Historically, there are two kinds of structures that God has used: (1) local churches and denominations, and (2) parachurch organizations that are independent of the church—such as mission societies, Bible societies, evangelistic organizations, and social welfare institutions. The origins of modern parachurch organizations are rooted in the West, where the situation of the church differs vastly from than that of the church in other parts of the world. Here, I argue the need for a new model for parachurch ministry that is more suited to churches in non-Western contexts.1
The two models
In the old model, churches send money and talent to support parachurch groups in order to reach the world. These parachurch organizations pool resources and recruit members from a wide range of churches towards specific causes or activities that are difficult for local churches to accomplish by themselves.
This kind of approach has many advantages for the Western church, where resources have been abundant, but this model has proven more difficult for the non-Western church. For example, many local congregations in Japan, while they might approve of the cause, come to view parachurch groups not as a help but as a distraction or a drain of precious talent.
A new model for the non-Western world must take into account that resources are often scarce and that the churches may not be able to send their best and brightest to other organizations. In this model, the parachurch ministries become servants of the servants of the Lord. Their goal is not to relieve the church of doing difficult ministry but to make that ministry less difficult.
In this new model, parachurch groups provide training and resources to support churches in order to reach the world.
Examples of the new models
When I founded CRASH Japan (crashjapan.com), I wanted to avoid making a Christian disaster-relief organization that would have to keep responding to disasters to justify its existence and asking churches for funding. Rather, our purpose was to empower local churches to respond to disasters in their regions. Our method was to train churches, network information, and provide initial leadership during a crisis, but with the goal of seeing churches engage in lasting ministries of compassion in their communities. Of course, this was exceedingly difficult during the full-blown crisis of the 2011 tsunami, but we held onto the following three core values.
The first value was always to listen to the pastors and respond with what they needed. In the first weeks of the disaster, they often needed a buffer—someone to stand between them and an unending stream of requests for help from the community and offers to help from the outside. As time went on, they needed periods of rest, help with understanding trauma and self-care, extra staff to handle the workload, and a network of peers with whom to share their burden.
Our second value was to be patient. In typical parachurch fashion, we were often more effective and efficient than the local church because we concentrated on one thing and had pooled resources and volunteers to devote to it. But if we had sidestepped the church and simply done the job for them, we would have defeated our own purpose of strengthening. So there was a careful balance of patiently including the local church despite the extra cost in time and effort, knowing that these relationships would be crucial for the next steps.
The third value was to partner with local churches and help them take ownership of their own relief ministry. This required us to get smaller in order to allow the church to get bigger. We needed to reduce our footprint, our leadership, our control of finances and decision making so that the churches could step up to the challenges in their own communities.
The 4/14 Window Network Japan
The focus of the 4/14 Window Network (4to14window.jp) is to encourage children’s ministry in Japan. This is especially because over half of the churches no longer have a children-focused ministry and the demographics of the church are in a much worse state than the aging general population. The network’s goal is to bring children back into churches. But what drew me to this effort was how the 4/14 Window Network globally has set about this task. Their main function is to network leaders of churches with parachurch ministries, with the express intent of strengthening the churches to reach children. The parachurch groups come into these events not to promote their own organization or recruit staff or volunteers but to share their expertise and resources with churches that are looking to reach children. The key point that makes this a new-model type of parachurch ministry is that each ministry is there to share something with the greater body of Christ.
BibleKids YouTube channel
Media ministries are probably one of the worst offenders when it comes to asking churches for funding. Broadcast and production are both expensive and quality programming comes at a high price. The key to making the first season of BibleKids available for free on YouTube (www.youtube.com/BibleKids) was eliminating as many of these costs as possible. We collaborated with CGNTV Japan on production, who aired the show first on their network and did all of the filming and post-production processes. Scriptwriting, artwork, and acting were all done by our ministry, GraceJapan. Because we were able to create the show very cheaply, we are now able to make it available online for free.
Our goal is to help churches that do not have a regular children’s ministry have something solid to offer first-time or irregular visitors with children. The show’s 24 episodes teach through Genesis in Japanese and link to children’s praise and easy paper crafts. Getting churches to buy a DVD or curriculum when they don’t have any children currently attending is a difficult proposition. Cutting production costs and using free online distribution allows us to meet our goal.
New model for parachurch ministry
As you consider what makes a parachurch ministry successful in Japan, I would encourage you not to do ministry in place of the church, but to serve the church as they seek to do ministry. This requires a humble attitude, a willingness to listen to their needs, refraining from doing things for them, and intentional reduction in leadership and responsibility. We need to carefully consider the balance of taking versus giving and make sure we never become a burden on the church but continue to be a blessing.
To accomplish this, we need to rethink our business models and funding, strive for lean and effective structures, and embrace new technologies that allow decentralized distribution and communication. If we are willing to do these things, we will be able to continue to be relevant to churches outside of the Western context.
- Jonathan E. Wilson, How Christian Volunteers Can Respond to Disasters: Lessons from the 2011 Japan Tsunami (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014). Available on Kindle at https://www.amazon.com/How-Christian-Volunteers-Respond-Disasters-ebook/dp/B00KFA8OQC
Jonathan Wilson (US) is the founding pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship in Ome, Tokyo, and director of OpSAFE International, a Tokyo-based non-profit organization training churches to bring psychological first-aid to children after disaster. He has authored several books.