I surveyed over 500 pastors and executive directors of Christian ministries a while ago (here are the results) and discovered there is a consensus that how we refer to non-local church Christian ministries is a problem. Both pastors and executive directors objected to calling non-denominational ministries “parachurch” because para means alongside (hence outside). They see unaffiliated ministry as the body of Christ at work. We need a better way to refer to these ministries.

Some proposals

Jerry White proposed the more precise term para-local church back in 1983.  John Stackhouse used paracongregational when he spoke at a theological forum I arranged a few years ago to discuss church-parachurch relations. Orlando Costas likewise used the term para-ecclesiastical in his book. I understand their logic, but I do not think it is healthy to define something in terms of what it is not. It is much healthier to define it in terms of what it is. And the problem remains that a parachurch’s staff members are part of the congregations that the parachurch is supposedly standing beside. Furthermore, “beside” does not make sense at all if church refers to the universal church (that is, all Christians), since parachurch workers cannot stand beside themselves. I think we can do better than these terms.


After several years of thought on church-parachurch relations (writing my dissertation), agency appears to be the best one-word term to describe parachurch organizations. Agency conveys the idea of doing a task on behalf of someone else, and this is what parachurches do. On one level, they work on behalf of churches, denominations and/or the universal church to help get the church’s mission done. On another level, since each parachurch worker is an agent of God’s, they are working on behalf of God too. If the workers are agents, then the organizational structure they work within can be called an agency.

Using this terminology, we would refer to Christian churches and agencies. We could also call them unaffiliated agencies, self-governing agencies or non-denominational agencies if we wanted to emphasize a particular aspect of their governance structure. Agency avoids the baggage that parachurch has accumulated over the years and is a neutral term that makes no judgment about relative priority or value between these organizations and local churches. Agency is simply a descriptor.

I’ve thought about other terms, but to keep the term short, sweet and simple, I haven’t thought of anything better than agency. So, what do you think?  Write a comment!

Sign up for Christian Leadership Reflections today!

An exploration of Christian ministry leadership led by CCCC's CEO John Pellowe