The Church after the Parachurch

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, August 30th 2012
Sep/Oct 2012

The 2007 Pixar movie WALL-E is set in a ruined Earth of the future. As the planet has become an uninhabitable trash heap from human excess, many Earthlings drift randomly through space on a massive spaceship created by an entrepreneurial mogul. Lifelong tourists, the ship's passengers enjoy daily shopping, entertainment, meals, and snacks. Slurping their Big Gulps from a straw, they watch their favorite television shows while chatting with friends via video conferencing. And, having lost the ability to walk, they do all of this from their floating lounges.

This scenario may seem almost as far-fetched as the application I will make of it. For many Christians, the great mainline churches have become like the uninhabitable Earth. Whatever is left of the gospel seems often to lie buried beneath heaps of ecclesiastical waste. By contrast, this evangelical starship seems to be thriving with activity, offering a seemingly infinite variety of personal choices and activities from its panoply of cruise directors. In my version of WALL-E, I will name the seemingly dead Earth "Ecclesia" and the spaceship Paraclesia.

In The Courage to be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Markers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Eerdmans, 2008), David F. Wells observes that parachurch ministries are increasingly replacing the church itself (see pages 10’12 and 209’225). However, in American evangelicalism, the "parachurching" (and ultimately "unchurching") of American Protestants has a fairly long tale.


Greek for "alongside," para gets itself attached to all sorts of things, good and bad: paramilitary, paralegal, paranormal. At its best, everything "para" is not quite the thing itself; its role is to come alongside, like a tugboat leading the real ship out to sea through the harbor. Parachurch organizations can be traced back to the monastic communities and movements that sought either physical isolation from the world (including a worldly church) or renewal of both. When a fair number of people deemed the church to be less faithful in fulfilling its mission, a new order would emerge. Before long, it took its place on the broader ecclesiastical map, receiving official sanction as a support network for various missions and emphases. In many cases, new orders were founded out of concern that the others had somehow failed. When some in the thirteenth century thought that their order had drifted from the mission of their founder, Francis of Assisi, they broke away to start a new one: the Spiritual Franciscans.

Looking back, a lot can be said for these renewal movements. It was mostly in the monasteries where the light in the much-caricatured "Dark Ages" was kept aflame. Many of the Protestant Reformers had been monks, or at least on that path, in Augustinian, Cistercian, Dominican, and Franciscan orders. This was true also of Anabaptist groups, who were in one sense less radical (justification by faith never quite caught on and many rejected it sharply), and in another sense more so (they separated from the institutional church and the world in isolated communities).

Yet one of the striking differences about the Reformation was that it was not just another monastic renewal movement. It did not leave behind a new order; in fact, it had no intention of creating a new church or starting a new organization or "ministry." Rather, the whole purpose was to reform the church itself. There is something selfish about jumping ship, as it were, still belonging officially to the church but building your own "shining city" beyond its borders. Furthermore, the Reformation was not just another attempt to renew piety in the face of the church's worldly corruptions’rather, it went to the heart of the doctrine.

Though arising within Lutheran and Reformed bodies, original Pietism did not advocate separating from host churches as Anabaptists did. In the context of churches that were often compromised by their alliance with the state, Pietists typically formed "conventicles" or "holy clubs" where the truly committed gained access to a "church-within-a-church." Here the living kernel of genuine believers could be found (the invisible church) within the supposedly dead husk of the regular church-goers (the visible church). A Pietist may still have attended public services, but the real action of Spirit-filled devotion happened outside the bounds of the ordinary means of grace.

Henceforth, Protestantism had its own "monasticism": a network of parachurch organizations that increasingly assumed some of the official responsibilities that Christ delivered to his church. Pietism, too, did much good. It contributed significantly to the modern missionary movement and founded a vast network of benevolent institutions: orphanages, hospitals, poor houses, and schools. It also built Bible societies and a host of voluntary organizations for social and political causes to improve the lot of their neighbors. When it came to core doctrinal convictions related to how sinners are reconciled to God, many of these leaders were still Lutheran or Calvinistic. They were also convinced, however, that evangelical faith leads to good works: both a disciplined life of personal godliness, and a concern to relieve human suffering. How can one profess faith in Christ and approve of, much less participate in, systematic oppression such as slavery and the exploitation of children in the sweatshops of rising industrialization?

Made in America

A haven for religious experimentation, American Protestantism became shaped less by the distinct confessions of each denomination than by the "evangelical essentials" (basically, the Reformation solas plus Pietism). Cofounders of Methodism, George Whitefield and John Wesley, disagreed bitterly over Calvinism and Arminianism. Yet both drew fire from established Anglican and Presbyterian clerics for undermining the regular ministry wherever they went, drawing away followers who preferred extraordinary excitements (revivals). Before long, American Protestantism was defined more by parachurch associations than by the distinctive confessions, worship, discipline, and order of various churches. The church became secondary to the parachurch. The Sunday School movement gradually replaced the teaching of the catechism in many Lutheran and Reformed churches. With the Second Great Awakening, revivalists divided over slavery but were united in their effort to reform the morals of American society. The vast network of parachurch agencies was now far more powerful in gaining the interest and allegiance of church members than were the churches.

The New Testament speaks of the church as the place where Christ has promised to deliver himself to sinners through his means of grace, as well as the people who are united to Christ and scattered into the world as salt and light. Evangelicals (following their Pietist heritage), however, usually assume that "the church's mission" has little to do with the visible church; "the church" is primarily the people doing good, rather than the place where the Triune God is doing good to sinners.

Given this history, I'm somewhat ambivalent about parachurch organizations, including White Horse Inn radio and Modern Reformation magazine. Wearing my church hat, I wonder sometimes if reformation in the churches is furthered or undermined by putting zealous and thoughtful reformers to work in parachurch efforts. What would happen if all of the energies of Reformation-minded organizations were employed entirely within the ordinary ministry of Word and Sacrament? Would there be so many competing programs vying for attention’and finances’if all of our spiritual nurture came from churches alone? Parachurch organizations always justify their existence by the failure of the church to do its job. Youth ministries were formed because many young people weren't allegedly "connecting" with the regular ministry of the church, and a host of evangelistic ministries mushroomed out of concern that the church was not really reaching the lost. But how might the landscape have been improved if churches encouraged zealous reformers, and the latter were satisfied doing their work as ministers and elders?

That is where I cheer up about the value of some parachurch work. We have never justified the existence of White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation as alternatives to the church. On the contrary, for over two decades we have emphasized that everything we do is oriented toward helping Christians find churches where they can be recipients of God's good gifts and reformers of their churches in healthy and humble ways. We even refuse the label "ministry," reserving that hallowed noun for the church. What I hear regularly are comments like this from believers: "By knowing better what I believe and why, I now know what questions I need to ask in joining a church"; "I was vague in my beliefs and commitments, but I 'get' the gospel in a richer way and now I'm an elder, helping others discover these truths." I hear pastors relate moving stories of their being transformed by these truths and changing the whole focus of their ministry.

I do think there is still a place’an important place’for parachurch efforts. For example, while "making disciples" and "teaching everything" are part of the Great Commission, I don't believe that churches have any New Testament mandate for operating secondary schools or publishing houses. Although they are called to care for the temporal needs of the sheep, the diaconate has no commission to establish hospitals. Christians are free to form associations for loving and serving their neighbors, which can be avenues for voluntary activity that may or may not be specifically Christian. There are organizations like these that definitely come alongside the churches in helpful ways’even drawing together Christians from different traditions. Many activities that serve the church's official mandate do not have to be done by churches themselves, and may in fact weigh churches down with details that are peripheral to its distinct mission.

But where does one draw the line? I draw it at that point where parachurch efforts arrogate to themselves specific elements of the Great Commission that are entrusted to the church. For example, when a parachurch organization says that its mission is to make disciples, to baptize, or to teach authoritatively in Christ's name, it is usurping Christ's organized reign of grace through his church. All of us who are involved in parachurch organizations need to ask ourselves periodically whether such efforts truly come alongside actual churches, or draw away disciples after themselves.

My problem is not that the ship Paraclesia exists, but that it has become the home rather than the periodical gathering place for people who belong to different churches. "Ecclesia" is not a dead planet. For all of its weeds, it is this field that Christ has purchased and in which he has planted his wheat that even now is growing into a worldwide harvest. And it is to this real world that we must return for our own life as well as our corporate witness. For all her failures, the church is the mother of the faithful, and only under her care can we flourish as part of the new creation that Christ has inaugurated by his resurrection from the dead. There is life in the real church, however devastated the landscape may be. There are fertile valleys and rivers. Her pools are not a mirage but are fountains where the dead are raised and the thirsty drink to their heart's content.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, August 30th 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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