Monday, May 20, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we head to the mailbag to answer questions about a famous parachurch organization.

It is the 20th of May 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


A happy Monday- if you observe the church calendar, we have entered Pentecost, and now we are in the delightfully named “ordinary season”- not terribly inventive, but don’t worry, it only lasts until Advent.

Also- yes, this fall, I am leading a tour of Germany that has open spots! It’s at, and it is this September, not October- but that’s why you should go to and check out the details to make sure.

Let’s head to the mailbag- to Don in Fort Collins Colorado who asked two related questions, the first about “para-church” organizations in general and the second about a group he was involved with, the Navigators. Fort Collins, of course, home to 2009’s truly bizarre Balloon Boy Hoax (look it up!)

Ok, first, the question of a “para-church” organization. Essentially, it is an organization that works in ministry but not as an ecclesiastical structure- there is likely no pastor- no worship, sacraments, etc.. First, we need to put ourselves in context- that is, we are in the modern West where for centuries the church and state have enjoyed relative peace. You might seek out other believers for mutual aid and support, but there has been very little restricting Christians from obtaining services wherever they are offered.

Into the Industrial Revolution, with the state unable to care for all the poor, we see Christian ministries come together, often in broader unions than would be allowed if they didn’t have a legitimate secular purpose. We have seen the growth of a particular kind of American para-church ministry- the youth and college-based ministry. Here, we have groups like Young Life and Intervarsity (both from 1941). Campus Crusade (wisely rebranded as Cru) came to us in 51, and while they have Athletes in Action, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes began in 1954. One hypothesis says that as Christianity and culture became more antagonistic in the second half of the last century, there was a need for alternative places of fellowship as what the culture was offering was increasingly opposed to Christianity. I can see that or how that perception would lead to the growth of these ministries in the last century. And Don, being in Colorado, you must see a lot of these as that has become the kind of de-facto capital of Christian Para-church ministries.

The Navigators began in the early 1930s by Dawson Trotman in Southern California. Trotman was a high school convert- he went to a youth group for a girl and found he could memorize scripture better than anyone else. After high school he went into lumber work but volunteered with local youth groups. He was encouraged to attend nearby BIOLA.

He had met with a young man in the navy at the request of the man’s mother. Les Spencer would go on to teach other men to teach other men and by the end of World War II there were thousands of Christians who were taught the methods for prayer and bible study originating under Trotman. On account of their beginnings with the Navy the “Navigators” seemed an appropriate name. Trotman would make his “B rations” that is, bible verses to be memorized and meditated upon.

As a group they emphasize discipleship and personal relationships. They emphasize memorization as a key to stay in the Scriptures. They are generally evangelical with a stress on personal responsibility and daily bible study and prayer.

Trotman would die tragically in 1956 at a Navigators retreat in upstate New York when a boat he was in tossed he and a young girl into the lake. Knowing she couldn’t swim, Dawson held her up until the last second when she could be rescued, but he succumbed to the water.

Navigators would be heralded by Billy Graham, who helped the company with its tracts and memorizing techniques reach a global audience. NavPress, their publishing arm, is best known for its Bible studies but has also published the works of Brennan Manning and Dallas Willard. Their bestselling book is most likely ‘The Message” Eugene Peterson’s translation and paraphrase. With college ministries, there is always the warning that “your mileage may vary” as zealous youth can quickly become “overzealous youth,” but Navigators has been a leader in the field of bible studies, tools and other resources for over a half-century. Thanks for the question, Don. You can send me your questions at


 The last word for today is from the daily lectionary from 1 Corinthians 12- appropriate as we have just entered Pentecost.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 20th of May 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who grew out of being an overzealous youth- he’s now overzealous in middle age. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who needs to know we all got into the Balloon Boy…2009…  it was a different world. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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