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True Cross-Cultural Church Partnerships

How to avoid one of the deadliest pitfalls in the missions enterprise

Seth Barnes


Partnership is biblical. Paul writes the Philippians (1:5), "I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel." Paul, as a missionary, was a partner with the national church. The church at Philippi was the first church he founded in Europe. Once established, this church went on to financially support Paul's missionary work. In the process, they established a model of partnership, which is being re-discovered in our day.

Because the Western world has had a preponderance of wealth and Christian workers, its missionary effort too often has smacked of paternalism. We have said in a thousand ways, small and large: -"Here, that's too hard for you. Let us do it for you." -"That church building wouldn't cost us anything, but it would take you two years to raise the funds. Let us build it for you." -"Oh, you can't fill the church? Here, let us sponsor an evangelism campaign for you."

Recently, almost without our awareness, the rules have changed. We have entered an age of partnership as the church overseas grows in resources and spirituality. The Church overseas is no longer the Western church's weak stepsister. It is growing much faster than the church in the U.S. Their maturity is often far greater than our own. Now, as we go to minister to them, we find they're able to minister to us. This has ushered in an exciting new era of church partnerships, partnerships which many missionaries are uniquely positioned to facilitate.

The Case of the Lopsided Partnership

Four years ago, I began working with a pastor named Jorge Rodriguez (not his real name) in the town of San Pedro in the Dominican Republic. He had a vision for a great church. Rodriguez was a gracious man; he and his family made visitors feel welcome. A number of American groups assisted him in achieving his vision. They came away from the experience feeling blessed. Rodriguez and his family watched their church grow until it was finally completed. The structure cost thousands of dollars. It was far larger and more beautiful than any other churches in the area.

En route to completion of the church, a number of the visiting U.S. churches found that Rodriguez encouraged a direct partnership with his church - avoiding the involvement of our agency. One wealthy American businessman so enjoyed returning that he became well known in San Pedro. Children knew he would freely give away money and learned to pester him for it. This past summer, our missions agency returned to the San Pedro area to help another church. Rodriguez insisted that any help in the area be channeled through his church. When asked if his new church could be used to run a vacation Bible school for local children, he said, "No, they might damage our new sanctuary." It was evident that the flood of resources had changed Rodriguez's expectations of visitors. He now felt entitled to the aid of outside churches. Sadly, this kind of scenario is not the exception to the rule. Too often, in their rush to demonstrate compassion, U.S. church groups deprive overseas churches of the one thing, which will help them grow the most: biblical partnership. They give away resources without asking for accountability.

Healthy Partnerships

In comparison with churches overseas, U.S. churches have what looks like an abundance of resources: They are larger, have more money, more people, more time, greater schooling, and are more organized. They are also often so resource-rich that they have begun to trust in their resources more than God. Many have a form of godliness, but deny its power. They are the church of Laodicea. What they need most from churches overseas is the opportunity to see God at work in a powerful way.

A healthy partnership gives both partners what they need in proportion to the other. It would not be proportionate for a U.S. mega-church to send 80 of its members to a small village to partner with a daughter church. In any partnership, the party which brings the most resources to the table needs to maintain the lower profile. Suppose in another 100 years that the economy in China and the Chinese church continued to grow while the American church waned in influence and wealth. Now, suppose that you belonged to a church which aspired to build a new building costing $10 million. How would you feel if a Chinese missions group whose average member earned twenty times your salary came and erected that building with their new technology in a week? Doing this for your church would undermine your dependence on God and place it on that Chinese group! You'd want to bless them in any way you could. You'd want to ask them back to help you again.

Suppose that the same group returned the following year and added on the CE department your church wanted. Now suppose that the same group returned the following year. By this point, you observe that the vibrant faith that your church once had has been extinguished. Rather than praying for needs, it is much easier for your pastor to simply call China. This is the predicament in which pastor Rodriguez finds himself.

Healthy partnerships have the following five characteristics:

  • They further the gospel.
  • They are built through mutual giving to meet needs.
  • They never deny the need for human dignity.
  • Partners engage in projects with limited time frames.
  • Partners regularly communicate with one another.

1. They further the gospel. Cross-cultural partnership is not new. Marco Polo discovered it when he found an overland route to the Indies and initiated a thriving trade between it and Europe. International trade is cross-cultural partnership at its most common level. Each party has something that the other needs. An exchange occurs; both sides are enriched. If it works in a secular context, it should be particularly true for Christian partners. For biblical partnership to occur, it must be centered not simply around meeting one another's needs, but around the spreading of the gospel. We desire to share hope with those who have none, we desire to bless those who do not feel blessed, we desire to obey Jesus' commandment that we love one another. If we enter into a partnership with less than pure motives, the partnership will contain the seeds of its own destruction.

2. They are built through mutual giving to meet needs. At a minimum, the church at Philippi needed to receive Paul's investment with gratitude. For the partnership to grow and flourish, they needed to reciprocate by finding a way to meet Paul's needs as he had met theirs. A U.S. church helps with an evangelism campaign and comes away challenged by the zeal and commitment of local believers. Each has received a gift. If ever a partnership, initiated through right motives, dwindles to a point where giving no longer occurs on both sides, then it will have lost its vitality.

After planting the church in Philippi, Paul continued to represent those new believers, acting as their partner in spreading the gospel to new territories, a result he may not have contemplated when he first began to work there. The end result of them working together is that they greatly enriched one another. Though they came to the relationship intending to serve, they received more. Similarly, participants in missions projects get a vision for how they might be called to missions. American churches learn to give and minister rather than seeking to soak up good teaching in a pew back home. National churches are blessed with human and financial resources that they would not have had otherwise. The kingdom of God advances as each side gives the other a gift they lacked.

3. They never deny the need for human dignity. Sometimes the giving in a relationship can become unbalanced. One side clearly finds itself benefiting more than the other. When this happens the partnership is dying. Whereas each party may have begun on an equal footing, once one side stops giving and starts taking the other's service for granted, the precarious balance which brings life to a partnership has been upset.

4. Partners engage in projects with limited time frames. Too often, partnerships continue without goals or a sense of direction. Convenience and the warmth of past memories cause them to endure. But familiarity breeds contempt and lack of direction produces a lack of fruit. Partners can limit the unanticipated downside of a relationship taken too far by assuring that they are always working toward a mutually-held goal or project. Such goals should be tied to a pre-determined time frame. Once they have completed a project, they can re-assess their relationship. Partnerships, while based on giving, should always feel like a win-win situation. Limited time frames assure that this occurs.

5. Partners regularly communicate with one another. U.S. churches may fancy themselves as partners with overseas churches, but unless the above factors are present, they are more than likely simply fostering a paternalistic relationship. Asking two key questions can help avoid paternalism and ensure good communication. They should be asked before a partnership is attempted and periodically throughout the relationship.

1. Will both parties commit to equality of effort?
2. Does either party have any unspoken expectations?

Why Partners Need a Third Party

Few cross-cultural partnerships develop spontaneously without outside assistance. Some screening is needed on both sides to determine if the conditions for true partnership can be met. As the partnership develops, the third party (often a missionary or missions organization) can help assure that it does not veer off in an unhealthy direction. A third party can do the following four things to promote partnership:

1. Brings the two parties together

Blind dates are rarely a good idea. They are usually for those too lazy to do their homework, or too desperate to go through the time-consuming normal stages of relationship development. But how are church leaders who live and work in one hemisphere supposed to develop a relationship with their counterparts in another hemisphere? Too often, church leaders assume that "people are the same all over the world." With their cultural blinders on, they barge into a country and strike up a flawed partnership.

The best case scenario is that someone who understands the needs of both sides helps them get together. Frequently, the best person for this job is a missionary. The missionary at least understands his own culture well enough and presumably has studied the culture in which he is ministering. Even better, he may have a clearer understanding of the dynamics of partnership. He can bring the two parties together in a way that fosters partnership over time.

2. Facilitates understanding

One of the most frequent areas of cross-cultural partnership is the construction of a church building for a young congregation. American church groups love to provide this kind of assistance to third world churches since it is tangible, has a short time frame, and it enables them to meet an obvious need. Yet, as in pastor Rodriguez's case, the potential for abuse is great. To understand one another, meaning and context must be shared. American churches should understand the economics of a given project, asking their partners to provide as many of the resources as possible before helping out. The principle of stewardship should be borne in mind; American groups should stick to smaller buildings which allow small congregations to prove their faithfulness. National pastors, for their part, should understand the visiting American church's need to make an impact. They should understand that American women work alongside men. They should understand that, given the short time frame of most visiting teams, having resources available to facilitate their ministry is essential. Just as American church groups should be prepared for cultural differences, a missionary can also help prepare his national church partners for the occasionally insensitive ways of the visiting team.

3. Facilitates communication

Logistically, it may be difficult to communicate overseas. First, there is the problem of language barrier. Then there is the problem of access to phone lines. Finally, there is the problem of accountability for consistent communication, particularly in third world societies. Often, the only way for communication between cross-cultural partners to occur on the mission field is for the missionary to ride to the national pastor's house, ask a series of questions, and then ride to the corner store to place a long distance call on the only phone in town. Without the kind of extraordinary effort which is often required, true partnership may never be developed.

4. Monitors the relationship for health

A partnership between two churches which starts off healthy may over time change in character. Dependence doesn't occur right away. It develops as one party gradually becomes accustomed to relying on another party for resources. A third party can monitor partnerships for signs of dependency. As one who doesn't have a direct interest, this person can help steer the relationship towards health.

The Role of Missionaries

The roles of many missionaries, like the missions movement itself, are in a process of redefinition. While many roles can be more effectively performed by nationals, one of the key roles which missionaries can fulfill is that of fostering true biblical partnerships.

Missionaries can facilitate an in-depth understanding of the felt needs of the visiting and the national church and how they can help one another meet them without sinking into a dependency relationship. Missionaries are well-placed to really listen to U.S. churches talk about their ministry in order to figure out how to better assist them. At the same time, they can come alongside national churches and do the same thing.

The analogy of the role of a translator is close but imperfect. There is much that both the national church and the U.S. church cannot understand about one another because of culture, language, and experience. But it is not enough to merely translate words back and forth. Missionaries must become so expert in this business of facilitating partnership that they begin to act in the capacity of expert counselor. If, acting in this capacity, they are able to point out the potential pitfalls of such an arrangement and to suggest alternatives which better meet felt needs, they've facilitated true biblical partnership.

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Permissions

? 2001 Adventures In Missions. Used by permission of Seth Barnes.

About the Author

Seth Barnes does short-term mission trips through Adventures in Missions. Find out more about them on their site at http://www.aimtrips.org/.

Resources

Reach Out Youth Solutions also does short-term mission trips. Find more about them by clicking HERE.