Don’t worry, those aren’t my words. The man who made this statement was a pastor of a church in California named Francis Chan. You may have heard of him–he’s probably one of the greatest up and coming pastors in America today. And while I have no idea if he made this statement for dramatic effect, or if he sincerely desires to see the institution of the parachurch done away with, I’m going to tell you why I think he’s on to something.
One of the biggest problems plaguing college ministry today is that college students have no idea what the church is, or what their role in the church should even look like. For most college students, they have a church that they attend every Sunday morning so they can check “weekly sermon” off the list, but they walk in, walk out, and never engage in the church anymore than that. Why? Because for all intents and purposes, their parachurch is their church. This mentality stems from some sort of vague understanding of the Church in which the Church is “invisible,” composed of believers all over the world and spanning throughout history. And if this is your understanding of the Church, then as long as you are coming together with other believers in some kind of capacity on a weekly basis, that’s church enough.
And who can blame them? Parachurches are way ahead of the curve when it comes to campus outreach. When churches weren’t reaching college students, parachurch ministries stepped up and filled that ministerial void. They went onto the campuses where students were, became accessible to them, shared in their daily lives, and equipped them for living out the Christian life in the university environment. Only in the last 10 to 15 years have churches really started waking up to the reality that college students need ministery too. Only recently have churches poured time and energy into their college students. But compared to most parachurch organizations that are now well-oiled machines, church college ministries are often awkward at best, still trying to find their niche without competing with parachurches for students. So when faced with the choice between an on-campus parachurch with accessible leaders and great programs, or an off-campus church ministry with only one college pastor, I’d take the parachurch any day. In fact, as an undergrad, I did.
Unfortunately, this trend teaches college students bad habits concerning their relationship with the church. It fosters a relationship with the local church in which students merely use the church for their own spiritual needs, but give nothing back in return. There is no sense of ownership in the church’s well-being, functioning, or future. This can be seen most clearly in how few college students tithe. One of the things Jesus spends the most time talking about in Scripture is money, because how we use our money is one of the greatest indicators of where we are spiritually. That being said, college students are notorious for not tithing (and don’t give me the “I’m a poor college student” excuse–I used it too, but I also somehow had enough money to buy myself new shoes, outfits, and other accessories on a fairly regular basis. even if you’re still on the dole from mom and dad, that money belongs to God!).
So by the time a student graduates, they have spent 4 years workin on a habit of not engaging in the local church, not tithing to the local church, and only using the local church for their own needs. For them, the church is a building–they have no concept that the church is a community of which they are not only a part, but that the church *belongs* to them. Interestingly, the college student mentality is one that is quite foreign to Scripture. Take Acts, for instance. In this New Testament book we are told that the community shared with one another according to everyone who had need. No, this was not a vision of Christian Communism–this is what a local church is supposed to look like. You take ownership of the community. You take responsibility for the fact that the church has electrical bills to pay so that you can sing the songs on powerpoint, or that the pastor has to have money to feed himself and his family so he can deliver that sermon you hear each week. Not to mention the fact that there are other families in the church who suffer great financial hardship, and the church is only able to help them when everyone pitches in. That’s what a church really is–it’s a community, not a building. And that is what it means to be a part of a body–when the head hurts, the whole body hurts, and when the leg is injured, the whole body limps. Yet college students function like a bunch of autonomous elbows, walking around like they have nothing to do with the rest of the body. They don’t realize that the rest of the body belongs to them, is a part of them, and that others’ well-being affects them (and vice versa). But that is what Scripture tells us a local church is supposed to be–we are all *one* in Christ.
Now here is where this trend becomes a problem: When college students graduate. Because these students have spent the last 4 years creating a relationship with the church in which the church is merely there to serve them, this habit continues on long after graduation. Mark Driscoll, a senior pastor in Seattle, experienced this hardship first-hand when he found himself leading a church of mostly young people. No one would do anything! He writes in his book “Confessions of a Reformission Rev, “The college kids and singles who had sucked resources from youth groups and parachurch ministries for their entire life without serving or giving were generally just more dead weight to drag around. ” Because they were using the programs of the church but not giving back to it, the church’s leaders and resources were being slowly but steadily drained, because a small minority of people were carrying the entire weight of the church. And this is the kind of mentality that involvement in parachurches *can* (though definitely not always) lead to. In a comsumer driven society in which we judge commodities based on what they can do for us, the church is no exception–young people are no longer joining churches because of how they can contribue to a church’s vision and make it a better church. They join a church because it has a good preacher, or they like the music, or it has a singles ministry where they can shop for a spouse. It’s all about what the church can do for them. And when one segment of a church’s body is demanding most of the church’s resources without giving anything in return, the church will become lop-sided, at best. At worst, it will begin to die, because no church can sustain a congregation in which a large portion of its members serve as dead-weight.
Yet in addition to all of that, students are missing out on something valuable during their college years if they are not involved in a church. They are missing out on the fullness of what church membership involves. The church is not merely some invisible, universal institution to be engaged in at one’s discretion–Scripture also describes the church as a local body, and it does so in very specific ways. Having said that, the parachurch is a “local body” to some extent, but it is not a body in the fullest sense of the term. All throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul explains that the Body of Christ is a body of many members with different gifts and perpectives to add. Together, these varying parts make up a complete whole that reflects Christ in all his fullness. So while no local church does this perfectly, it does surpass parachurches in this area because of the diversity in ages and stages in life. By involving yourself in the lives of others who are older or more experienced than you, they can give you direction and guidance in ways that your peers cannot. What’s more, when you spend time with a family or a married couple, you can learn more about what it looks like to be a godly spouse or parent. In return, you can serve the church so that those older families are not always serving you. Volunteer at the nursery so that parents can go to a church event. Work with the youth groups so parents can go to their own Sunday school classes. In this way, we help one another, and in so doing, are more effective for the Gospel. After all, young people have the most time and energy to give to the church, so if young people actually began engaging in the local church, there is no telling how much more effective churches would be at reaching the community!
When it’s all said and done, I have to admit that I don’t believe we should “kill the parachurch.” What I do think is that something needs to change. If we are fostering a generation of students who believe the church is merely there to serve them, then we risk creating churches in the long-term which are all about Man, rather than God. Churches will become institutions existing for the purpose of serving us, rather than God’s glory. The present problems we are experiencing asa result of unengaged college students and singles are probably only a taste of what is to come. Yes, parachurches do have an amazing ministry to college students, they are able to reach students in unique ways that the church cannot, and God works through them powerfully. But, they are not to supplant the local church, so if you treat your parachurch as the local church, you will spend the next 4 years fostering a relationship with the local church that is not only thoroughly me-centered, but also thoroughly unscriptural. I know this because I did it myself, so help change this trend by taking ownership of your church now–not only with your finances, but with your time, energy, and prayer. We are the future leaders of the church, so we need to start acting like it today.