Hypothetical person: Question 1.1
I’m going off to college soon, and am wondering how to navigate Christian fellowship when in college.
I’ve never much liked youth groups, and found them kind of shallow. Maybe it was just problems with the specific ones I tried?
I don’t think my family would misunderstand if I decided I wanted to just live out my Christianity on my own. On the other hand, is it even proper for me to use the logic of “I think I might make more spiritual progress on my own” as a reason to not get super involved?
Might it be prudent to take them “out for a spin” first, as their “recruiting phase appearance” might vary greatly from normal operations?
-A concerned young person
Steven’s response: Question 1.1
Parachurch groups often tend towards superficiality
As a general rule, churches of today do not teach much of anything at all. When they do teach, it tends to be incorrect (or at least “not quite correct,” which is perhaps even more dangerous). More to the point of your question, this tendency towards superficiality is worse in parachurch groups, not better. This is so for a number of reasons:
- Parachurch groups tend to have less formal organizational structure, manifesting most noticeably in a lack of oversight by responsible and prepared individuals.
- Parachurch groups tend to lack leadership with any real qualifications (such as formal study in Greek and Hebrew).
- Parachurch groups tend to intentionally emphasize “social time” over “study time.”
Without the Word of God as the focus, problems inevitably arise
You may have heard the expression “nature abhors a vacuum.” So too in regards to truth. If the Word of God does not occupy the central place as it should, something else will inevitably creep into that role instead.
Emotion is a common “substitute” for the truth. While even more formally-organized churches (that is, “churches proper”) nowadays elevate emotion to a problematic degree, it tends to be worse in parachurch groups. Since there is as a rule even less substance in parachurch groups, even more emotion is injected into the void.
When people lack an edifice of truth to anchor them in their hearts, emotion sweeps them this way and that, like a boat being tossed upon the stormy waters. At first this may seem like great fun, but then the winds die down, the waves recede, and they find themselves adrift on the open sea with no point of reference and nothing to hold to. When the excitement dies down, in other words, a bit of self-reflection reveals a most bleak situation.
The cognitive dissonance that arises from this may drive people to even more problematic behavior. Between “hits” of emotion, people may become disconcerted by the hollowness and emptiness that stares them in the face. (Compare the ups and downs of heroin addiction, and even the natural peaks and valleys in energy caused by the hormone insulin). In such times, people may try to plaster over the emptiness by “doing good things” for God. The thought, I suppose, is that they might somehow make up for their irresponsible attitude to the truth. Unfortunately for them, that is not how things work. God doesn’t at all need us or our paltry works, works that are but dirty rags in the face of divine perfection, works inevitably and irreparably tainted by sinfulness and human frailty.
Examples of “good things” used to plaster over the emptiness
Many parachurch groups put a heavy emphasis on “evangelism” (note the scare quotes). It is true that all believers are called to evangelism to a degree (people with the spiritual gift of evangelism much more so than others). However, evangelism is a process that takes effort, humility, and more than anything else, time and patience.
To be clear, God can use any and every circumstance to win people to His truth – even a random, short-lived conversation with a stranger at the airport, for example.
The point is not setting up some arbitrary amount of time that must pass before something can be considered “real evangelism.” The point is that evangelism is serious business, and should not at all be handled cavalierly.
To put all this differently, doing evangelism responsibly requires a careful, considerate approach that values the salvation and subsequent spiritual growth of those being evangelized above all else. There is simply no room for anything else in the process.
Shoving flyers in people’s faces, accosting people on the street, putting on a marketing song and dance to get people to join the group… while these things may serve to plaster over the hollow emptiness, evangelism they are not. Annoying people does not win them for Jesus. It tends to do the opposite.
Rigorous adherence to standards of “proper” behavior
Many parachurch groups also put a heavy emphasis on “accountability partners” and adherence to certain standards of behavior. Now, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with a desire to evangelize, there is also nothing inherently wrong with being zealous about sanctification and the avoidance of negative moral influence. However, there is a problem with legalism, with making righteousness out to be a function of following a set of behavioral guidelines that are not even present in scripture.
Following a set of false legalistic standards oneself is bad enough. But, like the Pharisees, what is even worse is then trying to foist these false standards upon others, to meddle in their lives and regulate their behavior. Yet this is exactly the situation that often comes about when teaching of the Word of God is noticeably lacking, when the high of emotionalism has faded away. To plaster over the hole left from a lack of substantive Bible teaching, outward adherence to rules takes on inappropriate importance.
Pressuring and guilt-tripping other people to join in this folly of legalism (a practice unfortunately prevalent in many parachurch groups) is a form of the fallacy “safety in numbers.” In truth, it does not become even an ounce less insane when 50 people partake instead of 10. It does make the people partaking feel better about themselves, though.
Exceptions prove the rule
The above does not accurately describe absolutely every parachurch organization out there (and in fact different chapters of the same group will vary greatly campus to campus). It is possible that you will bump into one of the proverbial diamonds in the rough that happens to be holding tightly to the truth and teaching it substantively at every occasion. If so, rejoice! You have found a most rare thing.
The rest of the time, it is wise to adopt an attitude of prudent watchfulness before getting heavily involved in any such group. You may receive much flak for holding this “show me” attitude. But if you think about it a little bit, the fact that people argue against such is in fact quite silly. Does it not make sense for the default position to be “Not worth spending lots of my time on until proven useful and not spiritually harmful” rather than “I’ll spend lots of my time on this unless or until serious problems crop up”?
Would it be wise for an alcoholic to search for someone to help them on their path to sobriety in a bar full of drunk people?
In the same way, if you are looking for excellent Christian fellowship – friends who understand what spiritual growth, progress and production is really all about and are determined to do that which Christ has planned for them – the best place to look for them is not among the people that compose lukewarm parachurch groups. (Recall that while it is not fair to pre-judge each and every parachurch group before personally observing them – that is, every group is different, and must be individually evaluated before truly knowing in a specific case – it is in fact possible to generalize and say that many and probably even most can be fairly characterized as lukewarm).
You should feel no shame in turning elsewhere in search of meaningful Christian fellowship – including (although certainly not limited to) internet options. Supporting one another in the Body of Christ is important, to be sure, but don’t let certain lukewarm groups convince you that there is something wrong with things that aren’t in-person and geographically local. Scripture says this nowhere, and in fact, now that technology allows for us to be globally interconnected, the onus is on them to prove why there is something wrong with embracing the new opportunities that allow us to communicate the truth and enjoy each other’s company in more ways than ever before.
To put things bluntly, there is nothing wrong with doing things all online. There is also nothing wrong with doing things all in-person, or in some combination of the two that splits the difference. There is a problem when lukewarm in-person groups lay heavy guilt-trips upon people doing things all online to try and make them drink the group’s lukewarm kool-aid.
Don’t fall for it. Don’t look for your sobriety partner among the drunks, even if the drunks insist they are the only option for you.