Yesterday, I compared the relationship between the local church and the parachurch to the relationship between a bride and her bridesmaids. A wedding is not about the bridesmaid; rather, she works to show off the beauty of the bride (or else the wedding gets really awkward). Similarly, parachurch organizations, if they follow the biblical pattern, exist to plant and edify local churches; they do not exist in a vacuum.
So is this taking place on college campuses throughout the United States? I’m afraid to say that it isn’t. Parachurch organizations such as The Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship do the work of discipleship, holding Bible studies and large group events (some of higher quality than others). In a sense, they do serve local churches indirectly by training students to follow Christ—students who, hopefully, will participate in churches after college.
But those last two words are key: after college. In the meantime, while in college, students involved in these organizations rarely show more than a minimal commitment to local churches. Most of them show up only on Sunday mornings and leave immediately afterward, disappearing until next week’s service. Some bounce around from church to church, looking for a killer preacher or worship leader to make their Sunday mornings worthwhile. Some don’t even bother coming at all, failing to see the point of attending a church in which they don’t know anybody and in which they receive little discipleship.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. For too long, local churches have done a poor job of explaining to their youth and to college students what the church is all about. From junior through senior high, the youth tend to be quarantined into youth groups, isolated from older men and women in the church who can mentor them; they are not expected to participate seriously in the life of the rest of the church. Furthermore, churches near college campuses often “hand off” the discipleship of students to parachurch ministries. It’s tough to come down hard on them because it is difficult to reach out to students in a college environment. Why not leave it to the experts?
Parachurch organizations have stepped in where the church has failed. And praise God for using them to bring many students to Christ and develop many young believers! Yet their very philosophy of ministry prevents students from participating in a local church. Their Bible studies replace those of the church; students are expected to develop close relationships with their peers rather than people in the church they attend. Lacking time to do both, they pick the convenience that the parachurch offers. They end up spending their entire time in college with practically no commitment to a local church and no sense of participation in a local body of believers. Many well-intentioned students are simply unable to use their spiritual gifts to build up the church as they are commanded.
When it comes to the commandments of scripture, most students are ignorant of what they are called to do. In part 1, we saw that believers are expected to be involved in a local congregation. Most college students do not follow this expectation. They approach the decision between local church and parachurch as simply a consumerist decision—which one does a better job meeting my wants and (perceived) needs? Which will make me feel more comfortable? Which is the easiest and most convenient for me? Of course, most local churches can’t hold a candle to parachurch organizations in these areas.
Sadly, so many college students miss out on the beauty of the church. The parachurch organizations to which they have committed themselves don’t baptize their members. They don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper. They aren’t led by elders and deacons. They don’t practice church discipline. They lack the diversity in age and experience that a church should have. They cannot replace the church, nor should they try.
So how should local churches, parachurch organizations, and individual students respond? Well…I’ll give my thoughts on that in a couple of days. But tomorrow, I’d like to take a brief excursus and discuss how this relates to Christian colleges and to campus churches which consist of students only.