Worldvision does some incredible work, changing and saving lives of children around the world. Many parachurch organizations are doing incredible work. They are, however, subtle limitations on any group that tries to call itself a “Christian ________.”
Parachurch ministries are, at their best, a tool for focusing passion. Some people have a passion working with students, others have a passion for providing clean water. These are good works that not only help people, but they bring glory to God.
My only significant experience with a parachurch organization was attending a Christian University for undergrad. It was there when I started noticing some subtle limitations that parachurches had to deal navigate.
My school was known for promoting a conservative approach to Christianity that still holds some power in the Bible Belt. Being conservative in our denomination, as Nadia Bolz-Webber has said, primarily means “being good at not doing stuff.”
This meant we had endless rules around a formally stated moral code. Such as “no one can wear shorts before 2pm,” “no drinking” and “no mixed bathing.”
Every once in a while someone would disappear for a semester or two, and rumors would abound. Were they caught drinking? Naked?
We saw grace-less dismissals. We watched people jump through unbelievable hoops just to stick to the letter of the law.
The problem was that my university had two responsibilities, to be a “university” and to be “Christian.” They had to abide by the practices that allowed them to remain accredited, please donors and raise money.
Jesus teaching was incredibly social. The Sermon on the Mount and other texts were dedicated to answering the question “what kind of people should we be?”
The answer came from his first followers. They went out made disciples and planted churches. Jesus laid out a framework for a new type of society and churches are the place where people find ways to do what Jesus said.
The Church is an experiment in creating a society that plays by the rules of Jesus.
This is why it is hard to be a parachurch. These groups will always have to deal with being “Christian” and “_____.” A parachurch can never say “we are this” or “we are that” because the “we” is defined by outside forces like industry standards or donors or bloggers.
How, then do we live in a world where there are kids that need help, like Worldvision brings? When Jesus wanted to help us, he came and lived among us. The church was founded on caring for one another, at the expense of personal wealth. Perhaps the answer to so many crises is found in this unrelentingly relational approach.
We can’t be surprised when groups like Worldvision run into these difficulties. We can support good things when we see them, whether or not they carry the name “Christian.” Along the way, let’s continue to plant more churches and better churches. Then maybe we won’t need so many of these groups.