Effective Giving: The Church-Parachurch Tension
In our affluent culture wealth can be deadly for your soul. It carries with it the burden of materialism and the idolatry of self-sufficiency. But in a world ravaged by problems ranging from AIDS and malaria to homelessness and poverty, wealth can be a powerful tool for demonstrating the love of Christ’s Kingdom. Unfortunately, even if someone of means honestly desires to use their resources for God’s glory they are faced with yet another obstacle, the dilemma of where to give their money.
If one is attempting to be generous with the resources God has blessed them with there are three main options for where to give: a personal connection with someone in need, a parachurch ministry that focuses on a specific issue or cause, or their local church. Giving directly to a person or family can be highly effective. There is no middleman to squander the resources and there is an actual face to represent the love of Christ. But the opportunity to give directly rarely arises due to a lack of connectedness and pride preventing people from making needs known. That means that the vast majority of giving is directed to either parachurch ministries or local churches.
Parachurch ministries and non-profits have grown to such ubiquity that virtually every need that exists has a distinct 501(c)(3) to deal with the specificity of the problem. The targeted approach of these parachurch ministries allows them to more effectively alleviate the problems they are focused on. The downside to the expansion of non-profits is that it has directed funding away from the local church and towards a more bureaucratic institution. If solving problems is the only thing we are worried about this is not a big deal, but the problem is that Christ did not directly institute parachurch ministries, He created the Church to be His extension here on earth. As David Platt put it in his book Radical, “It is not wise to bypass God’s primary agent for bringing redemption to the world in an effort to meet the needs of the world. His primary agent is the church.”
Even the word “parachurch” means “alongside,” or “next to” the church, it is not supposed to be a replacement for the Church. True, the Universal Church consists of believers everywhere, so in that sense any loving act, done in the name of Christ, is an extension of the Church. But we should not lightly move our acts of justice away from the visible Church. For only the Church can fully present the full scope of the Gospel. The narrow focus of parachurch ministries means that they cannot put forth the glory of Good News with all its nuance, complexity, and beauty. Truly, the Church is the Body of Christ, which means that non-profits are at best only one member of the body. By focusing giving towards parachurch ministries we have separated the local church from social action. Resulting in churches useing their tithes almost exclusively on self-sustaining activities, lacking the resources, the initiative, or both when it comes to visibly representing the love of Christ in their community or the world.
I feel I should caution myself, however, as the last thing I want to do is downplay or discourage all the wonderful work that comes from non-profits. Many thousands of ministries help many millions of people, all as an extension of their faith in Christ. What I am bemoaning is that we have come to the place where someone who desires to give their resources effectively has to direct his or her giving away from the local church. As a faith community we need to encourage parachurch ministries to do what their name implies, to come alongside the local church instead of working as a separate entity entirely. What is saying that our giving can’t be funneled through the local church and then distributed to specialized, effective ministries? The Body has many members, each with a different role. It is time for us to once again function as a body instead of a loose collection of pieces.