Nov 27, 2017


8 Ways to Bridge the Gap Between the Church and Parachurch

Andy Cimbala shares some ways he has found to bridge the gap between the church and parachurch college ministries.

In Pennsylvania there is a war between two gas station convenience stores: Wawa and Sheetz. Some students have very strong opinions! Honestly, it makes sense – they’re both in the same state, targeting the same market, trying to grab the same customers. They are true competitors, like Coca Cola vs Pepsi, or Verizon vs AT&T. This is the sort of competition that can breed hostility among loyalists, like Steelers fans and Ravens fans.

The relationship between church and college ministry organizations can feel like that between Sheetz and Wawa. It can feel like they are competitors trying to grab the same customers. There has often been hostility between the church and parachurch over the years, and many efforts have been made to ease this tension. How can we work together?

Collegiate Collective has a diverse readership, which is a great benefit, especially in discussion on our Facebook group. Some are on staff with parachurch ministries like Cru. Some are on staff at local churches. Some are on staff with denominational campus organizations like BCM.

I work on staff with DiscipleMakers, a parachurch ministry based in Pennsylvania, and have been in the parachurch world for over 10 years. So I want to speak more specifically to those in my shoes: fellow parachurch laborers on staff with groups like Cru, Navigators, InterVarsity, CCO, and YoungLife. These are AWESOME ministries, and I praise God for them – but the parachurch should not be a substitute for the local church. We should work WITH the church. Because the parachurch is a mission OF the church.

Parachurch college ministry leaders have a unique and strategic role as bridges between the campus and the local church. Be a bridge.

This bridge role is vital and important! It means getting the local church to engage with the campus, and getting the campus plugged into the local church. Students need local churches, and local churches need to participate in the mission of making disciples of college students. I want to help you see this opportunity and maximize it for the good of the church and the glory of Christ!

How can you — as a parachurch college ministry staff — be a bridge between the campus and the local church? Here are 8 ways:

  1. Lead by Example: Don’t talk about loving the local church if you’re not loving the local church. You must set the example in your own life. Find a great church, and plug in deeply. This will be costly! It may mean devoting one night a week to a church small group instead of being on campus, but you need this for your own spiritual stability and growth. YOU will be blessed as you commit to a local body of believers and serve joyfully. Encourage your students to follow your example by plugging in deeply.
  2. Encourage Students to Go to Church: Kind of obvious, but let’s not miss this one. Invite students on a Saturday to attend church with you the next morning. Post online about church options and rides. Make sure that your student leaders are setting a good example by being plugged in deeply with a local church. Ask them what they’re learning. Don’t assume that students are plugged in -many are not. An invitation goes a long way! We share at our large group meeting every week, “We’re so glad you’re here, but we’re a fellowship on campus, we’re not a church. Check out the sidebar in your bulletin for a list of recommended local churches.”
  3. Meet with Local Pastors: Nothing beats a face-to-face meeting with a local pastor. This builds trust and establishes a connection that can bring fruit in the future. Share about your ministry so they can know what you do. Ask them about their church and what kind of opportunities you may be able to partner with. Invite them to visit your large group meeting on campus, and point them out so students can meet them in person. When I make a good connection with a pastor, we usually add them to our list of recommended churches that we share with students. Perhaps add them to your ministry newsletter so they can stay up to date and pray. Chances are, that pastor has been in this area for decades, and has a much greater and longer love for the campus than you do! Don’t miss out on the opportunity to build a bridge with a ministry partner and prayer warrior.
  4. Connect with MORE churches: One of my practices over the years is reaching out to churches within 30 minutes of our campus. Many of our students are local, so I can be a bridge between the church and the campus, as they graduate from high school and enter into college. Getting plugged into an on-campus Bible study can be a HUGE way they continue to grow, and will further strengthen their involvement in their local church. I’ve reached out to almost 100 churches in my area to try to establish a relationship and form a bridge to care for their graduates. It’s a great way to connect with incoming freshmen!
  5. Invite Local Pastors to Teach: This is such a blessing! Not only does it give you a break from your normal teaching load, but it helps bring diversity into your large group meeting teaching. Even better, it shows the college students that there isn’t a divide between church and parachurch, but rather partnership and ministry TOGETHER. This semester we invited a local pastor to teach on church planting, it was awesome! This is one of the easiest and most fruitful ways to be a bridge. Invite local pastors to teach.
  6. Ask Churches for Financial Support: Is this awkward? It doesn’t have to be! Give other churches the opportunity to invest in God’s work on campus. Let them have some skin in the game! Do students need help attending conferences? Do staff workers need monthly ministry support? Do you have a special project? Maybe offer to preach to give the pastor a break some Sunday and when you ask those churches, they may want you to come share about your ministry, which is an even better opportunity! Do that with joy.
  7. Be Creative in Ways to Partner: One thing we’ve done several years now is ask local churches to host free college lunches for their students. We advertise and recruit on campus to get students to come. And then during lunch that day we just sit back and praise God for the great connections these students are making with local church pastors and leaders! It’s really a win/win. We also have asked local churches to help us with freshmen move in. One year the older ladies in one church knitted several boxes of scarves for our students, in blue & red, the school colors! Other years a local church has provided food for our off-campus welcome cookout or end-of-year cookout. We’ve hosted our regional men’s retreat at a local church. So many opportunities! This reinforces the need to build trusting connections with local pastors.
  8. Train Future Church Leaders: My vision and desire is that every year we can graduate future church leaders! They are trained, equipped, and ready to go as Bible study leaders, evangelists, child ministry workers, media volunteers, and future elders and deacons – maybe even church planters and pastors! College ministry is a leadership pipeline for church planters, and the college campus is one of the best training grounds for the grueling work of ministry & missions. That’s one of the big reasons so many of us have devoted our lives to college ministry. We train students to make disciples for the rest of their lives. We see the opportunity to reach the world by reaching the campus!

That’s just a short list! There’s much more to say about the relationship between church & parachurch, and folks have said it better than me. For more on this topic, please check out the following articles: Church and ParaChurch: Friend or Foe? by Steve Shadrach and The Local Church and Parachurch Must Work Together to Reach the College Campus by Tim Casteel.

For all my fellow parachurch ministry leaders: please do not try to be a substitute for the local church. We aren’t competing. We are a mission OF the church. We are part of the church. We are served by the church. We serve and resource the church. Let’s not ignore local pastors, refuse their resources, or defer partnerships, rather let’s be a bridge. Let’s connect students into good local churches not just to be blessed, but to BE a blessing through serving. Let’s be better together, for God’s glory and the advancement of His kingdom on campus and beyond!

about the author

Andy Cimbala

Andy Cimbala and his wife Melissa have a passion to make disciples of college students. They work with DiscipleMakers at Shippensburg University, leading Bible studies and mentoring leaders. Andy has written a book called The Relentless Fight.