When one learns about church history in the post-Reformation world, one often reads about two approaches to following Jesus that really flourished during this time: one that emphasized the head (e.g., deism, “Protestant scholasticism,” etc.), and one that emphasized the heart (e.g., Pietism). A third approach developed in the 19th century, namely, the social option (most fully in what’s called the “Social Gospel,” but also in various aspects of mission work, anti-slavery efforts, etc.).
The 19th century also witnessed the rise of a new type of church organization, one that was involved in these kinds of efforts but also in many others, namely, the “voluntary societies.” These were groups of Christians who banded together to work on a particular project, whether Bible translation, mission work, social relief, or whatever. Two things are particularly interesting about this development, especially given the prior centuries of Christian history.
First, these groups did not line up along denominational lines; rather, these groups consisted of individuals dedicated to a common cause, no matter their denomination. This was a truly new approach within Christian history. We are certainly familiar with various groups in Christian history existing apart from others, but these were usually either intra-denominational groups (e.g., Catholic orders like the Franciscans or Jesuits) or splinters from denominations as the Protestant movement fragmented after the Reformation. The new impulse in the 19th century was that individuals from various denominations could band together but not be under the thumb of any one denomination. Not surprisingly, this approach was quite popular at the time (although some “Back to the Bible” movements could not find this kind of individual cooperation in the New Testament, and so they rejected the impulse)..
The second interesting part of this development was that it proved especially popular among women, who had not been typically in positions of power — or even participation, in some cases. But these new voluntary societies provided women new opportunities to participate and even to lead — again, on all types of issues, even including overseas missions efforts. This interest on the part of women also caused some controversy, but that opposition did not stem the tide of this new, innovative, and powerful development in Christian history.
The reason it is relevant for us is that this movement didn’t just stay in the 19th century; it has influenced our own world through what we call “parachurch organizations.” “Para-” here refers to a Greek preposition that can mean “beside” or “alongside,” and so parachurch organizations hopefully don’t compete with or serve under churches, but rather work alongside churches and denominations. Sound familiar? It’s the same as the voluntary society in the 19th century.
- Read a Bible in a hotel room left by the Gideons?
- Participated in Young Life in high school?
- Sponsored a Compassion child?
If so, then you’ve been involved with a parachurch organization.
And there are many kinds. Various organizations focus on things like college students (Campus Crusade for Christ), teaching people the basics of Christianity (the Alpha Course), prisons (Prison Fellowship), spiritual growth (Renovare), publishing (InterVarsity Press), politics (Focus on the Family), relief (Samaritan’s Purse), and homebuilding (Habitat for Humanity). In other words, there is an almost limitless variety of such organizations. And they have become very important for many modern Christians, both in how they spend their time, but also in how they steward their money.
On this last point, parachurch organizations can become controversial. When people give money to Focus on the Family, they are (at least theoretically) not giving it to a local church. Further, if a group is not under the oversight of a particular denomination, some people wonder if the group’s doctrinal stances can be trusted.
But the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, in my mind. Parachurch organizations can be more organizationally nimble, they can effectively meet immediate needs on a wide scale, and (like the societies of the 19th century) they can provide new opportunities for participation and leadership to women, young people, and others for whom access to traditional channels of influence can be challenging (or totally unavailable). And as you know, it can be challenging for young people who strive to follow Jesus to find ways to express that devotion in meaningful ways that make an impact in the world — and parachurch organizations can provide just that opportunity.