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6 Marks of a Healthy Missions Partnership

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Editors’ note: 

Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Andy Johnson’s book Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global (Crossway, 2017).

I want to offer some principles for partnering with overseas workers in global evangelism. But let me clarify what these principles are and what they are not. They’re not things directly commanded by Scripture. But neither are they mere observations or “best practices” about what seems to make partnerships work. Instead, these ideas flow from biblical priorities for churches and church planting.

Here are six characteristics of a healthy missions partnership.

1. Servant-Minded

Every partnership begins with the motivations you bring to the table. Are you seeking to serve workers overseas or to be served by them? Don’t just pass this by with a mental wave of the hand—think about it honestly. Many churches seem to view missions partnerships as a way to enhance their own “missions program” rather than as an avenue to serve Christ by serving his missionaries.

Are you seeking to serve workers overseas or to be served by them?

A servant-minded posture is especially important for churches that have enjoyed a measure of numerical success at home. It’s easy for even a right sense of thankfulness and confidence to translate into a prideful assumption that you know what’s best in another culture. I’ve observed absurd conversations where a church leader who knew almost nothing of the language or customs of another culture tried to “take charge” in order to “help” an overseas worker “do evangelism better” and “grow the church.” Too often this advice has been based on pragmatic, consumer-driven ideas that are unbiblical and man-centered in any culture. But even when the advice was genuinely wise and biblical, pushing it on a missionary carelessly or too quickly made it unappealing.

Either way, it’s better for your church to find people on the field whose judgment and theology you already trust, and then submit to them. When making partnerships (especially those focused on church planting), don’t assume theological agreement. Honestly discuss issues like evangelism, ecclesiology, and soteriology before entering into a partnership. The fact that both partners call themselves “evangelical” or belong to the same denomination is not enough.

Find people on the field whose judgment and theology you already trust, and then submit to them.

So what does a humble, servant-minded partnership look like in practice? It’s characterized by a desire to do “the ministry of whatever.” A willingness 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. Some 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.

But as a church demonstrates a willingness to help foreign workers in even small, behind-the-scenes ways—like caring for children while their parents attend training meetings—it earns the workers’ trust as well as the opportunity to gently propose biblically based change.

2. Pastor-Led

Leadership does not begin with the pastor’s own passion for missions—that’s great, but insufficient. It begins with a pastor regularly preaching through the whole 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 his Word pulses with that passion (see Gen. 12:2–3; Isa. 19:19–25; or Rev. 7:9–10 for a taste).

Congregations whose shepherds preach this rich biblical message will begin to have their worldview shaped by it. They will learn the gospel is about more than merely growing “their” church. The gospel is for all people everywhere. Understanding both the urgency of the task—“How will they hear unless someone is sent?” (Rom. 10:14)—and also the greatness and worthiness of God will fuel a passion that touches a whole congregation. In fact, preaching like this is the most foundational thing a pastor can do to lead his congregation in missions.

Preaching like this is the most foundational thing a pastor can do to lead his congregation in missions.

But a pastor must not only preach; he must also pray often from the pulpit for the work of the gospel overseas. This instructs his people’s hearts as they hear 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 as well as their hometown.

John Stott once visited a small church in an English village. Hearing the content of the pastoral prayer, which never strayed beyond the interests of their small community, he remarked:

I came away saddened, sensing that this church worshiped 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.

Pulpit prayer that embraces the global cause of Christ is one of the best antidotes to God-belittling provincialism. Such prayer can do more than you may imagine to expand the hearts of your congregation.

Finally, a pastor can go out himself to support the work of missions. And he should take key leaders with him. When a pastor demonstrates the importance of cross-cultural gospel work by giving his own time to it, the effect on the congregation can be huge.

When a pastor demonstrates the importance of cross-cultural gospel work by giving his own time to it, the effect on the congregation can be huge.

Our own church’s current engagement with partnerships in Central Asia can be traced, in part, to a trip in 2000 when our senior pastor traveled to Turkey to speak at a missionary workers’ meeting. This example helped jumpstart a partnership that has now grown to be a major missions engagement for our congregation.

3. Relationship-Based

Partnerships shouldn’t be based on projects, but on personal relationships. We’re often tempted to think we must 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.

Keeping up with many contacts in many places often results in shallow and ineffectual relationships.

In most cases, 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 kingdom results can be striking when such discipline and focus prevail.

Again, 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.
  2. Strategic in their focus. We want to partner with workers laboring in places where there is little gospel light or where their work aims to strengthen local churches.
  3. Widely known by the congregation. We want to partner with workers who not only are known to the church leadership, but also are known (or willing to do the work to become known) throughout the whole congregation.

If you partner with workers from outside your congregation, 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 workers to spend their entire stateside assignment with your congregation and providing free housing is a great way to do this.

Our church generally won’t officially partner with workers until we have been able to spend extended time with them. It may slow things down initially, but the long-term fruit in everyone’s lives seems worth it.

4. Commitment-Centered

Your church should be willing to seriously commit to the workers with whom you partner. Workers all too often tell of 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 serve a team of workers in any way they find helpful. Be willing to do trips if they find that helpful. And be willing not to 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.

Workers all too often tell of churches who mean well but turn out to be fair-weather partners.

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 results that has caused countless workers to first tweak and then distort the gospel in pursuit of quick “success.” Your commitment to faithfulness can help your partnering workers to persevere in proclaiming the good news—even when the results aren’t seen.

5. Congregation-Wide

It should come as no surprise that a healthy church partnership presumes that the congregation—not just a few leaders—actually owns the partnership. When the average member understands something of the focus and direction of the church’s partnership, the ground is laid for a fruitful relationship. This can be fostered by regularly updating the entire congregation on the their international involvement. We do this through a short report during members’ meetings, and through regular prayers for missionaries on Sunday nights.

To reach this point, we’ve tried to teach that active concern for missions is a normal part of the faithful Christian life, not an optional add-on. For us this has meant eliminating special missions committees, and instead giving oversight of our missions efforts to the elders. This has helped members see that missions is a core part of the church’s ministry, not one among many optional ministries on the periphery for folks “interested in that sort of thing.”

Active concern for missions is a normal part of the faithful Christian life, not an optional add-on.

It’s also important to involve the congregation in praying for missions. Every Sunday night, we hear a brief one-to-two-minute update for a worker we support (out of about 20 total)—and then we pray for him or her. We also regularly host workers when they’re in town and interview them before the whole congregation—and then we pray for them. We also print the names and general details of our supported workers in a prayer directory given to each church member. As much as security concerns allow, we put the names and general locations of our workers in front of all members, not just the “missions club.”

6. Long-Term Focused

Finally, most fruitful and humble partnerships will be long-term. At the outset of a partnership, why not articulate the explicit goal that some of your own members uproot their lives and plant them long-term in another culture for the sake of the gospel? Even more, if possible, why not aim to eventually staff an entire missionary team from your church or in partnership with other like-minded churches? Having a team that’s on the same theological page from the start won’t solve every problem, but it will avoid many.

Being long-term focused may mean doing short-term trips with the long-term mindset.

Being long-term focused may also mean doing short-term trips with the long-term mindset. Rather than just providing “missions experiences,” consider 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, and secondarily as a way to raise up your own members to join 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.

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