Prefixes are fascinating little pre-words. Kids studying for the National Spelling Bee learn prefixes in order to quickly unlock the meaning of words. The prefix para can help a contestant unlock the meaning of the more than 11,000 English words which employ it. The only problem is that English is notorious for its exceptions. Not all para prefixes are created equal.
Para comes from a Greek word meaning “to come alongside.” Most likely, it’s the Greek word which folks had in mind when they determined to put the para prefix ahead of the church. Para-church, then, would mean, “come alongside the church.” Para-church ministries would be those designed to come alongside church ministries.
But what if the para prefix used were the French version instead of the Greek? Instead of meaning “to come alongside,” the French prefix para means “to guard against/protect from.” (A parachute protects from a fall.) In this prefixed arrangement, Para-church organizations would be designed to guard against or protect ministry from the church. Surely, para-church organizations aren’t guarding against the church, are they?
Some Christians have dismissed para-church ministries altogether as evil parasites. I don’t think they are. Para-church organizations are obviously successful. Mack Stiles points out that there are more than 91,000 para-church organizations operating in the U.S., with assets exceeding $4 billion. Obviously, lots of folks think they are worthwhile. And they are. Para-church organizations often are able to gain access to prisons (Prison Fellowship) and to other populations which are difficult for churches directly to enter. So, para-church ministries do have a role to play in the church. But there are a couple of dangers which must always be kept in mind.
First, Para-church organizations have an identity problem. If they don’t belong to a particular church, then to what church do they belong? The most obvious answer is the “church universal,” the Church which in its early years was called “catholic.” But the catholic (little “c,” meaning universal) church is difficult to define. Does it include the Catholic (big “C,” meaning Roman Catholic) Church? Does it include the Russian Orthodox, Mormon, or Jehovah’s Witness churches? Any effort to answer such questions also slices off potential funding sources.
Para-church organizations by definition must appeal to churches outside of their local and denominational frameworks for support. Many will appeal to government agencies and secular humanitarians as well for financial support. This broader appeal for financial resources demands a broader (in the sense of more generic) appeal to biblical doctrine. Doctrine divides. Emphasis on doctrine inevitably leads to shrinking the population of the giving groups. So, para-church organizations become generic. If they had a doctrinal flavor, it would be vanilla.
Many para-church organizations present themselves as unisex jeans—able to fit whoever is putting them on. They promise to work regardless of the true identity of those who use them. Broad appeals for cash lead to narrowing appeals to Scripture. Para-church organizations often end up wearing doctrinal dunce caps. It’s at least a danger.
A second danger to consider with regard to para-church organizations is the danger of increasing the tension between church and para-church. Neither wants to be controlled by the other. Because the para-church organization is not anchored in a particular church, it is run independently of all churches. There are usually boards which control the organization, but boards are not churches. Churches are better than boards at holding people accountable to Christ (or at least they are supposed to be).
What happens often is that the para-church group begins to drift away from accountability to Christ. Christ is deemphasized on behalf of the work supposedly done in His name. The homeless shelter that once shared the gospel simply becomes the homeless shelter. Or, worse, it may become merely a gym or recreation center.
Mack Stiles illustrates this second problem brilliantly and succinctly:
The standard cliché for parachurch is that it’s not the church, but an arm of the church. Yet historically, that arm has shown a tendency to develop a mind of its own and crawl away from the body, which creates a mess.
A dismembered arm is certainly a mess. So, it’s best—insofar as it is possible—to keep ministries within the church, holding the body together in unity. On occasion, it will be beneficial for the church to partner with a para-church organization, but when it does, the church must keep these two dangers in mind in order to avoid them.
Given the dangers, it might be best for us to think of the prefix para to represent neither its Greek nor its French roots, but, rather, to refer to its Italian meaning when put in front of the church. In Italian, the prefix means “to protect,” as a goalie parries away a shot toward the goal he is defending. Both church and para-church organizations would be best served if our main interest were protecting and defending the Bride of Christ.