Sally is a member of your church. She also tutors kids at a faith-based non-profit in your city. These four “characters”–Sally, the kids, the church, and the ministry–represent God’s design for community transformation. The church and the non-profit each play a role in equipping Sally to use her gifts to serve the kids. It’s a four-fold partnership story that happens all the time.
John is also a member of your church. He serves overseas as a church planter with a mission agency. Again, there are four characters in this story. The church sends John; the mission agency is a vehicle for John to serve; and a far-off people now have a gospel witness. The church, the mission agency, John, and the community are all enriched by this multi-dimensional partnership.
Partnerships can be wonderful, mutually beneficial, draining, frustrating, catalytic, fuzzy, painful, and fruitful. God’s people are called to relationship, and healthy ministry partnerships serve as models of unity, synergy, and gospel advance.
As a mission leader in your church, you probably partner with multiple non-profit ministries. This church/para-church relationship can be tricky; in fact, it can be downright dysfunctional. Tensions and mutual disrespect can easily infect such partnerships. Churches can view faith-based non-profits more as a parasite than a partner, while para-church ministries can view churches as “country clubs with crosses.”
In 1983, in a paper commissioned by the Lausanne Movement, John Stott lamented that a “spirit of prejudice and mistrust” had developed between church and para-church organizations.[i] Depressingly, the paper identified “well over 100 areas of conflict or friction.” Yikes.
In contrast to the dysfunctional relationship he described, healthy partnerships are a great blessing to both God’s people and a hurting world. A common characteristic of healthy partnerships is the recognition that congregations and ministries are incomplete without each other. This acknowledgement is a starting ground for healthy, win-win alliances. God’s people–our sister Sallys and our brother Johns–need churches and nonprofits to work together to equip them to reach the kids in our town and to plant the church in the community across the sea.
If God is a God on mission, and if God’s people are to be a people on mission, then we’ve got to maximize the effectiveness of our God-given partnerships. When that happens, the congregation and the ministries can together effectively equip God’s people to reach the lost.
If God is a God on mission, and if God’s people are to be a people on mission, then we’ve got to maximize the effectiveness of our God-given partnerships.
When the relationship between congregational and ministry leaders is marked by a spirit of generosity, a highly effective, fruitful partnership ensues. Positive missional partnerships:
Recognize the lavish generosity of God and allow that reality to forge joyful confidence rather than a fearful “scarcity mindset”;
Embody other-centeredness by focusing primarily on the needs and interests of the beneficiaries of the Kingdom activity rather than those of either partner;
Deeply appreciate one another’s God-given giftedness and respect one another as joint stewards of God’s assets for advancing God’s mission;
Adopt an open-handed posture, letting go of egos and turf; and
Embrace a holistic, dynamic, interconnected understanding of missional discipleship.
Here are three common practices in highly effective partnerships:
Practice 1: Eschew the scarcity mindset
In God’s abundant economy, ministry is not a zero-sum enterprise. He supplies the necessary finances and people to get his mission done. As the missionary Hudson Taylor famously said, “God's work done in God's way will never lack God's supply.” Congregational leaders must be open handed with their congregants and their financial resources. As pastors equip the saints for ministry, God will call some to serve inside the local congregation and call others to serve outside of it. Churches must model generosity for their members; likewise, ministry leaders should rejoice not only in their own agency’s success, but also in the flourishing of other ministries. Ministry leaders who have a healthy ecclesiology will seek to build up and bless their church partners.
In God’s abundant economy, ministry is not a zero-sum enterprise. He supplies the necessary finances and people to get his mission done.
Practice 2: Partner in synergistic disciple-making
It takes both the church gathered and the church sent to accomplish the Great Commission for multi-generational, multiplicative disciple-making. Church leaders and non-profit leaders share a joint disciple-making assignment, and by working together, they can effectively equip God’s people to make disciples. Within church systems, we tend to bifurcate discipleship and mission rather than seeing them as two sides of one coin. Too often “discipleship” unfolds inside the church’s four walls through information-laden classes, while “mission” unfolds outside through serving opportunities in local or global communities, and there is little or no reflection on or integration of those experiences with one another.
Jesus’s model was different: he apprenticed his disciples through teaching and missional engagement. And just like Jesus’ first followers, modern-day disciples need to spend time hearing, reading, and discussing as well as going and doing! Sally, for example, is discipled not only through her small group at church, but also as she makes disciples by sharing Jesus with those kids. Discipleship equips her for mission, and mission deepens her discipleship.
Practice 3: Commit to investing in mutual support
God has designed congregations and ministries to be joint stewards of his assets for advancing his mission. Each has a vested interest in the strength and health of the other. We must grow up, putting internecine conflicts behind us and demonstrating mutual support and submission. Many of us in the missions world are familiar with Ralph Winter’s terms modality and sodality. Neither the modal (the church gathered) nor the sodal (the church sent) expressions of Christ’s Body is complete in itself. Both are needed to fully embody the mission of God, and each one needs the other. Each has complementary callings and functions that should be respected and celebrated. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you” (I Cor. 12:26). The Lord is grieved when leaders think of their own gifts as superior to another’s or lack the humility to understand that all the gifts are vital for the Kingdom’s advance.
God has designed congregations and ministries to be joint stewards of his assets for advancing his mission.
We must forge a new future of strong, hardwearing partnerships between congregations and ministries that are sufficient to the enormous challenges we confront in today’s missiological context.
Sally and John–and the kids and the community–are counting on us to get this right.
Scott Harris serves as Vice President of Church and Global Engagement at Mission Increase (www.mif.org). Scott was Missions Minister at Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee, from 2002-2020.
Amy Sherman leads the Sagaemore Institute’s Center on Faith in Communities (CFIC): www.sagamoreinstitute.org/bio-amy-sherman/.
For more on the church/para-church relationship: https://mif.org/para-church/.
[i] “Cooperating in World Evangelization: A Handbook on Church/Para-Church Relationships,” Lausanne Occasional Paper #24 (March 1, 1983), p.3.