I few weeks ago my blog entitled Stop Praying For Me generated quite a buzz that I hope led to meaninful conversations on the important subject of how to pray for the disabled.  This week I’d like to give some thought to another divisive issue: Church vs. Parachurch.

Parachurch Criticism

Recently I was at a gathering of college pastors, most of whom were college pastors of various churches. There I heard them express the longstanding criticism of collegiate parachurch ministries: “Students involved with parachurch groups graduate and then do not know how to integrate into the local church.”

In response to this common criticism, I throw these thoughts out to you for your consideration. I welcome your comments and feedback too. These arguments are certainly just one side of the coin and are by no means thorough, but they do raise important questions for those who question para-church ministries.

Church Criticism

At the gathering I mentioned above, the pastors began to speak about how to make their students into good “church-going kids.”  While there is nothing wrong with getting students connected in churches, I wanted to ask,”What kind of churches?”

In the midst of this friendly dialogue, I presented the parachurch side of things and expressed  my criticism of the church. I said, “My concern is exactly the opposite. I fear that students connected in our ministry who have learned to live and share their faith, integrate their faith and work, and become missionaries to their people groups, will join a church who will simply ask them to serve by being an usher or helping with parking on Sunday morning.”

I was being a bit sarcastic of course, but I expressing a real concern of mine. Will the students that parachurch ministries disciple and equip for ministry really get plugged into churches who will continue the same degree of discipleship and equipping?  Will these churches teach them how to do ministry outside the four walls of their church buildings? If not, then I too have a concern.

If students do not plug into local churches it may be too simple to point fingers at the parachurch and say, “See. You did not teach them how to integrate into the local church.” It may be that there are fingers pointed back at the local church that say, “They are not integrating into churches for a reason. You’re not challenging them like they were challenged in their college ministry.”

Thankfully there are a growing number of churches in Austin, Dallas, and Houston where we are confident students will be discipled and sent out to impact their neighborhoods, workplaces, and “playplaces.” We gladly encourage graduates to connect with these churches.

Parachurch Churches

One of the facets of the parachurch criticism is that the students are not learning to integrate into the full body of Christ, meaning they are not multi-generational. I happen to share this concern to a certain degree, but also recognize the value of age specific ministry (or at least I recognize it’s reality). Students want to be around others in their same stage of life, as do singles, young marrieds, young families, etc.

I believe that most college ministries out of churches, in effect, function like parachurch ministries. They may be based out of a local church with elders and a governing denomination, but they are often no more multigenerational than a parachurch group. There are always a handful of students who volunteer with the children’s ministry, lead the youth group, or join a small group with adults, but in my experience these students are the exception, not the rule in church-based collegiate ministries.

Make Disciples, not Churches

Sometimes I think we’re putting the wrong emphasis on the syllable. Jesus called us to make disciples, not plant churches. I wonder if the emphasis on making good “church-going kids” is sometimes contrary to making disciples. It  does not have to be of course, but sometimes it feels like it.

The disciples were sent out. Sometimes in churches there is a tendency to keep the people contained in the four walls and serving there instead of equipping them to go out into their cities to bring the gospel and disciple others “out there.” There is a subtle but profound difference between building churches and making disciples. Are we making members or missionaries?

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I’m happy to say that at the University of Texas this debate is relatively dead. That’s not to say that pastors of parachurch and church groups do not have slightly different convictions on the issue. It means that here, like is happening on so many campuses around the country, our love for God, for one another, and for the forty-five thousand students who are not yet following Jesus is greater than this whole debate.

When I think about the debate of Church vs. Parachurch, I remember what author Reggie McNeal once said to a group of pastors from UT (church and parachurch). He said, “There is a bigger question than ‘What is a church?.’ The bigger question is, “What is the Church?’ ” This is the bigger question we’re wrestling with at UT.


Justin Christopher is the director of Campus Renewal Ministries at the University of Texas and author of Campus Renewal: A Practical Plan for Uniting Campus Ministries in Prayer and Mission. He gives leadership to the Campus House of Prayer and the missional community movement at the University of Texas.