There is a lot of talk these days about doing mission in partnership. It is driven, in part, by an increasing awareness of the growing global church and respect for the initiative and faithfulness of brothers and sisters in Christ who are already engaged in mission in places where we are or seek to be involved.
For followers of Jesus, the idea of partnership comes to us not from the business world but from the Bible. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians: I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. The Greek word that Paul uses is koinonia. Sharing. Communion. Participation. Partnership. These English words help to unpack the richness of the term that Paul employs.
In 1994 I was at a gathering of church leaders from across the U.S. and Africa. The large group was talking about partnership in warm, rather idealistic tones when a Rwandan pastor who would soon become a friend, a man who had not known for six months if his own wife and children had survived the genocide in Rwanda, stood up and stated with deep passion: “Partnership begins when we know the reasons for one another’s tears.”
On 9-11, seven years later, when the towers were falling in New York City, the first email that hit my in-box was from my Rwandan friend. “We are in Nairobi. We are praying for you.” And the tears were mine.
To be honest about it, partnerships are difficult for us. We cannot be a partner if we do not have needs, and most of us have so much stuff that we can insulate ourselves from our own spiritual needs and isolate ourselves from others by spending so easily on their physical needs.
Partnerships are hard because we Americans are in a hurry and want to fix things and have short attention spans. But our partners need more than week-long blessing blitzes that are primarily about our doing good in order to feel better about ourselves, and then returning home amazed that the people are so poor and still so full of joy.
The joy is real; the poverty, too. But in our helping and haste we can sometimes make things worse. By rushing past any question of what God is doing in that place, in order to focus on our own doing, we can easily wind up seeking first the kingdom of our congregations and our self-righteousness. And very little is added unto us. Or to those with whom we supposedly partner.
It takes time to discern how to share resources wisely and well. And to discern what gifts our partners have to share with us. Sherron George is correct when she writes, “Unless we humbly, intentionally, and patiently build dialogical relationships and practice two-way mission with people, our cultural default is a demeaning one-way mission for people.”
Let me encourage you and your congregation – as you seek to develop relationships for the sake of God’s mission in places far away and places close to home – to go long and deep. Keep showing up. Be patient. Listen and be slow to act. Pay attention. Don’t lead with resources. Allow time for a genuine relationship to develop. And seek coaches and counselors in this difficult work of building reciprocal relationships with believers in other places, partnerships that honor them and respect them. In most places where The Outreach Foundation works, we look to long-term missionaries and global church leaders with whom we have deep relationships to provide us with this kind of coaching. They are a great help to us. And we can be of help to you.
A familiar African proverb counsels, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Reaching across barriers of custom and culture to join hands with brothers and sisters in Christ takes time, creativity, humility and discipline – a discipline that acknowledges our own limitations and affirms our unity in Christ with others and our shared commitment to God's mission in the world.
The new expressions of partnership that I find to be compelling are not models driven by a punch-list of how tos; rather, they embody the kind of relationships that Paul goes on to commend to the believers at Philippi: Have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus . . .
For a long time the church in the West engaged in mission from the position of privilege and power. We grew overconfident in our capacity. In this new season in which the majority church is growing by leaps and bounds – and most of our own congregations are struggling – perhaps our partners can help us to find fresh wisdom and resolve to join the crucified One and his children at the margins of this world, to learn how to humbly show and share the love of Jesus in places where he is already at work.