekly offering means we can quickly also spend more of the Christian community’s money resourcing and staffing our new initiatives. We regularly need to be reined in.
It is important for parachurches to ruthlessly justify their activities against their specific narrow mission—why does this particular parachurch exist? It is important for parachurches to regularly ask not only quality and holism questions—how can we make this better and richer?—but also efficiency and effectiveness questions—can we achieve the main results with less time, effort and money? When they identify a strategic or pastoral need and opportunity, parachurch leaders should ask whether they are the ones to meet it, whether other ministries already meet the need, or whether they should leave room for the local church or the work of the Spirit in the lives of their members to meet it in other ways.
I don’t think the ideal or realistic scenario is for all Christian ministry to take place within local churches or be formally managed by denominational oversight. But this does not mean that parachurches are free to ignore to the special importance of local churches in God’s kingdom. If we proactively work together, we can hope for a better outcome not only for the local church and the parachurch, but for the advance of the kingdom of God.
 I explore this content at length in my book The Vine Movement: Supporting Gospel Growth Beyond Your Local Church (Sydney: Matthias Media, 2023), chapter 7. Also very useful is the Lausanne Occasional Paper 24: ‘Cooperating in World Evangelization: A Handbook on Church/Para-Church Relationships‘, 1983.
 In their references to the foundational gift of apostleship, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 appear to be talking about something more than individual local churches—the entirety of the universal church still present on earth, or the whole body of professing Christians on earth. However, the way these passages apply their teachings to the individual churches of Ephesus or Corinth reinforce the point that they are full manifestations of the church.
 See M. Lynch, The Vine Movement, chapter 1.
 ‘Sodality’ is often a word used to describe another God-ordained mode of the church alongside the ‘modality’ local church form. For my critique of this approach see M. Lynch, The Vine Movement, chapter 2. The term sodality can be used as a synonym for parachurch, without implying that is a mode of church, or explicitly God-ordained.