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"Parachurch" and the Emporer's New Clothes? (A friendly interaction with Steve Timmis)

Oh no not him on that again! I couldn't resist the opportunity to engage the church/parachurch issue again. I'll get off the topic and onto something else tomorrow.
Steve Timmis of The Crowded House, at Resurgence: 

"I know saying this isn’t going to win me any friends, but someone has to tell the king he’s naked. Is it not a quiet madness for churches to largely outsource their discipleship (to parachurch agencies) and training (to theological colleges)? The best context for both discipleship and training is the people of God on mission (a.k.a. church)
Parachurch vs. Local Church
 Take discipleship as a case in point. It’s in the context of church that we are going to learn best what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Parachurch agencies do a lot of good, but they tend to draw people who share a special interest and who want similar things. By contrast, a local church is usually comprised of people from a range of backgrounds, at very different stages of development and with competing interests."

I don't see why we can't talk about a subject like this and win friends... evangelicals should be able to air their questions freely. I have concerns, I have things I agree with..

Any example of church-outsourcing ministry is probably almost as bad as parents outsourcing parenting to youthworkers. Question - what does it mean for a church to take responsibility for something? And who - the leaders, memebers, a label...I'd argue my church 'owns' student mission through CU our students being involved in it, and by resourcing it as a ministry of our church (though not only of our church).

The use of "vs." is precisely the problem. Church is for Christ, parachurch for the Church and thus for Christ. Without that what business does it have existing...whether united campus witness of theological college. There's a missing link to the examples cited - everyone in a theology college or in a Christian Union (for example) is going to be a member of a local church (or should be) - so a great deal of their training and discipleship is going to happen in the local church.

Timmis also overstates both the diversity of churches membership and the lack of the same in parachurch - we all have problems with cloning and conformity, though the single biggest struggle for a "parachurch agency" like the one I work for, isn't how similar we all are but how the heck we hold everyone together when the default is to splinter and separate.

Parachurch enables churches to do more and become more than just the sum of their parts. Training in house is great if you're a big church in a big city, but a whole lot harder if you're not. Partner with other churches in your locality or denomination/network and suddenly you have better training but it's "parachurch".  Someone previously suggested that the Newfrontiers Newday Youth Conference wasn't a kind of parachurch because it was effectively under denominational leadership (apostolic oversight), while I take the point it's a rather narrow/'roman catholic' view of the British church scene...

Instead of parachurch I'd rather speak of Partnerships. This is more involved language - people partner in partnerships. A partnership benefits the members whether through access to central resources or conferences... or through the creation of partner ministries. In Exeter one such partnership is the Exeter Evangelical Partnership of 30 church leaders who in turn together throw their weight behind three partnerships - YMCA, ICE (schoolswork) and UCCF. The gospel drives Christians  towards unity and outwards in mission so it's a supernatural impulse to form partnerships. Such partnerships, far from existing because of failure in the church (as is often said of parachurch), are the fruit of strength in the local church.

Under all of this is something of a false assumption that:"Parachurch = Gospel + Culture - Church" (as Mark Driscoll argues in the outstanding The Radical Reformission, p20 - also excellent I think is Timmis & Chester's Total Church). If that's parachurch then sack it off. But I'm not sure it has to be like that. See parachurch that loves the local church. or the Northern Training Institute of which Timmis is a faculty member. NTI is a reformation of the traditional "Bible College" model, arguably still a parachurch ministry but just a good one - a partnership!

I'm all for safeguarding and upholding the church - amen Steve! The way to do it though isn't to make parachurch the bad guy - the benefits to the church of 'the best of' parachurch ministry are surely endless (granted there is bad parachurch as much as there is bad local church too...). It's good to talk, and friends need to have the freedom to differ. In reality I'm not sure I'm very far away from Steve Timmis on this issue, I guess I just have a vested interest in showing there are some exceptions! And, seriously big respect for Steve Timmis, 18 months ago I met him and heard him give probably the best wedding sermon I've heard. Those crazy Crowded House people love the church which makes them good guys in my book. 

Let's show of the splendour of the bride and her Christ and love both more. Let all ministry, all partnership, be to build the church and to draw attention to the one she is betrothed to in the gospel.


  1. I can see your points clearly, but would dispute: or in a Christian Union (for example) is going to be a member of a local church - so a great deal of their training and discipleship is going to happen in the local church.

    In some cases it is 100% true, but not always, and even when it is true it is sometimes tough.

    Many students never settle in a Church. A mixture of drifting through different churches, having weekends away, or staying in bed after a night out.

    My experience is that those who are a member of the CU often struggle to prioritise Church when they already have a mixture of CU weekly meeting, CU small group meeting, prayer partnership, SLOBS meeting, prayer meeting, mission activities and social activies to run and attend within the CU, a I did, and was on exec as well.

    Unless we define a "member" of a local church as making two hours on a Sunday two or three times a month for 7 months of the year.

  2. I think it does depend on what involvement in church means? I'd argue it's best defined in commitment to the people...

    And I'm not sure that anyone should be involved in more than 6 hours of CU "meetings" a week. CU involvement should be more involvement in mission...

    My counter experience is that those most committed to CU seem to be most committed to their church... nothing works perfectly everywhere - the question is the underlying principles.

    Equally I watch some church leaders working five-seven nights a week in church and there are issues there...

    Many non-students never settle in a Church. A mixture of drifting through different churches, having weekends away, or staying in bed after a night out...

  3. My counter experience is that those most committed to CU seem to be most committed to their church

    That is fascinating as it is pretty well the polar opposite of my experience and explains a divergent viewpoint!

    Many non-students never settle in a Church. A mixture of drifting through different churches, having weekends away, or staying in bed after a night out

    Good point, well made.

    I think the university experience is a bit different because it takes christian young people in such large numbers from a "Home" church where they have grown up or been saved, and puts them into a new place geographically.

    Just to add to the equation, I know people who stay very commited to their "home" church but never find somewhere in the "new" place.

  4. The student experience is kinda different to most of life, the theological training issue that he raises is worth a look.

  5. Do you wear a vest Bish?

    Can't believe you can get away with disagreein with the resurgence/ the Pope Steve Timmis.

    I like virtually all your counter points. Cheers Bish Bash Bosh

  6. Knowing that I have some disagreements with Resurgence encourages me that I'm not dumping my mind and being wowed by Mark Driscoll's communication gifts - such as when I find that I'm not a great fan of his hermeneutic on The Song.

    Likewise with Timmis - I love Total Church, the word/community stuff in there is amazing.

    As for the pope...

  7. Typically Sammy talking about clothes, he's propabably trying to convert you to wearing mannigans...

    Good post though, I thought Steve's post would provoke a reaction from you!

  8. I succombed to temptation, I felt it pulling at me and I caved. I'm predictable, fallible...

  9. Dave, that was brilliant!

    I wondered about "Parachurch agencies do a lot of good, but they tend to draw people who share a special interest and who want similar things. By contrast, a local church is usually comprised of people from a range of backgrounds, at very different stages of development and with competing interests" I'm sure most parachurch organisations would be amazed to learn that they were full of people who agreed on everything and came from exactly the same place!

    Polish it up and you could have a great little article there.

  10. This one is evolving in public. Thanks DaveK for the comment - really helpful insight on the unity/diversity issue.

  11. Dave,

    I must be honest, I do think you are looking at parachurch a little narrowly in the examples you quote, and praise God your experience in Exeter was so positive. UCCF on the whole is a very good example of a pro local church parachurch org, although it's influence over time may have led to an over emphasis on student outreach with conservative evangelical churches in England ?

    There are plenty of other parachurch orgs (I would argue the majority) that operate independantly of local churches and do the things the church should be doing and by extension undermine the local church. Also there are many that have no accountability to the church, and do tremendous damage. (Carl Trueman has written on the church and the academy in the Wages of Spin - I think )

    As a reformed Christian, I concur with the Catholic critique of us, that we have no (or limited) ecclesiology and parachurch in the 21st century is in part to blame.

    Some horrible practises have arisen in UK evangelicalism, where we (churches) support parachurch orgs to outreach to people churches should be reaching out to and are happy that things are done and numbers are in the event / outreach, with no attempt to ever get the people into our churches. Much of this is done in the name of 'partnerships' (which I know is not the sense in which you mean it).

    So I think Steve is being reactive, but actually many times we are happy to 'outsource' our evangelism and not expose people to the witness of the gathered local church (to the Word, communion, baptism and the fellowship of God's people), which is to the detriment of our outreach and witness.


  12. Colin - I agree I'm looking at it narrowly, but I guess the problem with sweeping statements about the problem is that they catch the good guys up with the bad ones... Like I say, in principle I do agree with Steve - I'd just like it stated a bit more carefully. :)

  13. Good post Bish...

    I agree with all of what you've said, apart from on these minor details...

    "Training in house is great if you're a big church in a big city, but a whole lot harder if you're not. Partner with other churches in your locality or denomination/network and suddenly you have better training but it's "parachurch"."

    I'm really not convinced that better training necessarily, or even often comes in larger groups. There are a lot of great books out there, and you don't need Sinclair Ferguson (for example) to come to your group of 3 personally in order for you to be taught by him (video, audio resources).

    Now that we're church planting, we're the only 20s (well, younger 20s) in our church. There are lots of small churches in the area who don't have enough people to have meetings specifically for that age, so we've grouped together and meet once a month for some informal pizzas and chat.

    Is that parachurch? Well, as much as CUs/gospel partnerships are, yeah it is. But you can see that it's leadership is clearly from the local churches working together, perhaps in a way that is not so obvious with CUs. CUs are just the same but because of quick people turnover it looks like something different.

    Surely the Salvation Army is closer to parachurch... no sacraments, baptisms, a general focus that's different to a church?

    So yeah, 'parachurch' as a word needs to be nailed down a little more.

  14. Dave,

    Fair enough, I agree that the theological training issue is one where churches can pool resources, but I still wonder if most of the 'good guys' should be seeking to do themselves out of a job ? Afterall parachurch mainly arose as a critique of the lethargy of the church and in our post welfare UK, the need for most of the social works completed by parachurch has gone. IMO this leads us to divert people and money to situations, when it could be better used by local churches ?

    And back to my point about the Catholic critique, where does parachurch fit into any attempt at a biblical ecclesiology, does it not inherantly undermine this ? (I'm not saying all should shut, but they just doesn't seem that helpful from where I sit)

    Thanks for your though provoking post


  15. I'm not sure parachurch does arise out of lethargy in the church - but rather out of strength in the church that leads people to band together for the gospel - secure in the identity of their own church, unafraid to give away their best to build not just their own church but the church as a whole.

    As for parachurch within ecclesiology Mike Reeves has done some helpful work on Sodality/Modality showing that 'a local church' isn't the only expression of God's people, though I'd still joyfully want to say that a local church is the primary and life-long context for the Christian life.

  16. I'm not really sure who Steve Timmis is talking about here. To whom is discipleship being "contracted out"?

    And what is "The resurgence" anyway but an organisation that operates above and beyond local churches? And what is it but a place to swap ideas with lots of people who are similar to you?

    I am so tired of this discussion. Bleh.

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. Mo - I'm tired of it too, maybe I shouldn't have replied but I sort of feel like someone needs to answer back...

  19. I know. I think you are right to do so.

    But honestly, where does this urge to endlessly criticise other Gospel-loving people, (for something that you do actually yourself) come from?

    It's just tiring. Everybody wants to show their ministry as better by criticising that of someone else. It wears me out.

    Well done in being so patient.

  20. Wow. A good debate. Where the para-church offers a unique skill set that for example might be highly technical (theological training, linguistics training like SIL, etc)I am for it. That is not the norm and usually there is a massive duplicity of effort.

    Other than that, I often feel the para-church considers herself the Bride and forgets she is the maid of honor.

    More thoughts on this at

  21. Thanks Jordan, I've replied over on your blog.

  22. inter-church, para-denominational?

  23. Andy Upton:"the issue is whether the local church is guiding and steering them. I love UCCF but it isn't really guided and steered by the local church, nor is the local Uni CU."

    ...which sounds like the issue is whether local church pastors get to make the calls? Cos the local church leads the local Uni CU through student leaders who are members of local churches... supported by staff who are members of churches, and supported by other local church members.... the purpose of each of whom is to build the churches (a goal agreeable to most pastors...) - if we're going to push the 'who makes the calls' line then there are a lot of youth groups, house groups and other ministries of churches which the pastor had better start showing up to...

    I don't see my pastor evangelising my neighbours - rather he teaches me the gospel and calls me to apply it doing mission, and then I get doing it as best I can. The pastor has his lifestyle and his preaching to model and build convictions for mission, he can even provide direction to his church and others, though that's no guarentee they'll do what he hopes for - they may do less, differently or more!

    I'm not sure how a CU is in anyway different to that, other than it's like me clubbing together with a few other Christians on the road (who may go to other churches) and saying lets reach these guys with the gospel, and then they can join my church or your church, but above all a local church...

    I hear Andy's "objection" and appreciate the sense of it, but I have to ask what are you asking for?

    If we're saying "my church could do it better" that might be true, but I appeal to the bigger picture, to unity, to humility... If it's a sense of local pastors not inputting enough I want to say - let students take responsibility as members of your church for the mission God gives them, use the preaching of your church to fuel their mission, accept invites to speak directly to the CUs, provide support to UCCF staff, be on the advisory boards that exist for CUs and for UCCF... it might not be that one particularly pastor has steering input in each of those contexts but the doors are open because a CU isn't a separate entity to the local churches but a partnership between them, the members of which are taking responsibility for their mission to build the churches - they might not always do it the way we expect but pray they do it.

    CUs don't always do what UCCF staff suggest either, but our model has always been - build convictions and so unleash their creativity and lets get going on building the local churches together.


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