Partnering in Mission: A Better Way to Change the World

The face of the Church in the world today is very different than at the last major Lausanne meetings in 1976 and 1989. At the heart of the Lausanne Movement is an expression of the universality of the gospel, an open invitation to all humanity so that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9). As the Lausanne meetings in Cape Town demonstrate, there is both great celebration for how God is moving through and in his people today, and enormous concern for the immense task in front of his Church.

This month’s Lausanne World Pulse gives special attention to the role of coalitions, networks, partnerships, alliances, and other forms of collaboration in the mission of the Global Church. To display the richness of the partnership topic, we are including articles written by thinkers from the Eastern world, the Latin American world, and the Southeast Asian world, all reflecting on examples of working partnerships.

In “Using the Wok in the Oven: The Challenge of East-West Partnerships,” Rudolf Mak uses the banquet analogy to share collaboration efforts established between the East and the West—notably between China and the West—along with bringing out issues related to these collaborations and the lessons learned. Mak lists five lessons to be learned from the challenge of East-West partnerships.

  1. Platforms for collaboration boost the formation of partnerships. “If there is no platform for exchange and to establish relationship, there will be no partnership.” This speaks to the value of Lausanne congresses and other international gatherings that provide natural platforms for collaboration.

  2. The difficulties of collaboration are worth it. “It takes significant work to set up each partnership. But [in several cases]…the only way to accomplish the goal was to have collaboration.”
  3. Bridge agents are vital. “The importance of the gatekeeper or the bridge agent cannot be overemphasized” in constructing partnerships, and “have a unique role to play.”
  4. Clear goals and objectives enable evaluation. “The partners need to clearly define the goals and objectives.” If not, what is viewed as a failure using certain criteria might be considered a success using other criteria.
  5. Cross-training can bridge cultural divides. “There are different worldviews and values involved among the different partners. East and West do not mix automatically and even if they do, they may not mix well.” People who can understand multiple worldviews become invaluable.

In a second article, Hugo Morales and Douglas Livingston describe “The Story of Cooperación MAYA,” a case study in the formation and growth process of a partnership that grew from one church’s vision into a multiple-church, international partnership that is still going strong sixteen years later. Morales and Livingston draw out lessons learned from this adventure of faith. In summary:

  1. Partnership amplifies mission vision. Even churches considered “small” can fulfill the Great Commission because “when there is a willingness to work with others, resources are multiplied.”

  2. Cooperation brings excellent side benefits. “The fruit of relationships between the member churches has led to learning from each other’s experiences, sharing resources in other areas of ministry, and forming close ties of communication and mutual support between the leaders of the various churches.”
  3. Leadership involvement determines alliance growth. “An alliance advances to the degree that the leadership of its members are involved.” With pastors and missions leaders participating, “there is greater ongoing commitment, more fluidity in the work, and better communication with the church body.”
  4. Partnership demands long-term commitment. “Any cooperation, including mission work, is a divine, long-term commitment. A relational process needs time.”

In “God’s Doing in Southeast Asia,” Stanley Ow relates the stories of the rise of a family of partnerships and networks actively linking together mission work in Southeast Asia, including South East Asia Link (SEALINK); the broader Buddhist World-focused SEANET; the SEA Prayer Council (SEAPC); and Transform World South East Asia (TSEA).

To know the status of Christian mission in Southeast Asia is to know about these collaborative networks.

Essential Foundations of Partnering Initiatives
If these stories demonstrate anything, it is that partnerships do not just happen by themselves. Some catalyst sparks them into being.

In an ideal world, Christian churches, ministries, and organizations would spontaneously choose to work together to advance the Kingdom of God and see millions become members of Christ’s body. In reality, it does not work that way. Churches, agencies, and ministries are isolated from the broader experiences of others and often do not know how to access available skills or expertise.

The prime question before us is: Will the thousands of ministry leaders emerging from within the Global Church work together in partnership—or will they perpetuate the old paradigm of individualistic action? Our global impact and faithfulness to God’s call depends upon us choosing partnering ministry over individual ministry.

The Bible calls us to partner as widely as possible as a fundamental expression of faith.

The Biblical Call to Collaboration
Scripture is full of models, principles, and admonition for us as we work together in partnership. For centuries, Christians have felt they could be more effective in touching the people of their community (and changing the world) if they could work together.

Here are a few promises found in scripture that are offered to us when we work together.

  • We demonstrate the power of the gospel to change lives, thus producing open, trusting relationships (see Philippians 2:1-11).

  • The Holy Spirit's power is released in ways only possible when we dwell in unity and work together (see Psalm 133; Galatians 5:16-26).
  • We demonstrate good stewardship. Working together, we maximize our use of the resources God has given us as costs drop and effectiveness increases (see Matthew 25:14-30).
  • The credibility of our message is strengthened. Jesus says that those watching us are more likely to believe that he is who he says he is when we work together. This is particularly true in traditional, community-based cultures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (see John 5:31-47; 10:38; 17:23).
  • The Body of Christ becomes a powerful, unified community, demonstrating real love, commitment to each other, growth in Christ, and witness to the world (see Ephesians 4:1-16).
  • We encourage use of the full range of gifts and abilities distributed by the Holy Spirit among God's people (see Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12).

How to Start a Partnering Initiative
The earliest step in exploring a partnering initiative is quite simple: Assume that Christ’s Spirit is also inspiring others to address the ministry focus that he has brought upon your heart!

This counters what can be called entrepreneurial isolation. Great ideas often strike several people at once, although they may be scattered and not in connection with each other. If our great idea is about a ministry development or a way to address a ministry challenge, we do well not to hide it! Yielding to the worldly thought to hide our entrepreneurial insight will only lead to isolation. Instead, we should do what we can to discover others who are thinking along the same lines—and discover the future together.

Focus on the Big Vision
If we hope to have an effective collaborative partnership, from the earliest stages we need to realize that the best partnerships are driven by a compelling and commonly-owned vision. What is the vision, or intended outcome, that drives our interest in forming a partnering initiative? If it is compelling enough to us, it will be to others as well.

A strong partnership vision that will energize, motivate, and challenge people and organizations to participate must first of all be compelling. It must be larger than the capacity of any one individual or ministry. The vision must also be commonly-owned. It must connect to the individual values or goals of each participant such that each one can clearly see that they have a contribution to make.

Partnership merely for the sake of partnership will only lead to failure. Partnership must have a larger purpose. An effective partnership will guard against the distraction of day-to-day operational demands by constantly renewing its focus on the big vision.

Paul McKaughan echoed the centrality of a strong vision in his recent The Mission Exchange article, “Mission Unity and Structural Diversity: To Merge, Partner, Ally or Not.” Any partnering initiative that fails to have at its core a desire for increased impact through collaboration will not last for long. He writes,

Increased impact, not organizational survival, is the bottom line for any successful alliance, merger, or partnership. Your divine calling and commission drives everything else. The participants must all agree that significantly more can be accomplished together than separately. The desire for increased impact must engender a strong sense of felt need and urgency among those involved. That felt need for increased impact through collaboration must overwhelm the desire to maintain self-sufficient independence.

Practical Benefits of Partnering in Ministry
McKaughan also refers to another reason people will want to join a partnering initiative: the practical side of collaboration. He observes,

Apart from giving form to the unity of the Body of Christ, and increased impact, there are three other significant reasons to consider uniting. It is rare that just one of the three constitutes a sufficient foundation for increased impact and successful united action.

1. Reduction of duplication and cost. Together you can accomplish your purpose and carry out your mission more efficiently and cheaper. Cost savings is often the first reason to surface and usually the last to be realized.

2. The leveraging of competency. The expertise and giftedness within the parties is complimentary and the assumed outcomes from their synergy will be more powerful.

3. New opportunities exploited. Together you can be productive in a new context of ministry that separately you wouldn’t have all the necessary elements to exploit.

Defined Objectives Yield Progress and Hope
Partnerships are only a means to an end, not the end themselves. Few if any enter into partnership in mission simply for the joy of being with others on the journey! Rather, we want to make an impact, to change the world.

An effective, collaborative partnership begins, then, with limited and achievable objectives which expand as the partnership experiences success. People and organizations will remain in a partnership as they see progress being made. (The reverse is also true: No advancement on the objectives equals lowered interest in being in a collaborative initiative.)

While an effective partnership is driven by a big vision, it does not attempt to do too much too soon. In the beginning, an effective partnership does not try to pursue ambitious goals, where failure can lead to frustration and diminishing hope. Instead, it focuses first on defined objectives that are both valuable to all the participants and have a reasonably high possibility of short-term success.

This positive experience demonstrates the capacity of the partnership to realize change through its efforts. This leads to greater confidence, increasing hope, and a willingness to pursue broader and more challenging objectives. Success in smaller ways opens up into attempting success in larger ministry goals.

A Challenge to Deeper Partnership and Collaboration
Our Lord desires his body on earth, the Church, to act in unity as we make his glory known. In partnerships, we have our best chance to make an impact by uniting the energies of mission initiatives from many sectors and communions. This is particularly true in tackling the largest missional challenges before us that can only be done through cross-cultural, cross-national, and inter-organizational partnerships.

How might your ministries join together with others—in networks, partnerships, alliances, and coalitions—to better advance the purposes of God?

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Rev. David Hackett, associate director at visionSynergy, helps shape the global mission networking movement. He advises networks among those reaching Muslims and those using the Internet for evangelism. Dave and his wife, Sandy, both Presbyterian ministers, live near Seattle.