Monday, October 22, 2007

When the Bell Fell Silent: The Church, the Parachurch, and Christian Witness to the American University

The twentieth century was hard on evangelicals in many ways, despite our rise to some level of cultural prominence as the century wore on. Ecclesiastically, on matters of the local church, we ran up against some rocks. In short, we ceded much ground to the parachurch. Possessing too narrow a vision of church life, many of our local churches retracted from many areas of national life and gave that territory to fledgling organizations and ministries. Many of these entities did (and do) excellent work, and we can thank God for them and their faithful witness in an age when the local church dropped the ball. In the current day, however, when health spreads amongst the local churches of America, we are poised to reexamine the role of the parachurch in evangelical life, and to ask where it is overextending itself, and where the local church must claim back territory that it is responsible for.

In taking on this topic, which I will explore over the next several days, I am not suggesting that the parachurch has no role in evangelical life. Far from it. Parachurch organizations accomplish too much good to chart here. They are a part, and a necessary one, of Christian life. And yet we may say that in their attempt to address the deficiencies of the local church, some organizations have overextended themselves. This is not to say that they have no usefulness or role. That must be understood. But it is to say that in one area of evangelical life, campus ministry, the parachurch often dominates to such an extent that the local church must work around the parachurch. This is not an ideal situation, and it has harmful effects for many students and for the churches who lack any meaningful connection with them.

If you read carefully above, though, you read that the primary blame for this situation rests with the local church. It is fundamentally responsible for this situation. Where did this all begin? To start, many Christians altogether retreated from college campuses in the twentieth century. In the face of a rising tide of secularist thought and pagan practice, many evangelicals simply put out to sea, becoming isolated, lonely communities much like the drifting atolls found in Kevin Costner's film "Waterworld" (an underrated film, but this is entirely off the point). Possessing an over-realized sense of cultural separation--an instinct we all must have--these Christians and their local churches largely abandoned the college campus. Bewildered at the shocking practices of the younger generation, the rebelliousness of the Woodstock set, the immorality of the rock culture, and the anti-Christian philosophies of the academy, many Christians retreated from the paganism spreading all around them. It is no shock that they did so. Many had little intellectual training by which to engage secular thought and little familiarity with pagan practice. When confronted with these dual evils, believers failed to engage them, or failed to do so with sophistication, winsomeness, wisdom, and a bold, clear and logical apologetic. The result? As colleges turned from their Christian roots (which happened en masse between, roughly, the 1860s and the 1950s), abolishing chapel, embracing humanism, appointing unbelieving chaplains, and distancing themselves from their Christian roots, the American university was, in a Christian sense, all but lost. Where there once existed a vibrant and widespread Christian influence, symbolized by a busy and frequently occupied chapel characterized by a pleasantly resounding bell, now there was only spiritual wasteland. The local church and the university had separated. The divorce was complete.

The bell had fallen silent.

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Blogger Benjamin said...


Thanks for that very thoughtful post. I look forward to further installments!

I think one of the biggest dangers I've seen (whether it has been realized or not in the group's life) in college parachurch groups is that they have no theology of accountability to the local church. Rather than be primarily missional, they make strong theological statements (both structurally and explicitly) without any sense that they are accountable to local church leaders. This leads to them being the primary theological influence on college students despite not having biblically mandated leadership and accountability structures in place. That's why a group like InterVarsity can suddenly become exclusively egalitarian in their theology and structure, which has a huge influence on their student members, and yet claim that they, "serve" the local church!

Anyways, looking forward to your thoughts, especially on how pastors in university areas can wisely and practically move toward greater health in this area.


2:47 PM  
Blogger Bolo said...

Owen, it was good to chat with you today. I was encouraged.

If you'd like, here's the link to a post about that Ryan Fullerton sermon I mentioned:



9:39 PM  
Blogger Reid S. Monaghan said...

Owen, I am sure you have probably read it but George Marsden's The Soul of the American University, From Protestant Establishment to Established Unbelief is an excellent work. If you have not read it it is a joy of a read.

8:13 AM  

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