The body of secularist water that washed over the American academy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was no mere wave. It was a tsunami. At one point there were many schools that educated students from a unapologetically Christian perspective; at another those same schools had utterly abandoned all commitments to Christianity and Christian education. For more on the rapidity and scope of this trend, see George Marsden’s excellent text The Soul of the American University.
As I noted yesterday, the American church was, relative to this trend, at a particularly weak point. The heritage of at least the northeast part of the country was Christian commitment of the stoutest brand, reformational puritanism. This tradition, as was true with, among other regional flavors of Christianity, southern Presbyterianism and certain strands of Southern Baptists, was staunchly biblical and credibly intellectual. In all of these traditions, men of strong faith and strong mind had dominated their local culture. Christians in such regions were not afraid of unbelieving thought, for their pastors could engage the thinkers of their day and were in the lifelong process of training the congregants to do the same. Yet the church weakened over time in all regions of the country as pragmatic thought, showy religion, increasingly taxed clergy, and the rapid growth of America all conspired to dilute the intellectual nature of Christianity in America. As the twentieth century dawned, many Christians had retreated from culture and now shied away from intellectual engagement. As I noted yesterday, the college campus was left to itself.
Here’s where we pick up. The parachurch saw this situation and sought to address it. Movements like InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, the Navigators, Baptist Campus Ministry, and others moved onto the college campus in an effort to engage lost students and to disciple saved students. Though these groups had some ties to the local church, they often emphasized more the importance of Christian fellowship on campus than of fellowship off campus in the local church. Christians on colleges formed their own little communities. These were often vibrant and passionately evangelistic, and discipleship was strongly emphasized by many of these groups. Where many (not all) local churches had turned their backs on the colleges, or simply stood by helplessly, unsure of how to reach out to students, the aforementioned parachurch groups sent in zealous young workers to minister to students, often with encouraging results. Students came to trust these ministries and to find their Christian identity in them. The parachurch had moved onto the campus, and a strong witness for Christ once again existed at many American universities.
But though this system accomplished much good, it possessed a significant weakness. The local church was marginalized by the work of these groups. The local church, the only institution founded by Christ, and the only institution perpetuated by His apostles and disciples, was also the only thing missing from the lives of many Christian college students. As health returned to many churches in the latter half of the twentieth century, as reformed theology trickled back into various ecclesiastical traditions, as men like Schaeffer and Henry called Christians back to cultural engagement and witness, the local church gained confidence and courage. Pastors rose up who were ready to speak to the culture and witness for Christ. Christians sought degrees and founded fellowships and programs to minister to college students. Yet many local churches found that it was very difficult to reassert themselves on campus in the face of established parachurch ministries. This is where we are today.
We have strong parachurch ministries who have done very faithful work in the past. These groups ensured that the torch did not go out, that a Christian witness was present on the campus of the American university. And yet many of these groups do not realize that, to put it plainly, the local church is back. In many places, it is healthy and vibrant, and it desires to reach students for Christ. The parachurch needs now to step back, to concentrate, perhaps, on evangelism, and to let churches be responsible for discipleship. The parachurch should, in my humble opinion, exist as an evangelistic supplement to the local church that funnels students to the local church. It should not exist as its own stand-alone organization that feeds students a rich diet and then spits them out at graduation without connection to a local church. I realize that these are strong words, but I believe strongly in two things: one, that the parachurch filled a need in the twentieth century with excellence and faithfulness, and two, that it must now recognize that it must give ground to the local church, and let the local church lead in discipling and evangelizing college students wherever strong local churches are found.