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'Parachurch' that loves the local church

I can't think of an example out there, and I'm not trying to out a villain, but there is this idea out there that parachurch ministries somewhat bypass the church or exist because of defect and lack in the local church. UCCF may well have fallen into this trap in the past (and present) and where it does we ought to hold our hands up and repent of it. Mission partnerships like a Christian Union provide no alternative to the local church, nor any threat to it - only opportunity and benefit. In view of that trust needs to be the currency of relationship rather than suspicion. Lack of actively worked out love for the local church is both unnecessary, foolish and wrong.

Personally I'm involved in the ministry of UCCF because I love the local church. What I'm aware of is that it's one thing to say I love the local church, and it's another to live that out. Love works in relationships. I can say I love my wife, but I then have to go and love her. The existence of Christian Unions (UCCF Mission Teams) must be utterly integrated into and connected with the local church. Their members must all be committed to involvement in the local church - committing to relationship, service, giving and being a joy to lead. This means breaking the student clique and getting involved in the lives of non-students.

If formal membership is part of how the church is run that would be appropriate, though some churches neither practice membership nor yet have any kind of capacity for membership for a student who may only be around for 30 weeks a year, and may necessarily be a member of a home/sending church for the other 22 weeks.

It's easy for a Christian Union to view the local churches as an ATM to which they can periodically receive prayer and finance from. Local churches love to offer both of these, but it's really only appropriate if the individual members of the Christian Union are well rooted in the church. Church isn't them 'them and they' who can help us, but 'us and we' which we love to be a part of.

I'd go as far as to say that if a leader in a Christian Union is not doing the above they need to repent of that and sort it out immediately. And if they're not prepared to do that they should resign. Likewise, when choosing new CU leaders it would be appropriate for current leaders to make commitment to a local church a non-negotiable qualification.

Love of the church is surely a matter of character and godliness that is not insignificant. It would be wise of those choosing future leaders to ask the leaders of their church whether they would recommend a person for leadership in the Christian Union, and to ask whether there are any other students in their church that should be considered as leaders for the Christian Union. Usually suitable leaders are obvious because they'll be leading in practice long before they're given an official role. Consulting with the local church in the context of existing relationships of trust is a way to love the church.

Jesus loves the church. So do I. And in view of that I'm not sure parachurch is an appropriate label for UCCF. Wikipedia says 'para' means: beside, near, past, beyond or contrary. Partnership makes more sense. A Christian Union is a partnership in which students who belong to local churches together reach students with the gospel, for the glory of God and the good/growth of the local churches.

The Christian Unions are committed to preaching the gospel to students, bringing them to discipleship. It's entirely inappropriate to have any sense of Biblical discipleship that doesn't include membership to the local church. Anyone reached by the Christian Union should join a local church, be discipled, and ideally be released back into campus mission in the context of the Christian Union, for the further good of the church while they are students, remaining for life as members of the local church.


  1. Brilliant post, Dave. In the same way as many local churches would delight to find some of their members meeting with other Christians in a workplace to pray for that workplace and reach out to it, so with CUs.

    The difference with CUs, that sometimes forms a trap both for them and for the local church, is the coomunity nature of the college. CU members will very often have a higher degree of mutual involvement in each other's lives than is available elsewhere, sometimes leading them (falsely, but they are young) to equate CU and church, and leading local churches to assume that is some kind of norm.

    I applaud your (and UCCF's) strong commitment to local church and to CU as mission team to the academy and urge all your other readers to think of CU with the same generosity that they would have towards a workplace group.

    Your most important comment, I feel, was that friendship is a two way street. Sometimes it can be easy to feel that CUs want good relationships with local churches for what they can receive. The churches need to realise that just goes with having young, transient missionaries to the local campus. But UCCF staff can play a key part in not letting the friendship be only one way. It's vital for the future of good church/CU relationships that churches know that UCCF and CUs invest in them as well as expecting them to invest in CUs

  2. Things HAVE changed. Even 25 years ago, it felt very different and I, for one, am extremely encouraged with the way UCCF has done some reinventing (for which, read, back to what it should be). I don't know how much of that is deliberate or otherwise, but it is still observable. Rediscovering the local church is one of the most significant lessons I have ever learned. It's why I keep going back to Ephesians time and time again.

    It is enormously stimulating to come across workers in UCCF who share the same passion as you do, Dave.

  3. Addendum: though UCCF may have been parachurch in the past, I think this is not a term we should use to describe it, as it clearly is marked out differently from many ministries that are obviously para...

  4. Cracking post Dave and you've brought together a number of things (and some new ones) that we chatted about in our facebook message conversation. Thank you!

    I particularly appreciate your comments about students and two-way-street friendships. As someone who is a student again now and has been a student worker I see both side of this and appreciate what you've written.

    May I ask one or two more questions? I don't mean to be churlish!
    - Would it be inappropriate for a CU group to share communion (Eucharist) together?
    - Would it be inappropriate for a CU to teach on all that Jesus commanded, discipling one another and exercising discipline?
    - Would it be inappropriate for members of the CU to baptise a new Christian á la Philip the Evangelist?

    In these ways wouldn't they be fulfilling the great commission and more broadly being a church?

    I wonder if a lot of confusion comes because there is uncertainty about the role and responsibility of an individual believer as opposed to the church. I often hear CU people saying here would it be great if we could do work among the homeless and yet there aren't (m)any students who are homeless for DICCU as a set of mission teams to students to reach. Much better that individual Christians band together or through a local church to care for the poor perhaps?


  5. Dave this is so refreshing to read this. It seems like all our coffee chats over the past few years all wrapped up in one post. I love your passion for the advancement of the Kingdom and of the local church.

    This is a timely post and I hope many students who are currently involved with CU and those going to uni will read this and take note of what you are saying.

  6. It appears that things have, indeed, changed for the better.

    I guess I must hold my hand up and admit that as a former CU President, I went on in the mid-80s to become the first full time student worker within the new frontiers family of churches and to some extent pioneered the model of church based student ministry that several other churches now also embrace.

    The issue of CU and local church was at the heart of why we did things the way we did back then. There appeared to be a difference between the UCCF's stated values and their actual values. The former included encouragement for students to engage meaningfully in a local church while at Uni. The latter included a CU timetable so heavy with activity that it made it difficult in practice for a student to express such commitment in a very meaningful way.

    I think the model of a CU as a short-term mission team is much more healthy. I hope you find the grace to work that out in practice in partnership with local churches.

    Good post!

  7. It is, indeed a 2 way street. One of the reasons I ended up so committed to UCCF was because my church at uni put on a huge programme of activities and so I never really saw or grasped the opportunity of forming a missional community with other Christians in college. What an impact we could have had - but I was too busy with my church buddies. I'm not complaining, I made some friends for life, but I'm not sure that my church served me or my college ideally in that situation.

    Sometimes, if churches want a mission team on campus, they need to face up to what they means for their own "important" programmes.

  8. I like this post because it reflects the Dave Bish I have encountered through many a blog-encounter, and because I am beginning to see in my local context what you have been talking about all along, which makes me appreciate what you write all the more.

    So many times I have read things you've written on this subject and Amen-ed it, but then been immediately frustrated that what you've been saying has never been my experience of CU, either in my sixth form college CU or the uni CU. This immediately presents a problem which is rooted in the issue of leadership, and more specifically church-leadership. If I could briefly explain:

    In all my adult life, I have always been totally for the leaders of every church I have been a part of. My understanding of scripture is that your leaders should teach and model by God's grace the things your church and the individuals of which it comprises should be doing... again by God's grace. Furthermore, I firmly believe that any exercise in church unity (including the running of a campus mission team by the local churches, perhaps with the experience and counsel of a UCCF-type body) needs to be led by the leaders of the local churches of that city. Not run by them necessarily, but certainly initiated by them and definitely approved of by them. I have never had any desire to be considered part of some dissatisfied student organisation which is making demands of the local churches, requiring them to sing to its tune. And I know that is not your vision either Dave. And hallelujah it is not what you have found in Reading or the South West. But oh my gosh it is definitely out there. Believe me; I have seen it.

    And when you're in that context as a local-church-loving Christian it is partly mortifying ("why can't the church leaders just get it together, love one another and work together?") and partly disorientating ("I love the local churches and the wider church in this city, but how do I best serve it? By taking up a place in probably the most divisive Christian organisation in the city and try to turn things around from within? Or by serving my heart out in my local church and mobilising them for mission to the campus?").

    After spending a year working voluntarily for a church, as I arrived at uni I couldn't bring myself to devote hours of time to a CU that I could be giving to my church, so I served and served in that church, led their student work, and ultimately saw our church meeting on the very campus our local 'mission team' told us we as a church couldn't penetrate. I'm not saying we were a roaring success: we weren't. But in the face of a campus that needed saving and a factionalised Christian student body made up of no less than six Christian societies, I chose total non-involvement with any of the petty societies' arguments for our church, and pursued mission on campus.

    I say all this not to bring up old points but to fill in the background as to why my blog posts on this subject have often taken a certain shape in their arguments. Back to the story.

    Then I felt God call me to Southampton to be employed by a church plant. And I brought my views about CUs and student Christian societies with me. I realised a few things after a number of months:

    - The state of the christian organisations on campus will broadly follow the state of the local churches. Therefore, if the churches are dis-united, the societies will be, if the churches are intent on mission the societies will be. If the churches aren't being true church the societies will try to be.
    - Therefore, the societies at my uni were the way they were because of the way the churches in the city are.
    - By contrast, the churches in Southampton broadly love the word, welcome the spirit (or at least tolerate those who do, which is refreshing) are mission minded, and most importantly love each other. This is reflected in the CUs.

    My experience in my university town largely (I am delighted to find) does not apply here in Southampton, and I am beginning to see worked out in practice what you have been talking about all aong Dave.

    Back then, I would ask my church to put money into our own church student work outreach during freshers week. Now, I am doing that but also writing cheques for CUs who want to partner with us in mission. Then, I would stay away from CU meetings, now (ironically as a non-student) I attend them. There, the CU would tell us to stay off campus. Now, they welcome us on. It kind of feels like we're one church reaching out to the students of our city, which I guess is the point.

    Crucially, here in Southampton there is just one body that evangelical churches in the city sign up to, the leaders get together weekly to pray, and monthly in a more significant way, and I believe this is the reason that there is only one Christian society on each campus of any consequence enabling us to give a cohesive witness to each uni with each church keeping its distinctives.

    It has been quite a journey so far, and one which I am not only learning a lot from, but relishing. I always wanted you to be right Dave - my frustration was always that I couldn't see what you were talking about exemplified anywhere in practice. Now I can, and that is changing my viewpoint.

  9. Luke - so happy that its working out in Southampton. I hear good things about Life Church and am much encouraged about that too.

  10. I love digging up old posts :-)

    This is good, Dave. I really liked the fact that you highlight church commitment as a matter of godliness.

    All that said, I have a genuine fear that you might be the only one thinking this way, Dave. I sincerely hope I'm wrong!

    For example, is a robust theology of church, and the practise of church a *compulsory* element of the staff training course? If not, why not? If it is, is it being taught by an actual pastor/elder of a church that has students and who understands some of the frustrations from the church end of things? Are staff workers actively promoting the cause of local churches and THEIR mission weeks? Are they actually issuing the rebukes you call for and is UCCF prepared to eject a CU from fellowship over an unrepentant attitude toward church?

    Anyway, I don't want to be seen to be having a go. I genuinely don't know the answer to most of those questions... I'd love for CUs to look and sound like, in reality, the kind of thing you describe here, and Marcus described in the first comment. I'm just not sure they are.


  11. Is ecclesiology part of staff training - yes.
    Are the voices of church leaders heard in that - yes.
    Are staff actively promoting church - yes.
    Are such rebukes issued as needed - yes.

    Many of our staff are also in leadership in their churches...

    Would a CU be ejected for an unrepentant attitude to church - I'd like to think so, though I'd like to think it wouldn't get to that.
    Can we do better? - yes.

    I can only directly speak for South West CUs, and inevitably CUs are in constant flux (as churches are), so our aims are at least as much aspirational as actually achieved... as is true for churches.

    I think you'd get this approach from all my CU staff in the South West so I'm definitely not a lone voice. And I think the same would be true of many more in the fellowship.

    And if it's not, let the invite to church leaders stand open, come and build friendship, come and speak into what we're doing...

    1. That's great to hear. As I say, I genuinely didn't know and I'm glad to hear what you are saying.

      I'm fairly new to the debate on para/partner/parish having never really had to engage since our church has a student worker. But I'm having to start thinking through for myself now - for the future and all that. So I appreciate being able to bend your ear as I know you have a good theology of church and work for UCCF - that's why I found the post :-)


    2. Ordinarily I think it just works pretty well, when there are good friendships between gospel-hearted people. Sometimes people don't want to build good relationships and just do their own thing, and that tends not to be so good for anyone.

      Wish you were in the South West. Maybe I'll have to come to the North someday... I am technically a Yorkshireman after all...


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