Os Guinness on the Parachurch Movement

The Last Christian on Earth: Uncover the Enemy's Plot to Undermine the Church As some of our readers know, Os Guinness is one of my favorite modern authors.  His work is not trendy and his books are not typically all very similar (as is the case with some other modern Christian authors’ books).  One of Guinness’ books that stick out in my mind is The Last Christian On Earth.  This book is a modern take on C. S. Lewis’ classic, The Screwtape Letters.

In Memorandum 7, the Deputy Director [the church’s chief enemy] writes to a subordinate to discuss how modernity and relevance will help them destroy the church.  He specifically targets the parachurch movement in one section.  Now, before being too critical of what follows, be sure to pick up on the nuances of the discussion.  I was going to edit it for length, but it was too difficult to do while still capturing the logic.  (Note: my underlines below are words that Guinness italicized).  Here it is:

“Christians have always shown a curious inability to consider things from a long-term perspective.  Most have been blind to the dynamics of a parachurch movement.  How else could they fail to see the natural stages of its trajectory?”

“Put simply, there is first a man or woman with a vision of something lacking in the wider church.  Next, there are people who share that vision, and gather around the pioneer to support his stand.  Then, there is a movement, structured and organized to express that vision and thrust it on its way.  Finally, after however many years, with the hallowed portrait of the founder smiling down on the boardroom of his or her successors, all there is left is a monument.  In short, rationalization not only quenches the true Christian spirit, it helps turn the revolutionary into the routine, the insight into an institution.  The trap is slower and less glamorous than the Midas touch of consumer religion, but just as deadly in the end.”

“An important part of our game here is bluff.  Leaders of parachurch ministries are well aware that to succeed in their task they must feed their contribution back into the local churches.  Their job, they say, is to put themselves out of a job.  And, of course, they are right.  Nothing would arrest rationalization faster.  But out of many thousands who pay lip service to this principle, only a handful actually follow it.  Most parachurch ministries clutter the ground long after their days of usefulness are over.”

“We bluff them by agreeing with them.  We urge them to make ‘service’ their motto and their theme song, knowing that service is addictive once it becomes the source of their identity (and income).  Slowly they get hooked.  At first they are needed, and they serve.  Soon they both need to serve to be needed, and they need needs to serve.  Before long, they become experts in service.  And, because indispensable servants often become indistinguishable from masters, they finish as masters, not servants.  In the end, they put the local churches out of a job, not themselves.”

“You can see why we assign field agents only in the early stages.  After a certain point the shift from ministry to movement to monument becomes automatic, and the rationalization does its own work.  Parachurch ministries start with service as their motto and end with it as their epitaph.  We cannot have too many such movements.  There are a few exceptions to this, but these are extremely rare” (p. 141-2).

Os Guinness, The Last Christian On Earth: Uncover the Enemy’s Plot to Undermine the Church (Ventura: Regal, 2010).

shane lems


11 comments on “Os Guinness on the Parachurch Movement

  1. Steve Bloem says:

    Wow! As a executive director of a non profit agency; I felt this was narrow minded and pejorative.
    Perhaps I am missing something. Many people in local church ministries go through the same “phases” that he mentioned.


    • Dear Steve:
      Guinness was being blunt and straightforward, although the literature was not a genre we’re used to reading. He was writing “as if” these were enemies of the church trying to tear her down.

      Also, when I read it, it seemed to me that Guinness wasn’t saying all parachurch ministries are bad and should be abandoned. Rather, I read it as a good, blunt reminder to parachurch ministries that they must serve the church and never become an end in themselves. Make sense? In other words, parachurch ministries can quickly end up weakening the church rather than serving and strengthening her.

      If you’ve read Screwtape Letters by Lewis, his “demons” in the book say some similar things about the church, so churches can learn from Lewis’ remarks – just like parachurches can learn from Guinness’ remarks. Hope that helps! Take Guinness’ words as a good reminder on how to serve in//through your ministry.

      Thanks for the comments, brother,


      • Steve Bloem says:

        Shane, Thanks for the clarification. I am a very much a local church man and have always been one. I think a non-profit agency should be part of the Great Comission and work through the church. Thanks again In Christ, Steve


        • Thanks for the response, Steve. I did guess (rightly!) that you are devoted to Christ’s church; after you responded, I was hoping the post would encourage you to be one of the “exceptions” mentioned in the last sentence of the above quote. And “amen” on your words, “…through the church.”


  2. johntjeffery says:

    Wow! Just…WOW! This certainly needed to be said, and no one can do so better than Guinness. Even if few churches or parachurch leaders attempt to stem the tide, it is good to know that someone this significant sees the seriousness and danger of this issue, and is willing to expose it. I remember a parachurch leader years ago claiming that “God is making an end run around the local church.” At least he was honest, even if blasphemous.


  3. Truth2Freedom says:

    Reblogged this on Truth2Freedom's Blog.


  4. several good points here!

    One thing that is different nowdays is that since the advent of blogging platforms, it’s possible to do online ministry (teaching and mutual support) without any large sums of money being involved.

    Of course, many para-church ministries use their websites to collect donations, market their key speakers so they can get paid big bucks for addressing churches and conferernces, and of course to sell ‘product’. But the blog platform does not require this, so if people are interested in doing so, they can NOT ask for donations and NOT draw any salary — and yet run a pretty valuable ministry.

    Such a para-church ministry will only keep going for the duration of the energy and ability of the individuals doing it. It is unlikely to become a monument, I would think.

    This kind of ministry is what we are seeking to do at A Cry For Justice. We don’t ask for donations. We none of us receive payment for all our hours spent on the blog, writing and interacting with surivors of domestic abuse. Jeff Crippen makes peanuts from his book sales (due to the terms of the contract he signed with his publisher. . sigh, traps for young players. . . ). And I myself make far less than a living wage from my book sales. I am fortunate to have some inherited assets which have enabled me to live this way.

    The only money that A Cry For Justice gathers is the tiny percentage we get from being Amazon Associates, which meanst that when people click on a link in our ‘recommended books’ list, and get taken to Amazon and purchse the book, we get about 4% of the retail price. And we use that money to send free copies of our books or make small monetary gifts to victims of abuse who are in financial dificulties; and to pay the ~$40 per year to keep the blog free of ads. :)

    tip for anyone wanting to start blogging:
    use WordPress, not Blogger. WordPress is much more user-friendly.


    • Thanks for the helpful words, Barbara. You’re right; and it sounds like you guys are aiming to be the “exception” that was mentioned in the last sentence of the quote above (as I noted to Steve).


  5. Having been involved in the Para church movement in my younger years I am thankful I had a good biblical grounding before I ventured down that path. It inoculated me against the elitism and hyper spiritualism that often goes hand in hand with these movements. Also I am thankful that I had a good grounding in theology that prevented the idealism from overwhelming me as well. Sadly I have observed that many who join the Para church movement can no longer function within a regular church environment. Those who are converted through the efforts of the para-church are often so indoctrinated by that particular groups ethos that they can’t function outside of it either and become some militant they do more harm than good. I observed a lot of spiritual pride that paraded itself of discernment but in actuality was sinners playing Holy Spirit. I could write my own book but I think you get the impression


    • Chrissymonds: thanks for the comments. I suppose you understand what Guinness was getting at in the quotes above. While there are good stories about parachurch ministries, there are also quite a few horror stories to go along with them! I hope you’re doing well in a solid local church since your bad experiences in the past.



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