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Choose Your National Church Partner Wisely

The following is adapted from Your Focus on the World by Catalyst Services. This book includes guidelines on building church-to-church partnerships across cultures. Catalyst Services is a close partner with Upstream Collective.


You’ve heard that the Church is exploding around the world. You’ve met godly leaders from Africa or Asia when they have visited. You have gone on short-term trips where you have worshiped in a local church that had an obvious passion to serve God despite the challenges they face in their culture. These experiences have convinced you to consider partnering directly with a congregation in the Majority World, what we often refer to today as the Global South.


A church-to-church partnership can be wonderful . . . or it can be a disaster. Here are some initial guidelines to consider that will increase your potential for a mutually beneficial relationship with a partner church.


Doctrinal Compatibility

Understand that some of the theological distinctives that loom large in the West are viewed as irrelevant in other parts of the world. Can you partner with a church that holds or emphasizes different theological views or practices? Cross-cultural partnerships can be great for growing our understanding of how history and culture shape our biblical interpretation, but you should avoid trying to partner with a church that holds beliefs that fall outside the parameters of what you consider essential doctrine. Beginning a partnership under the assumption that you will “straighten out” their beliefs is similar to going into a marriage with the assumption that you will change your spouse! As one global church leader announced, “We don’t want you to fix us!” Churches need to avoid “fixing” other churches in areas of theology, economics, or other issues.

You can pour fuel on the flames, but don’t try to start a fire where there isn’t one burning already.

Existing Vision and Leadership

Look for a partner church that already has a vision for what God is calling them to do and is aggressively pursuing it. Far too often, a Western partner’s voice dominates and reshapes the indigenous church’s goals because their ideas come with funds. Make sure you are partnering with one or more congregations that have leaders already pursuing God-sized goals. You can pour fuel on the flames, but don’t try to start a fire where there isn’t one burning already.

Reciprocity

Approach partnership with an attitude of humility that is looking to learn more than to teach, and to receive as much as to give. No matter where it is or how disadvantaged it is, God has given every church gifts that are needed by their Western brothers and sisters. One American church discovered that their African partner congregation had developed a discipleship program that had proven immensely effective. They brought it back to America and tweaked it a bit, and it has become a powerful discipling tool not only for their church but also for many others here in the West.

Approach partnership with an attitude of humility that is looking to learn more than to teach, and to receive as much as to give.

Look beyond the Initial Option

Western churches often want to partner with a church that is in an easy-to-access place and has a fluent English speaker. Be aware that those congregations very often have multiple partners already. Do your research and look for churches that have been bypassed. And that young person who loves to hang out with foreigners and speaks great English? They likely are not the influential local leader. In most Majority World cultures, age is revered and there are clear leadership hierarchies. Find out who the respected leader is and do the work needed to build that relationship even though it may require a translator and much more time and effort. How will you identify the key leaders and the right church partner? Look for a facilitator who knows both cultures and both languages. It is too easy to think we as Western visitors are communicating well and assessing the situation accurately when there are often vast misunderstandings taking place that can doom a partnership from the beginning.

Focus on Relationships, Not Projects

We in the West love accomplishment. We want a partnership with tangible projects and to-dos that we can explain to the folks back home. But our zeal for checking off our ministry lists can cause us to bypass building the relationships that should be motivating those projects. One Global South church was visited by a contingent of leaders from a potential partner church in the U.S. The church building had lost its roof, and the U.S. visitors immediately wanted to replace it. The indigenous pastor wisely stopped them. “We don’t want your money until we have a relationship,” he said bluntly. Eventually, the churches tackled the roof project together, but not until they had connected over time on the heart level. That partnership is still going and growing, thanks to a pastor who had clear priorities.

It's impossible to avoid all mistakes in cross-cultural partnerships, but these basic guidelines will help you increase your chances of success as you pursue a partnership with a church in another part of the world.

 

Ellen Livingood launched and directs Catalyst Services to help churches, mission agencies, and networks more fully engage believers’ God-given gifts and passion for global outreach. From a base in suburban Philadelphia, Catalyst serves churches and ministries across North America and, increasingly, around the world via resources, coaching, and connecting.

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