By Andy Johnson This is not a generation that likes institutional, impersonal connections. We like to be personally engaged, community-oriented, and connected.
Missions is no exception. Mission leaders today talk about the desire among churches for more direct, personal partnership with international gospel workers.
On the whole, I think such desires are very good. However, like anything in a fallen world, these partnerships can be done well or done poorly, resulting in fruit or frustration, respectively.
So I want to offer six principles for partnering with overseas workers for the purpose of global evangelism. But before we get there let me clarify what these principles are and what they are not. These are not things directly commanded by Scripture. Yet neither are they mere observations or best practices identified by looking at what makes partnerships work. Instead, these are examples of how one local church, Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, has tried to act in view of more general biblical priorities. Those general priorities include the importance of humility (1 Pet. 5:5; Phil. 2:1-11), the creating and shaping of God's people by his Word (Ezekiel 37:1-14; Matt. 4:4; 2 Tim. 4:1-3), the beauty of cooperation among churches in gospel work (3 John), and the gospel "rightness" of committed love for specific missionaries (Phil. 4:10-20). It's my hope that reflecting on our specific attempts to embody these broad priorities will help other churches to more carefully consider how they can engage humbly with global gospel work.
Every missions partnership begins with the motivations that you bring to the table. Are you seeking to serve workers overseas or to be served by them?
God's redeemed people should always be marked by humility. It would be strange to want to labor in another culture to bring glory to Christ but to approach it with selfishness or pride. We should strive for humility in our international partnerships because we desperately need grace; in this as in all things, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (1 Peter 5:5).
A servant-minded posture is especially important for churches who feel they have enjoyed a measure of "success"—read "rapid numerical growth"—in their ministry here in America. It's easy for even a good sense of thankfulness and confidence to translate into a prideful assumption that you know what's best in another culture. Too many times I've observed absurd conversations where a U.S. church leader who knows almost nothing of the language or customs of a culture try to "take charge" to "help" an overseas worker "do evangelism better" and to "grow the church." This advice has often been based on pragmatic, consumer-driven ideas, which are unbiblical and man-centered in any culture. But sometimes this advice would have been genuinely wise and biblical, if only the leader would not have pushed too quickly and carelessly.
It's better for your church to find people on the field whose judgment and theology you can trust and then submit to them. When making partnerships, especially those focused on church planting, you should not assume theological agreement but honestly discuss issues like evangelism, ecclesiology, soteriology, and more…before entering into a partnership. The fact that you both call yourself "evangelical" or belong to the same denomination may not be enough.
What does a humble, servant-minded partnership look like in practice? Well, it's a desire to do "the ministry of whatever." Being willing to do whatever the field workers or missions leaders deem helpful is the right place to begin. It means saying, "What can we do to serve and partner with you? Nothing is too big and nothing is too small."
This willingness to start small and be faithful in an incrementally deepening partnership is hugely important for building trust. Many overseas workers have spent years learning a language and engaging a culture, only to have careless short-term teams from the United States come and blow up years of work. Their fear is legitimate.As a church demonstrates a willingness to help foreign workers in even small, behind-the-scenes ways, like caring for children while the parents attend training meetings, they earn the workers' trust as well as the opportunity to gently propose biblically-based change.
Second is the issue of pastoral leadership. Leadership begins not with the pastor's own passion for missions—which is great but insufficient—it begins with him regularly preaching through the whole corpus of Scripture, opening up the implications of the gospel Sunday after Sunday. God is a missionary God. He has a passion for the nations, and Scripture is full of that passion. From the books of Moses, through the histories, to the Prophets, and on throughout the gospels and epistles, God's passion to call worshipers from all languages, tribes, people, and nations is foundational. Check out Genesis 12:2-3, Isaiah 19:19-25, or Revelation 7:9-10 for just a taste.
Congregations whose shepherds regularly preach this rich biblical message will begin to have their worldview shaped by it. They will learn that the gospel is about more than merely growing "their" church. It's about more than their own culture or country. The gospel is for all people everywhere. And understanding both the urgency of the task—"How will they hear unless someone is sent?"—as well as the greatness and worthiness of God will fuel a pervasive passion that touches a whole congregation. Preaching like this, in fact, is the most foundational thing a pastor can do to lead his congregation in missions.
But a pastor must not only preach, he must pray regularly from the pulpit for the work of the gospel overseas. This instructs the hearts of his people, as they hear that God's kingdom is about more than just "our group." It exposes their minds to God's vast, global plan. Such prayer reminds them each Sunday that Jesus is Lord of the people of Tobago and Uzbekistan and Bhutan and of their home town.
John Stott, noted British pastor, once visited a small church in a British town. Upon hearing the provincial content of their pastoral prayer he summed them up, saying "I came away saddened, sensing that this church worshipped a little village god of their own devising. There was no recognition of the needs of the world, and no attempt to embrace the world in prayer." Prayers from the pulpit that embrace the global cause of Christ are one of the best antidotes to such God-belittling provincialism. They can wonderfully expand the hearts of a congregation.
Finally, a pastor who faithfully shapes his congregation's passions by the Word can then show them how to direct their passions by going out himself. And he should not go alone but take key leaders with him. When a pastor demonstrates the importance of cross-cultural gospel work by giving his own time to it, the impact on the congregation can be huge.
Our own congregation's current engagement with partnerships in Central Asia can, in part, be traced to a trip in 2000 when our senior pastor traveled to speak at a meeting of workers in Turkey. This pastoral example was hugely helpful in jumpstarting a partnership that has now grown to be the key missions engagement for our congregation.
Which brings us to our next point: the value of personal relationships in growing the missions engagement of a local church. So often we're tempted to think that we need to have our fingers in many places around the world in order to be faithful to the Great Commission. But keeping up with many contacts in many places often results in shallow and ineffectual relationships.
In most cases, I think churches would do better to pick a few workers and go deep in their relationship with their work. This kind of focus requires a humble admission that, while God is infinite, you and your congregation are not. And it requires the loving discipline to resist overextending your congregation into shallow, feel-good engagements every time you hear about some new opportunity. But the results for the kingdom can be striking.
When evaluating whom to invest in, three principles have proven helpful to our church. We try to partner with workers who are:
1. Excellent in their work. We want to partner with workers who seem to be doing work well and who are biblically thoughtful about how they do it. We want to know workers well enough to know that what they are doing is actually effective in making the gospel clear in their culture. Getting this level of information almost always requires spending time with them on the field among the people they are trying to reach.
2. Strategic in their focus. We want to partner with workers laboring in places where there is little gospel light. It's good for Christians to tell the gospel in any place, but time and money are limited. Sometimes we must choose between two equally good workers where one is in a Muslim nation with few Christians and the other is in a nation with hundreds of thousands of indigenous believers. In such a case we will almost always support the worker in the most unevangelized place.
3. Widely known by the congregation. We want to partner with workers who are known not just to the church leadership but who are known (or willing to do the work to become known) throughout the whole congregation. Naturally this means prioritizing workers that God may raise up from our own membership. If a member wants to go and you are not willing to partner with him or her long term, then you should at least consider whether you are right to send the person overseas at all. If more churches took their responsibility to send more seriously a great deal of heartache for workers and sending agencies might be avoided.
Also, if you are partnering with workers from outside your congregation, you should think about their level of relationship with your congregation at the outset. This may mean making a trip to visit them on the field before you officially partner with them. Ideally they could spend extended time living among your members. I'm not talking about a long weekend; I'm talking about months. Inviting a worker to spend their entire stateside assignment with your congregation and being willing to provide them free housing is a great way to do this.
In our church we generally won't officially partner with a worker until we have been able to spend extended time with them, forming relationships between them and the congregation. It may slow things down initially, but the long-term fruit in everyone's lives seems worth it.
Your church should also be willing to seriously commit to the workers with whom you partner. Workers tell all too often about churches who mean well but turn out to be fair-weather partners, or who lose interest in a partnership when situations on the field limit their involvement in short-term trips or projects. Instead, consider committing to one team of workers to serve them in any way they find helpful. Be willing to do trips if they find that helpful. And be willing not to come if the timing isn't right.
Being commitment-centered also means working with a long attention-span, for the long-haul. In good years and bad. When your partnership is encouraging or just plain hard.
Finally, this commitment should show itself in a desire to celebrate thoughtful biblical faithfulness, even if fruit is slow in coming. By doing this you can help the workers with whom you partner to resist the seductive call of immediate, visible fruit that has caused so many workers to first tweak and then distort the gospel in pursuit of quick "success." Your clear long-term commitment can help your partnering workers to persevere in proclaiming the plain gospel message even when the results may be slow in coming.
It also should come as no surprise that a healthy church partnership generally presumes that the church, not just a few leaders, actually own the partnership. When the average member of the church understands something of the focus and direction of the church's partnership then the ground is laid for a fruitful relationship. This can be encouraged by regularly updating the entire congregation on the church's international involvement. In our own church this is done through a short report during each of our six members meetings a year.
To get to this point in our own congregation we've tried to teach that missions (meaning a concern for the global advance of the gospel) is a normal part of the faithful Christian life, not an optional add-on. For us this has also meant eliminating special mission committees, and giving oversight of our missions efforts to the church elders themselves. This seems to have helped members see that missions is a core part of the ministry of the church, not one among many optional ministries on the periphery for certain people who are "interested in that sort of thing."
It's also important to involve the congregation in praying for missions. In our own congregation
• we hear a brief one to two-minute update every Sunday night for a worker we support (about fifteen in total), and then we pray for the worker.
• We regularly host workers when they are in town and interview them before the whole congregation. Then we pray for them.
• We print the names and general details of our supported workers in a prayer directory given to every member of our church.
As much as security concerns allow, we get the names and general locations of our workers in front of all the members, not just the "missions club."
6. LONG TERM-FOCUSED
Finally, it seems to me that fruitful and humble partnerships should be long term-focused. By this I mean that your church should work to cultivate long-term overseas workers from your own congregation. At the outset of a partnership, why not articulate the explicit goal that some of your own members will uproot their lives and plant them long-term in another culture for the sake of the gospel? The implications of this kind of thinking abound.
Being long-term focused may also mean doing even short-term trips with the long-term mindset. Rather than just providing "missions experiences," you might consider doing trips that support the work of existing long-term teams to whom you are committed. See your short-term work primarily as a way to support your long-term partners in whatever ways they need it, and secondarily as a way to raise up your own members to join with the work long-term. Workers on the mission field generally need more boots on the ground, day-in day-out, not just friends passing through.
Whatever your church's situation is, I hope that you'll consider carefully how your congregation is partnering with the work of global evangelism.
• Are your efforts characterized by humility?
• Are you being led by the glory of the gospel, taught and modeled by your pastor and elders?
• Are your relationships with overseas workers deep and meaningful? • Are you willing to commit for the long-haul?
• Are your members personally knowledgeable about those with whom you want to partner?
• And are you hoping, praying, and working toward producing long-term workers from your own ranks to join the work?
Your church will have different resources, different timelines, and different needs than mine. You may think of better things to do than the specific examples in this article. But I hope the core biblical priorities of humility, Word-centeredness, cooperation and commitment are evident in your missions engagements, whatever that may look like in your context.
Andy Johnson is an associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church and a trustee of the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board.
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