Five Ways Toward Genuine Partnership
It was a hot day and I was running late and I was lost. Not a great combination. In a sweaty, stressed and rather disjointed way I managed to ask a security guard for directions. His reply was less than helpful: “Sorry mate, you can’t get there from here”. Perhaps it was when he saw the colour drain from my face, or my jaw drop that he realized the incongruity of his remark. The security guard went on to tell me that if I could just relocate myself to the other side of campus I would easily find the meeting I was running late for.
The journey from disunity to unity may seem impossible, but perhaps we just need to change our starting point a little to see that it is actually more within reach than we thought. Here are five postures that we could adopt to begin the route to unity.
1. Shared vision
The important idea that has already been raised of shoulder-to-shoulder cooperation rather than face-to-face confrontation is a really useful posture for missional partnerships. This can be difficult to achieve because often those that are the most committed to mission are often similarly and primarily committed to their own mission. I recently sat in the lounge of the national director of a very large UK mission agency only to be told 2 minutes into our hour-long appointment that his agency had written into its purpose statement that they would under no circumstances enter into any partnerships. It was a long 58 minutes in which I tried to convince him otherwise.
When partnership is seen as a distraction and a dilution of primary directives of an agency, it is virtually impossible to catalyse unity initiatives. Perhaps we need to see cooperation and partnership written into our mission statements and job descriptions as a kingdom priority, in order to challenge and change our starting points.
2. Unity in opposition
I have observed agencies and churches working happily independently until suddenly they unite in opposition to a particular person or viewpoint. Sadly this has often occurred around secondary issues such as promoting a complimentarian view of women or a literal six-day view of creation. In order to join in their coalition they then require an adherence to these views, whether or not they are made explicit in their doctrinal statement. At its worst there can exist simultaneously an explicit doctrinal statement that promises the possibility of genuine broad-spectrum unity – but also an implicit unwritten doctrinal statement that revolves around secondary issues.
It is time we recognize where and when this is occurring as unity that actually perpetuates disunity is no unity at all. However, on a positive note, when groups that have previously refused to cooperate begin to consider partnerships, there is then the potential to move forward in their thinking. Sometimes uniting because of a common enemy can be helpful. For example when agencies come together to fight the travesty of extreme poverty or take a stand against blasphemy or speak out against evil, then there is a powerful motivator for unity as the church united recognizes that the task in front of us is bigger than any one agency or tribe can tackle.
3. Generous orthodoxy
I often feel uncomfortable when I meet Christian leaders. There can be an air of suspicion, as though I was ‘guilty until proven innocent.’ As soon as I have mentioned the right conferences, the approved authors or the appropriate churches, then the barriers come down and the right hand of fellowship is offered. This “out until you are in” starting point divides Christians into the good guys and the bad guys; those who can be trusted and those who should be shunned. I have even heard this explicitly argued by a well-known speaker from Washington DC whose final point of 35 reasons why churches should not engage in social justice was that pastors should protect their flocks by discouraging the reading of books by authors who disagree with the pastor’s position. This is again a unity of the minority based on uniformity, an orthodoxy that will only become narrower and narrower.
Hearing the critique of our views from the wider church is vital for us not to end up in self-imposed ghettoes of superiority. History would have been different if in South Africa the Dutch reformed church had listened to the critique of the black church and churches outside of South Africa instead of labelling them liberal or Marxist.
When seminars about the emergent church become an exercise in ridiculing or demonizing the particular churches of people, to offer a more immediate example, only builds a dependency on figures who adopt the guru position of arbiters of orthodoxy. Instead an approach that aims for a genuine critical engagement where positives and negatives can be heard will promote the building of Christian maturity through discernment.
Although we believe in an infallible scripture we do not believe God sent us infallible interpreters. We need others to help us to strengthen our grasp on the core of the gospel, and as we do so we should build the maturity to deal with difference through engagement and discernment rather than by building a culture of censorship.
4. Kingdom not empire thinking
Although God’s kingdom will last forever our missions, agencies and even local churches are not necessarily supposed to be eternal, and sometimes we need to let things die in order for the kingdom to advance. This happened spontaneously in my experience in Albania as virtually all missionaries were evacuated for many months in 1997 during a period of extreme unrest. Arguably, this absence of agencies did more for the development of indigenous mission than the previous four years of missionary church-planting. In the UK scene, there are multiple agencies with the same aims. Whether it is working with the persecuted church, or Christian radio stations, or youth ministries, it is worth checking whether we are kingdom-building or empire-building and whether our resources could be better used.
There seems to me to be two simple options to consider in order to move forward towards unity in this scenario: they could diverge or converge. The first ‘divide and conquer’ approach would need us to find ways to segment the mission field to offer a more targeted approach based, for example on age ranges or geographic areas. The second merger option would look for ways to combine two identical fundraising strategies or two web sites or two sets of field staff into a single resource for the sake of the kingdom.
5. The chemistry of relationships
Finally often the precursor to effective partnership is simply relationship – people work well together because they are friends. This is where for all my love of digital technology there is a downside. It is all too easy to write graceless blog posts and comments that bypass personal conversation and can cause unnecessary offence and disunity. I have to ask my friends in the blogging community to hold me accountable on this score. However conferences that allow time and space for conversations can be extremely valuable. Not only can they prevent hostile confrontations, but they can allow us to make, build and deepen friendships which can lead to the possibilities of partnership.