Christian missions do not have a good track record in collaboration. In the early days of the nineteenth century, the activities of missions in Africa closely resembled the land grabbing campaigns of European nations in the so-called “rush for Africa.” In Eating Africa, Cedric Pulford records that in Uganda, “The Catholics felt it their duty to counter the heretics. The Protestants felt a parallel duty to correct the errors of the Church of Rome.”1 A few years later bitter rivalry broke out between competing missions in Zanzibar, rivalry which played into the hands of local Muslim rulers.2
Of course, evangelical missions have not only competed with Catholics, but also with each other, and in some contexts continue to do so today. In the early 1990s we witnessed not the “rush for Africa,” but the rush into the ex-Soviet Union, with many missions claiming exclusive relationships with churches and church leaders in Russia, Romania, Ukraine, and elsewhere—a competition which sometimes led to corruption (as small national churches received multiple large donations, sometimes for the same purposes) and wasted resources.
The picture, of course, is not all negative. In the nineteenth century a series of “comity agreements”3 preserved the peace between rival bands of missionaries. The negative effects, however, of these agreements on Christian unity continue to this day, with a high degree of territorialism still evident in inter- and intra-denominational relations around the world. Where real partnership and collaborative ministry have taken place, it has often been occasioned by adverse contexts. Four examples will suffice.
Example 1: In 1949, Dr. Bob Fleming gained permission to enter the closed kingdom of Nepal with two colleagues. Struck by the medical needs of the people, they determined to meet these needs in the name of Christ. When, in 1953, permission was granted to open a hospital in Tansen, Fleming extended an invitation to any who would join him in this challenging country where conversion was illegal.4 So the United Mission to Nepal was born in 1954.
Example 2: In 1966, the International Assistance Mission began a similar way in Afghanistan, with a focus on eye care. It has remained in the war-torn country, currently bringing together workers from nearly forty different agencies.
Example 3: In Europe, when Albania first became accessible to Christian mission in 1991, a group of evangelicals formed the Albanian Encouragement Project, which now brings together over seventy mission agencies for collaborative work within that country.
Example 4: Also in 1991, a number of workers associated with Interdev began the Central Asian Consultation,5 which today continues to foster collaboration in that region and has spawned numerous regional partnerships.
The implications of Trinitarian theology for collaborative mission have not always been readily understood. However, in recent decades Jurgen Moltmann6, Leonardo Boff7, Miroslav Volf8, and others have reminded us of the corporate and collaborative nature of the being and life of God in Trinity and its implications for those who find themselves created in God’s image.
The Missio Dei is by definition a collaborative action by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 14:26) and also a divine action which invited human participation, if not collaboration: “As the Father sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). God has no need to engage humanity as agents of his own mission; rather, he chooses the risky course of partnership. This point is further underlined by Jesus’ own calling of disciples as co-workers to whom he eventually entrusts the task of global mission (Matthew 28:18-20).
It is also significant that Jesus seems to have chosen as his co-workers a group of disciples with quite different theological and social outlooks—zealots, Roman-sympathisers, Galileans, and even perhaps those with Essene links.9 He saw strength in building diversity-rich partnerships.
Paul, the Collaborator
Paul is often portrayed as the great pioneer of mission. He was—but he was not a “David Livingstone, go-it-alone” pioneer. Careful examination of the text shows that he was in fact an accomplished collaborator, building networks of shared ministry.10
He counted among his co-workers local ministers such as Aquila and Priscilla (1 Corinthians 16:19), fellow itinerant preachers such as Barnabas (Acts 13:2) and Silas (Acts 15:40), young recruits like Timothy (Acts 16:3), and many more (Romans 16:21-24). He also took to task churches who sought to create division within the growing missional network (1 Corinthians 1:12-17), the Church of Christ.
With this foundation of Trinitarian mission, the example of Jesus, and the practice of the apostles, a firm pattern has been established for collaboration and partnership in mission. But what might this look like in the context of the twenty-first century?
The Faith2Share network of mission agencies and churches is a small example of what collaboration in mission might mean today. I use it first because I know its work intimately, but also because it sits on the cutting edge of many of the more difficult issues surrounding effective collaboration in mission. It is an experiment in doing things differently.
The story began in 1999, when leaders of five Anglican missions decided that 150 years of working apart was long enough. They wanted to explore what they could do together. For the first few years, it was no more than a fellowship (or a peer-mentoring group) of senior leaders of a few agencies. However, the numbers grew and in 2004, meeting in Bangalore, India, they recognized that God was doing something special. Faith2Share was born.
Today, the network has twenty-one full-member agencies located on five continents, supports around six thousand mission workers, and works with about forty smaller indigenous mission movements. There are many networks of mission agencies; what is unusual about Faith2Share is that it has deliberately chosen to structure itself in such a way that it is forced to confront some of the more challenging issues in missional collaboration.
For example, although there are only twenty-one full-member agencies, the network is deliberately comprised of Asian, African, European, Australasian, Latin American, and North American agencies. (The five trustees and two staff are Singaporean, American, Kenyan, British, Canadian, Russian, and Ethiopian.) Being multicultural is not easy, but it puts us on the road to Revelation 7:9.
The network also includes agencies of different sizes and financial resources. These differences enable us to explore, sometimes painfully, the issues of power and control.
As well as giving structure and purpose to Faith2Share, the 2004 meeting in Bangalore had two additional outcomes. First, it saw members adopting a clear mission to become a resource base out of which new mission movements might grow. Second, it became a place where those who were recently becoming a mission movement might find encouragement, mentoring, fellowship, and prayer. That vision remains central to the self-understanding of the network. The network exists to advocate for collaboration and to encourage the birthing of a myriad of new mission movements wherever God’s Spirit is moving.
The Dark Side of Collaboration
This article has argued that missional collaboration is required as a true expression of the collaborative nature of the mission of God. Faith2Share sees itself as an advocate for collaboration, but it has not always been easy. I share the below five struggles we have experienced so that other networks and agencies could better prepare for obstacles in partnership.
- Lack of trust between leaders. Trust needs to be built up over extended periods of time with a focus on prayer, fellowship, and personal (not ministry) relationships.
- Misunderstandings over resources, principally money. Resources can easily be used as power, and power without vulnerability divides.
- Differing cultural styles of leadership. We have had to learn how to appreciate different styles of leadership and to be brave enough to honestly (and humbly) critique each other.
- Different understandings of accountability. Some think of accountability in terms of finances, others in terms of personal relationships, or the use of time, while still others focus first on spiritual accountability. Which takes priority?
- Inertia. It is much easier (we think!) to go on doing things alone, exactly as we always did. But we need to look around. Do multinational companies act alone? Do academics not collaborate on global research projects? And what about political activists? Does God act alone?
As God so graciously invites us to participate in his mission, we need the grace to recognize that “our mission” does not mean “my mission”—it means “God’s mission.”
1. Pulford, Cedric. 1999. Eating Uganda: From Christianity to Conquest. U.K.: Ituri Publications, 44.
2. See especially chapter 3 in Kollman, Paul. 2005. The Evangelization of Slaves: And Catholic Origins in Eastern Africa. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
3. Falconer, Alan. 2004. “The Future of Protestantism: Ecumenism and the Mainline Denomination.” In The Blackwell Companion to Protestantism. Eds. Alister McGrath and Darren Marks. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell.
4. 2003. Fifty Years in God’s Hand, 1954-2004: Blessings of the Past, Visions for the Future. Nepal: United Mission to Nepal, 13ff.
5. See Wood, Rick. 1999. “What Is It Like to Be a Partnership Facilitator?” Mission Frontiers, Bulletin of the US Center for World Missions September-December.
6, Moltmann, Jurgen. 1993 . Theology of Hope. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press.
7. Boff, Leonardo. 2005 . Trinity and Society. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock Publishers.
8. Volf, Miroslav. 2006. “Being as God Is: Trinity and Generosity.” In God’s Life in Trinity. Eds. Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press.
9. See, for example, Bennett’s discussion on Jesus’ links with the Essenes in Bennett, Clinton. 2001. In Search of Jesus: Insider and Outsider Images. New York: Continuum, 359.
10. See Schnabel, Eckhard. 2008. Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic.
10. See Schnabel on “co-workers.” Ibid., 249-255.