Monday, January 05, 2015

Building Effective Global Partnerships

Next week, I'll be headed to Charleston, SC, where this year's annual Partnership Mission Coordinator's meeting will take place.  Mission leaders from across the nation will converge on this historic city for several days to learn from one another, and collaborate in ways that will help us better equip churches to be more effective on mission.

Over the years, much debate has ensued over the usefulness of what we call "short-term missions."  Since much ink has been spilled over this particular issue already, I won't belabor that particular point, but will refer you to a great resource on the subject put together a few years back by Robert Priest, my academic colleague at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  If you are interested in the history of short-term missions (the current expression of which dates back to around 1949), and a thorough and honest evaluation of its global impact, there is no better resource.

My role, in addition to overseeing the local evangelism efforts of our network, is to mobilize local churches for more effective global engagement, and this is an interesting and challenging time to be involved in such work.  Principally, the challenge comes from the fact that the "modern missions movement" which began in 1790 is coming to an end.  I've written on this subject before, but that reality means that what I do is now far more substantive than simply putting together "mission trips." If your church is simply looking for help with logistics, any travel agent can help with such matters.  What our team exists for is to help the church understand not only its centrality in the mission, but the best and most effective ways to execute that mission as we move deeper into the 21st century.

So what follows are four guidelines we provide to our churches. As we are a Baptist network, we do not presume to instruct or "order" our churches to do missions in any particular way.  However, as a steward of the resources provided us by those churches, we want to be as wise as possible when advising those we serve.  And, we want to be intentional about the strategic framework within which we will devote our resources.  So to our churches we simply say "we will help you in any way you want, but for our substantive participation in what you are doing, we need to see the following characteristics addressed in your strategy."

Local church-led.  Over the past decade, every single partnership I've ever put together that was successful had one common element: it was led by a local church!  In the past, state conventions, associations, or other such organizations would piece together an agreement, into which they would invite local churches.  In certain situations like disaster relief, this can still be a very effective way to mobilize the body of Christ.  But in longer-term commitments, local churches have to lead the way, and use entities like ours to embolden the effort.  In short, when we need to mobilize quickly in response to a disaster that requires charity, organizations like ours can lead the way every effectively. We are blessed to have one of the best disaster relief and recovery mobilizers in the country on our team here, and she does a phenomenal job when such situations arise.

But most mission engagement shouldn't be about "charity."  They should focus on "development" (More on this in a bit)  And in those situations, the relational connections that are necessary for long-term effectiveness can only be established at the level of the local church.

"Front-door" approach.  For a hundred years from the start of the modern missions movement in 1790, Christianity spread from a small geographic space no more than 150 miles from the north Atlantic Ocean to cover the entire known world!  Then beginning in the 20th century, the boxer rebellion and cultural revolution of China, the rise of Soviet Communism in eastern Europe and Asia, and rising tensions in the middle east created a new term and category: the "closed country."  Such places are understood to be contexts into which our modern missions delivery system is not welcome.  And its true that in these parts of the world, Christians cannot simply plant churches at will.  But I've been to many of these places, and I can tell you from experience; they are NOT closed to the Gospel! They are merely resistant toward what they perceive as a western cultural invasion into their way of life called "Christianity."

In response, many mission organizations created "platforms" through which they would enter an area, while underneath the surface, they would employ modern missions under cover of night.  I understand why some would think this approach is necessary.  The Great Commission is non-negotiable for those who take following Jesus seriously, and there are no Scriptural exception clauses for so-called "closed countries."  But the longer I'm involved in global engagement, and the more I learn about how other parts of the world operate, the more uncomfortable I've become with a strategy that says "its ok to break the 9th commandment in an effort to declare to the rest of the world that they shouldn't be breaking the 1st one."

Of the 5.5 billion people in the world without a relationship to Jesus, most live in places you can't go openly as a "missionary."  That's OK.  In the new world that is emerging, the Gospel doesn't need our modern mission assumptions.  Its just as powerful without them.  Instead, let's engage these areas and peoples in a way that demonstrates we are genuinely concerned for their present world, as well as where they will spend the next one.  The same places resistant to traditional missionaries throw their doors open wide to teachers, doctors, nurses, IT engineers, agriculture specialists, and athletic coaches.  And with rare exception, you can serve within these roles in these places, and be VERY open about who you are and who you worship.

No more "sneaking around" for us!  We will be honest and up front with the peoples of the world.  Yes, I understand this means it will take longer to engage people with the Gospel and eventually see churches emerge, but that's why we also include marker # 3 below:

Long-term commitment.  Here is what I've often said to the people in our churches: "If your interest in an area or people doesn't last longer than CNN's interest, just stay home!"    To be honest, too many churches approach missions like a drunk deer hunter.

Imagine a guy with a loaded 30-.06, sufficiently soused and with an itchy trigger finger.  Everywhere he hears a noise he yells "DEER!" turns, and fires.  How many churches do you know that approach mission strategy this way?  "Oh, a tornado hit Oklahoma.  Let's go there!"  Three months later, there is still MUCH work to do in Moore and Oklahoma City, but the church has grown tired of that enterprise and has moved on. "HEY!  There is a small church building in Montana eaten up with mold.  Let's go fix it!"  Once its half-finished, the church sees yet another opportunity in Japan, then another in New York, yet another in Canada.

In the end, nothing truly gets done, because a church with a huge heart but limited resources wasn't intentional about managing those resources for maximum impact.

What's the best way to ensure this doesn't happen?  Think long and hard, and pray long and hard, about where God wants YOUR church to be involved.  Once you have explored the opportunities and made a decision, sink the shaft deep, and commit to stay for a minimum of 15 years!  Realistically, it will take the first 5 of those years at a minimum to earn the trust of the people there.  Most places around the world have seen westerners come and go. So our team no longer speaks of "short-term missions."  Instead, we talk about "long-term project development."   If you don't want your international efforts to amount to "wood, hay and stubble" in the end, you need to commit for the long-haul.

Mobilize the whole body of Christ.  As I said above, places resistant to "missionaries" are begging for teachers, doctors, engineers, and others.  Guess where those people are?  If you are a pastor, they are most likely sitting in front of you every single Sunday!  Stop seeing their appearance at the church as the pinnacle of success and mobilize that army God gave you!

Every long-term international effort we currently have has a local church leading the way, but its not the pastors who are "on the ground."  Its educators teaming up with a University in southeast Asia to equip teachers there for service to special needs children.  Its business owners setting up the finances necessary to develop a local, agrarian-based economy in west Africa.  Its coaches working to bring baseball to the Caribbean.  Its construction contractors helping to build hospitals and schools in the middle east.  And inevitably, each of these projects becomes a catalyst for relationship, the sharing of faith, and many people meeting Jesus.

The Great Commission wasn't given to pastors.  It was given to the churches pastors serve!  Make sure the entire body is mobilized for His work!

Beyond these parameters, we also want to ensure indigeneity, local reproducibility, and ultimate non-dependency where long-term efforts are employed.  But from the viewpoint of the local church, the four markers above are the ones we look for to determine if a church is truly ready for a substantive, long-term partnership abroad.

The mark of the modern missions movement is an indelible one that is evident around the world. But as we see that epoch of Gospel engagement start to fade from the scene, I believe even greater and more effective days can be ahead.  But our role in that new world will be largely dependent on us becoming less dependent on a modern delivery system for missions, and developing new partnerships that better reflect our current global reality.

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