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The Work of God, Side by Side

How the promise, and theology, of parachurch partnerships can serve church and community.

Pastor Joe Caruso started his job in 2008 at Grace Church in Akron, Ohio — not in the church offices, but at summer camp. He jumped in for a week alongside kids from Urban Vision, a nonprofit that’s been working in Akron’s economically distressed, but beautifully diverse, North Hill community since 1992. Grace, a multisite suburban congregation of around 3,000, has partnered with Urban Vision for the past 15 years. The church has supported Urban Vision with money, volunteers, and relational support as the ministry has hosted English as a second language classes, provided financial coaching to adults, and offered educational programs for youth from preschool ages through high school. Rodney Matthews, executive director at Urban Vision, estimates that the ministry serves about 225 families annually. Caruso guesses that around 60 to 75 congregants from Grace are involved in one way or another with Urban Vision in any given year. 

Grace’s new outreach pastor, Caruso, was at the camp to learn. “His first on-the-job assignment was indoctrinating himself with what we do,” Matthews told me proudly. Not long after, Caruso joined Urban Vision’s board. “He’s in the conversations,” says Matthews. “He and Jeff [Bogue, Grace’s senior pastor] know what we’re about.” Grace and Urban Vision leaders typically meet monthly. 

Years ago Grace decided its local missions strategy would be to work deeply, at length, with selected ministry partners rather than trying to start their own community programs. “We know we’re not the experts in any given category,” Caruso explains. The frontline Christian nonprofits have “the expertise, credibility, and relationships,” he adds. Coming alongside them “is a much saner approach.” The core values section of Grace’s website proclaims, “[We] cannot go it alone, and we will leverage strengths of diverse organizations and churches to pursue the movement to which God has called us.” It’s a refreshingly humble statement from a megachurch.

The partnership strategy also fits the church leaders’ one-church-of-the-city theology. 

Commenting on Paul’s epistles and Jesus’ letters to the churches in Revelation, Caruso notes that “they’re not writing to Grace Church or to First Baptist. They’re writing to the church of the city. We look at all of the Jesus-teaching churches and ministries in [Akron] as a part of the overarching way that God is interacting with his church for our entire community.” For him, church and “parachurch” are interdependent, complementary, and incomplete without each other. Collaboration is vital for the missional discipleship of Grace’s congregants as they deploy their God-given talents in generous service in God’s mission to renew all things.

Matthews credits Grace Church with inculcating a missional mentality in their people. Sending, he says, is in their DNA. They also prepare the flock for serving, offering two different classes on ministry in the city. That’s critical, Matthews says, because often suburban congregations just don’t “get” urban ministry. Sometimes their volunteers are self-serving and patronizing. Grace’s senior leaders, though, have taken the time to learn Urban Vision’s asset-based philosophy in ministering among the materially poor. “They know what we’re about,” says Matthews. “They’ve owned their end [of educating their people]. They say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do it with dignity.’ So I can just receive [the volunteers] and continue to educate them through experience.” 

How It’s (Not) Going Now

The Grace Church/Urban Vision relationship isn’t perfect, but it was one of the strongest ones my colleague Scott Harris and I found in the course of a recent research project on church and parachurch partnering. It’s marked by deep relationships, mutual respect, candor, generosity, flexibility, and missional alignment. 

Unfortunately, that’s rather rare. Our research project began from a place of lament. Between us, Scott and I have 50-plus years of experience working closely with congregational and nonprofit ministry leaders — and we know plenty tales of discord. We’ve heard pastors assert that parachurch organizations are merely derivative to the “real” church, a necessary evil at best and a parasite at worst. We’ve seen parachurch leaders disdainfully complain that while their agencies are genuinely living out Jesus’ missional call, congregations are stuck in committee meetings arguing over new carpeting. Exasperated, some of them have given up on working with local churches.

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It’s marked by deep relationships, mutual respect, candor, generosity, flexibility, and missional alignment. Unfortunately, that’s rather rare.

Above: Kids and volunteers participate in a Christmas event hosted by Grace Church and Urban Vision.

The tensions and mutual disrespect go back a long way. In a 1983 paper commissioned by the Lausanne Committee, “Cooperating in World Evangelization,” John Stott lamented that a “spirit of prejudice and mistrust” had developed between church and parachurch organizations. Depressingly, the paper’s working group identified “well over 100 areas of conflict or friction.”  

Our recent research suggests that this dysfunction continues. Moreover, it seems that many Christian leaders have decided just to live with it. They either don’t bother with partnering or settle for merely transactional relationships — far removed from the enduring, mutually beneficial partnership modeled by Grace and Urban Vision. 

This is tragic, unacceptable, and urgently in need of reform for at least three pressing reasons. First, it grieves Jesus, who treasures unity and who does not share our complacency over the current state of affairs. Second, it demeans the church’s witness, and this at a time when her credibility in the eyes of nonbelievers — and even some believers — is declining. 

Third, it represents enormous opportunity costs. Every city and community in the United States faces at least one (and typically many more) social ill: poverty, homelessness, un- and under-employment, substance abuse, school dropouts, marriage and family breakdown, crime, and teen pregnancy, to name a few. No one church and no one nonprofit has all the answers to these problems. None has the capacity to meet all the needs. Imagine how much more good, much-needed work could be done through fruitful, strategic collaboration. Failure to link arms has created unnecessary duplication and competition for resources. Additionally, some churches and nonprofits have launched programs that have not truly helped their intended beneficiaries. They’ve made bad mistakes that could have been avoided if they’d first connected to veteran agencies with hard-won wisdom and experience. 

Scott and I have noticed an increasing number of churches and nonprofit ministries referencing Jeremiah 29:7, expressing their desire to “seek the shalom” of their communities. The current dysfunction in the church-parachurch relationship, though, is a major hindrance to this pursuit. For the credibility of our witness — and the common good of our communities — Christian leaders must adopt fresh attitudes and practices that can forge enduring, fruitful partnerships. 

What We Could Be Doing

To find a path forward, we interviewed a variety of leaders from congregations, U.S. nonprofits, global missions organizations, and groups involved in church planting or pastor training. We researched several models of highly effective partnerships and read everything about the church-parachurch relationship that we could get our hands on. We’ve identified three key biblical themes and four promising practices that can help congregational and nonprofit ministry leaders collaborate that honors God and serves our neighbors effectively. 

Key Biblical Themes

First, any fruitful partnership between congregations and ministries must rest on a mutual embrace of the missionary nature of the church. The answer to the questions of what the church is and what its purpose is are found in the grand biblical story of the missio Dei, God’s activity throughout history to make all things new. God, who created a world of shalom, has been committed to its restoration ever since humanity rejected his benevolent rule in the Garden. The church finds her purpose and identity within the missio Dei. The church is both called by God and sent by God. 

Second, that reality is illustrated in the two structural expressions of Christ’s body that we find in the New Testament: modal (gathered) and sodal (scattered or sent). The modal ecclesia was open to believers of all ages and was meant to reveal Christ’s beauty and lordship through countercultural living and authentic, loving community. Complementing these local fellowships were sodalities, smaller fraternities of comrades marked out by a sense of high commitment and particular purpose. The apostle Paul’s missionary bands were examples of such sodal expressions of the body. Today these look like mission agencies and the plethora of Christian nonprofit ministries working to proclaim and demonstrate the kingdom here in the U.S. and abroad. 

Both the modal and sodal structures are part of God’s redemptive mission: distinctive, yet interdependent. In his seminal paper on the subject, preeminent missiologist Ralph Winter urged that both be “fully and properly involved and supportive of each other” as the church lives into its kingdom mission. God’s design is for the modal and sodal expressions to cooperate in creative, complementary ways to accomplish both the Great Commission and to help existing disciples to mature. 

The third biblical theme is that to equip the church for building up believers for works of service, God gave her apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers (Eph 4:11). Jesus beautifully embodies all of these so-called “APEST” gifts. Taken together, these gifts help congregations mature toward greater Christlikeness and unity. They also represent God’s equipping grace. There’s much debate today over just how to interpret and apply the APEST concept. It seems reasonable, though, to agree on three basic affirmations: that God has been generous in disbursing multiple gifts, that Jesus embodied all of them, and that a truly holistic ministry in Jesus’ footsteps requires all of them. 

In order to craft mutually respectful partnerships between modalities and sodalities, it is critical that each of these gifts is appreciated, honored, and utilized cooperatively for the building, maturing, and mission of the whole church. Some of the current tensions are rooted in the fact that congregational leaders tend to possess the shepherd-teacher gifts, while nonprofit ministry leaders often have the apostle, prophet, or evangelist giftings. But the Lord is grieved when leaders think of their own gifts as superior to another’s. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor 12:26). We must have the humility to understand that all the gifts are vital for the kingdom’s advance.

No More Parachurch

Given these biblical themes, Christian communities should drop the word parachurch. The term too often connotes both inferiority and a too-sharp sense of otherness — instead of interdependency. The scriptural insights above indicate that what has been called parachurch is, in fact, another vital expression or structure of the church, one with complementary and essential functions within God’s redemption mission. It’s time to put away both the term and the old assumptions underlying it, that is, if we want to see congregations and ministries functioning in the mutual, strategic, fruitful partnership God designed.

Four Promising Practices

Adopting new language is just step one. Many congregational and nonprofit ministry leaders also need to make some changes in how they operate. Specifically, we identified four promising practices among highly effective partners that should be imitated.

1. Eschew the scarcity mindset. In God’s abundant economy, reality is not zero-sum. God is greatly pleased when we turn away from fear and competition for what we deem to be limited resources. For pastors, this will look like being openhanded with congregants, recognizing that God will call some saints to ministry outside the church’s walls. Mature pastors will rejoice in whatever ways their members find to deploy their God-given talents in God-glorifying endeavors — and will trust him to supply the congregation’s own volunteer needs. For ministry leaders, it will mean adopting a cause rather than an organizational mentality. God typically raises up many organizations to advance any one particular kingdom cause (e.g., reaching an unreached people group or providing holistic support to the homeless or low-income kids). Ministry leaders must acknowledge that they are one player and comprehend their individual role within the larger ecosystem. Whenever the cause is advanced, even when that has nothing to do with one’s own organization — or even comes at some cost to one’s own nonprofit — godly leaders rejoice. They know the end goal is not their own agency’s success, but the flourishing of the ultimate beneficiaries that the cause targets.  

2. Invest intentionally in volunteer assessment and deployment efforts. Congregational leaders need to do better in creating intentional systems for helping congregants to discover and examine their gifts, passions, “holy discontents,” APEST giftings, and the dimensions of their vocational power. We can’t expect congregants to steward well that which they don’t recognize they possess. Several assessment tools are available for congregational leaders to use for free or at a low cost. 

Meanwhile, many ministry leaders need to improve in the arena of volunteer deployment. Nonprofits typically focus on the direct-service volunteers needed to execute ministry programs. This focus is necessary and understandable, but too narrow. It fails to recognize the wide array of vocational skills, experience, and influence volunteers possess. By better leveraging these, the nonprofit’s mission can be advanced in deeper or additional ways.  When these assets go untapped, the beneficiaries of the nonprofit’s cause lose out. The best way for an urban ministry to utilize a group of bankers from the church is not as coaches for the kids’ basketball team, but as a think tank to create a viable alternative to the payday lending that’s keeping the kids’ parents in debt traps. 

3. Partner in synergistic disciple-making. The modal and sodal structures of the church are both needed in the mission of bringing people into relationship with Jesus. Both also have vital roles to play in growing existing believers into greater Christlikeness. But cooperating effectively in these dual works will likely require at least one key change from leaders.

Congregational leaders need to address the ways their current practices bifurcate discipleship and mission rather than seeing them as two sides of one coin. Too often “discipleship” unfolds inside the church’s four walls through information-laden classes, while “mission” unfolds outside, through serving opportunities in local or global communities — but with little or no reflection on those experiences. Jesus’ model was different: He apprenticed his disciples through teaching and missional engagement. And just like Jesus’ first followers, modern-day disciples need to spend time hearing, reading, and discussing and going and doing. 

Ministry leaders, meanwhile, will need to accept (alongside their partner congregations) the responsibility of discipling their volunteers. Yes, the volunteers are there to help staff shoulder the work of the ministry. And yes, the needs of the beneficiaries of the various programs are paramount. But God also calls ministry leaders to steward well those he has brought them, expecting them to consider not only what they want from their volunteers, but what they want for them. That means being committed to the spiritual formation of their volunteers, helping them to reflect on and grow from their engagement in mission.

4. Commit to investing in mutual support. All congregations and ministries have some opportunity to share resources, whether that be staff with particular expertise, facilities, money, or relational connections. Some congregations may also have the opportunity financially to support training to strengthen leaders and organizations. Similarly, ministries with deep roots and strong reputations in particular neighborhoods may have the opportunity to partner with church planters seeking to plant in those communities. Church history is replete with stories of modalities creating sodalities and sodalities birthing modalities. Indeed, these are essential strategies in our current missiological context.

Striving Side by Side 

God has designed congregations and ministries as joint stewards of his assets for advancing his mission. Each has a vested interest in the strength of the other. Neither the modal nor the sodal expression of Christ’s body is complete in itself. Both are needed for the missio Dei, and both need each other.

The data above comes from Amy Sherman’s research in the area of church-parachurch partnerships. You can access that research online.  

 • Whitepaper, “The End and Future of the Church /‘Para-Church’ Relationship: A Call for Generous Partnership,” https://missionincrease.org/wp-content/uploads/The-End-and-Future-Full-Version.pdf.

 • Executive Summary, https://missionincrease.org/wp-content/uploads/The-End-and-Future-Exec-Summ-030322.pdf.

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