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The Need for Para-church Organizations

w173022015“North American Christianity faces twin crises these days. The first is a leadership crisis, and the second is a funding crisis.
Let’s say out loud what we all know to be true: Some organizations are led by crummy boards that have hired inferior executives who preside over ineffective staff, and to give them one dollar more is just sending good money after bad. It’s about time that those organizations disappeared, and maybe this latest blast of financial trouble will remove them once for all.”
Opportunity and Responsibility in the Financial Crisis by John Stackhouse

As a Christian, don’t you feel that you are constantly invited to para-church “fund-raising dinners”, “walkathons”, or “vision-sharing nights” throughout the year? Besides begging for more money to save their financial statements that are blinking in bright red, you would also hear endless complaints of lacking resources, lacking space, lacking staff, lacking volunteers…… even though they have already sucked up most of the time and energy of regular parishioners, leaving vacuums in church ministries.

Let me be frank. I really have nothing against good, focused, and well-run para-church organizations (PCOs) that are really benefiting the body of Christ and furthering the expansion of the kingdom of God. The only problem I have is seeing so many PCOs in the market competing against each other, doing redundant things and doing them poorly, and end up becoming parasites of the body of Christ, i.e. endlessly sucking people’s time, energy, and resources, yet provide little to no results (both quantitative and qualitative — including spiritual growth), but only existing for the sake of existing, constantly striving to raise tens of thousands of dollars just to support that one or two staff members, who are twiddling their thumbs in their empty offices. Is it worth it? Really, is it worth it?

“Do we need all of the Christian schools we have in North America? Do we need all of the Christian publications? Do we need so many different Christian student ministries? Do we have too few good leaders spread among too many organizations? Do we need more or better in any of these cases, and thus ought we to provide more support for such persons and their ministries?”

Another thing that upsets me often is that when I meet good faithful Christians who felt they are called by God, and I would ask them where do they think God is calling them to, many of their responses would be: “Definitely not pastoral ministry. Yes, I’m certain I will not be a pastor.” Then I would probe further asking: “What specifically then do you feel you are called towards?” And they would say: “Um…… I am not sure…… hmm…… I really have no idea…… BUT I’m PRETTY SURE I will NOT work in the church.”

Maybe that’s because I’m at Regent. Maybe that’s because most people come here precisely because Regent is good at equipping the lay (and not clergy). But I don’t understand why people rule out the call to pastoral ministry so easily? If a person has really clear and identifiable gifts in a certain area (e.g. serving the poor, marketplace ministry, academic contributions), then I’d say, sure, go for it, don’t even look back. For those, however, who still have no clue what they are going to do — why rule out so easily the call to work in the primary base where lives are transformed and the body of Christ built up? Is it genuinely due to God’s calling or merely our selfish and self-preserving impulses that drive us to such conclusions? Some may say that they think they are totally unqualified or unsuitable for pastoral ministry, but I’d like to ask how many pastors in this world ever feel they are absolutely qualified or suitable for the task at all? I don’t. And just to name a few more: Moses, Isaiah, John the Baptist…. none of them felt worthy enough, but they still did it, simply because of obedience.

Instead of “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained” (Prov 29:18), I’d say “Where there are too many visions, the people are unrestrained.” I’ve seen too many brothers and sisters claiming to have a “vision” from God, but often it is just synonymous with merely having an idea to do things differently. Then you’ll see new organizations, new ministries pop-up here and there haphazardly, each adding more stress to the system. I’d like to question whether many of these so-called “visions” are genuinely from God, or are they merely a manifestation of personal egos, unwilling to submit and cooperate in existing platforms, but much rather to start their own little planet so that they can be their own CEOs, full of unrestrained power and freedom? (Is it a surprise that you can find a lot of PCO leaders are usually of the maverick type that don’t get along well with local pastors?)

I just feel that, as long as these good, faithful, and gifted Christians are still fleeing away from the church to PCOs, our churches will continue to lack vitality and will continue to be irrelevant and powerless (which is a problem many PCOs are desperately trying to solve). The problem is not whether we should have PCOs or not, but which is primary and which is secondary: the church or the para-church? To use an analogy, it is like Microsoft’s Vista.

Rather than putting their money and resources in rebuilding and fixing the core OS, Microsoft spends billions of dollars on marketing and other peripheral things, trying to make the OS more appealing. That’s just like when we are overloaded with PCOs, where gifted people flee from working in the church, and they try so hard making the church more relevant, but end up pulling away all the resources that can truly build up the mother ship. My conviction of the ideal is such: I believe if the Church truly lives up to what it should be (i.e. to do a good job in worship, edification, outreach, social justice, dialogue… etc.), there will really be no need for PCOs.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;  one Lord, one faith, one baptism;  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:4-6)

There is no church outside the church. May PCOs fit rightly where they belong and do what they are supposed to do, helping the body of Christ tone up to a lean and mean muscular body, rather than dragging it down like a sluggish fat belly.

P.S. I know I might offend some dear brothers and sisters who are serving in PCOs, who may hold views different than I have. Well, this is my stance as of now, but I welcome friendly and honest dialogue to further our understanding regarding the role of PCOs and its relationship with the Church. I don’t mind having coffee and chat for hours =)

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9 Responses

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  1. seilamgoh says

    very well said, anson.

    let’s not forget the role of the parachurch, that is to “para” the “church”, to walk alongside, or to help the church. I always use this analogy: if the local churches are family doctors, the PCO’s are specialists. We work together for the health of the body of Christ. i think the body of Christ needs both the local churches and the PCO’s. but i too have the question: do we need that many PCO’s?

    i agree so much that some PCO’s are competing with the local churches for resources just to sustain themselves. but i don’t think they should be eliminated, they should repent.

    the local churches and the PCOs should not be competing, they should be partnering.

    and they don’t need to compete for resources either. our resources are unlimited. our father is resourceful. if we’re following true vision, he will provide.

    have time for coffee? =->

  2. ansonann says

    @seilamgoh – 

    Thanks for your comment, Alan.

    First of all, I guess I should make a disclaimer that those of my friends, esp. those in PCOs, need not to read this personally. Most of my PCO friends are doing a faithful job. What I’m trying to say here is a general picture of the PCO scene, whether it is in HK or North America. There are just way too many PCOs in the market. And I hate seeing my mailbox stuffed with countless pledge letters asking for more money. It is as if every quarter is in deficit and never balanced. I wonder what is wrong with the financial planning of many PCOs? Where’s the financial accountability?

    Perhaps this problem has to do with church polity too. In my church tradition, the episcopal model has no need for PCOs, because the diocesan office functions as one big PCO, doing all the large-scale work each individual congregation cannot do on its own, e.g. social justice, outreach, corporate training, ecumenical dialogue… etc. Ideally in a diocesan framework, the church is a fully functioning body, doing all it is supposed to do, and there is no need for PCOs to do or supplement what it can’t do. Well, of course in congregational churches such thing does not exist, and it is no wonder why so many PCOs exist in the first place.

    On the other hand, I really appreciate your conviction that parachurches are to walk alongside and assist the church. That’s a very good way to look at it. And the family doctor/specialist model also make a lot of sense, but I think only if it is provided there are sufficient family doctors. It’s just like our local B.C. problem. We have a shortage of family doctors. Think about having 9 specialists and 1 family doctor. What will happen to the health of the society then?

    The reason I say this is that, I have been to a revival meeting a couple years ago. There were more than a dozen young people like me who raised their hands and answered the altar call to serve Christ full time. I was filled with joy seeing so many people willing to do God’s work. However, later on following up what that call meant for them, perhaps only 1 out of a dozen is willing to go for pastoral ministry. All others find the idea of becoming a pastor totally abhorrent, and many prefer doing other ministries (just as long as it is not pastoral), i.e. those that are more fun, more creative, and less painful, like music, drama, youth, and sports ministries… etc. Ask anyone around you, I’m sure 9 out of 10 will find being a pastor unthinkable. Now I wonder why is there such a distaste for working in a church setting and an aversion to an honorable role of the pastorate? Perhaps we have a very twisted image of what a pastor is or does.

    Of course I am not suggesting that everyone should become a pastor. I just hope that those who are not clear what’s ahead of them don’t rule out such an option so easily without even considering it. That’s because such an attitude is like telling God: “You can tell me to do anything, except A, B, and C. Sorry, even before you ask, I have already banned those options already.” Now who’s the sovereign Lord here?

    Sorry for my rant. I guess I’m just disappointed in seeing the flock of Christ starving to death due to the lack of shepherds, and those who can potentially become shepherds are turning away for the wrong reasons, and end up serving in PCOs that suck the life out of the church rather than empowering it.

    Sure we can have a chat. I have a reading week coming up in 2 weeks. I can give you a shout =)

  3. ansonann says

    @seilamgoh – 

    One more thing:

    Think about it. There are only 52 weeks in a year. That means only 52 Fridays and 52 Saturdays, minus all the special holidays and long weekends. If both church and para-church activities are heavily event-based (e.g. camps, retreats, talks, worship nights, gatherings, dinners), it is inevitable that we will run into frequent time conflicts. I’m sure this is not unknown to many of us.

    Man power and other resources may be unlimited, but time is not. So how can PCOs effectively partner and compliment the church without competing for those fixed number of Fridays and Saturdays remains a challenge we need to face.

  4. seilamgoh says

    couldn’t agree more (especially the part on the sovereignty of God over our “calling” – afterall, He’s the “caller”…).

    I’ve written a post in my blog regarding this, and will post it tomorrow. Basically what I think is that the working condition of most pastors these days are way too undesirable. Seeing the pastors suffer, people will not want to go into pastoral ministry. (People just don’t know you suffer in PCOs too…)

    The whole ecosystem is so ruined. Mercy on us.

    PS> re: “One More Thing” – that’s why AFC’s ministry is not event-based… we’re not the competitor of local churches, but partner! MInistry should not be event-based.

  5. pakkwok says


    thank you for your post!

    i wish i came to regent before I actually started to work for a para-church organization. back then, there was not much personal reflection, esp. not on this level. i agree with everything you’ve said regarding the PCOs, they are indeed valid criticism that every PCO should fully embrace, it would be great if some of them (or perhaps me) would have the opportunity to work along side with church leaders like yourself.

    I remember i went to breakthrough with overwhelming passion but little preparation. Therefore, I admire people who know exactly what they want to do and thus get equipped before they go into the field. i wish i can be more sure about what i want to do next and then get equipped accordingly.

    in my experience, the Holy Spirit did work through a very bitter, lonely, worldly ambitious, but spiritual sloth person. However, God is sovereign!! I am still learning through my experiences through different dialogues and reflections, and most importantly i am still learning to live my life in the Holy Spirit. cos’ i know that i won’t be called to do a position for life, but rather to do whatever in the Holy Spirit. (ie. a pastor or an advertiser)

    i am open for a coffee as well. praise the Lord!

  6. ESWH says

    I have the same observation as you do, Anson. In fact, I asked Alan and littleho the same question when I was in HK (took me a while to figure out who you are, “seilamgoh”!). May I also add that ambition pays a part here — many pastors are not satisfied with how little they can accomplish in their tiny local congregation, and so organizing big events become their way of boosting the self-esteem. Also, to be some PCO’s board member will give you the missing status-quo (no matter how “unwilling” the person acted like). For me, I am already tried of attending those fund-raising dinners long time ago (I am glad that AFC@Van are not doing it).

    As you and Alan have said, I see PCOs walking along side with local churches. Maybe a few steps ahead. But I also think that there is no reason why any local congregation should be running behind. I don’t see why the church can not get involved in social justice issue and other target/age-group based ministries. It is a sad reality, something that needs to be resolved. But still PCO is a fix, not a remedy.

    I also don’t see the PCOs as “the bridge between church and world”. Christians are to imitate Christ to live among others in this world. We are not bringing them “to church”. The world is already living with a new reality/possibility that is church! We need to train more Christians to live in a missional way. Not to sit in the pews and wait for outsides to join in…

    And in order to train more missional Christians/Jesus’ disciples, maybe we do need some PCOs to start a trans-denominational movement! =) I think this is what they do best — connecting b/s from different churches. But please, start a movement, don’t just run events.

  7. seilamgoh says

    Edmund (it doesn’t take long to figure out who ESWH is =P), I totally agree with you that churches should go into the world. They don’t need PCOs as a bridge (and should not). But when they do so, they may need assistance. Churches in Vancouver tend to be smaller in sizes, thus with very limited resources. Thus I think PCOs are good in providing resources to resource-short churches.
    But still, I agree that there are too many specialists but too few family doctors. I have seen how many new PCOs sprouted in the last decade?… Financial stewardship and accountability is a big issue…
    Glad you mention about movement. That’s the word that is constantly on my mind these days. Yes, we need a movement, not more events. Amen!

  8. seilamgoh says

    Oh, and Anson, I wouldn’t use the word “rant” to identify your emotion. Bill Hybels would call it “discontent”, and it is “holy”… and calling does come in the form of holy discontent… think about it…

    Patrick and Anson, we should have coffee together…

  9. ansonann says

    Wow, thanks guy for all the precious comments. I never thought writing down some of my thoughts would trigger so much response. I think other than my daughter’s birth announcement, this post has the highest view count!

    @seilamgoh – 

    Alan, speaking of movement, I gotta applaud AFC for the Jubilization movement. I think you guys have shown churches what is a high-quality, God-centered, discipling worship experience. I hope through Jubilization Christians will put more effort into making their worship services more substantial and meaningful. Keep up the good work!

    @ESWH – 

    Edmund, yeah I agree with you that PCOs do best in creating trans-denominational movements. I think rather than seeing PCOs as “helping the church to do what they are supposed to do but are not doing”, a better role for PCOs is to act as a vehicle showing churches a larger picture of the kingdom of God in which local congregations cannot see by themselves. By that, I don’t mean organizing mega-size events that try to fit 10,000 people in a stadium, but more of offering a global identity or view-point for Christians to see the world and share each other’s concerns. I think Bono and the ONE campaign is doing exactly something as such. The Anglican Communion of 77 million members worldwide also offers something of this global identity, connecting Christians across continents and allowing them to see how God is working throughout different regions on earth. When we say: “Think globally, act locally”, non-denominational and congregational churches often only possess the latter part. I think PCOs can fit here very well by offering the former as a movement.

    @pakkwok – 

    Patrick, I’m glad to have known you in Regent, as I see God continually shaping you and preparing you for a very special vocation. I can see us as good partners in the future, I hope you won’t “lift my elbow” when I invite you to talk, will you? =) Anyways, let’s find some time to have coffee with Alan during reading week. It’ll be a wonderful opportunity to pick each other’s brains for more thoughtful reflections.

    P.S. When you guys post a comment on xanga, if you click on the reply link, it will create some code in the beginning of your post, such that an email will be sent to the other commenter notifying there’s more conversation going on. It is xanga’s poor man’s track-back functionality.

    I think this conversation has inspired me to write something about what pastoral staff should or should not be doing. Keep an eye on my next post…