God seems to have a peculiar knack for turning the odds in his favor even when the statistics might laugh him off. Think about how God used the 11 disciples to share the gospel and start the early church. What started with a few resulted in the spread of the gospel among nations and disciples multiplying exponentially.
But, as we see in Scripture, these 11 disciples did not take this task upon themselves alone. God moved among them to begin what Paul calls the good work of “partnership” in Philippians 1 to bring the good news to even more people.
What Does the New Testament Say About Partnerships?
The New Testament traces the development of multiple churches entering into an interconnected web of partnerships to further the gospel. Its pages are full of endorsements of true gospel ministers (3 John; Colossians 1:7), travel itineraries and plans (2 Corinthians 2; Romans 15), surveying missions and relaying status updates (1 Thessalonians 3:1–5; 2 Corinthians 7), and even the ins and outs of how monetary gifts should be managed (1 Corinthians 16:1–4).
Paul occupied a pivotal seat like an air traffic controller, directing messengers like Timothy to stay in Ephesus and Titus to appoint elders in Crete. The New Testament contains a running log of coordinated efforts that we call “partnerships” to advance the mission.
Partnerships in Missions are Messy
The pioneering work of missions is not pretty and it takes patience because maturity comes with time. I still remember a pre-field training session that I attended when the teacher said he knew a missionary who witnessed the churches he planted fall apart. He told us about how one church was nearly torn apart by disunity, one was flirting with a false gospel, and another grew cold toward him because false teachers crept in. The teacher looked at us and said, “That missionary was the apostle Paul.”
Philippians, Galatians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians reveal these messy struggles that Paul himself faced. So, yes, it is important to have clear criteria that define your partnership model. It is also important to recognize that some partnerships are opportunities for nurturing and developing relationships that move toward clear convictions in these areas. A perfect partnership does not exist just like a perfect church does not exist on this side of heaven.
A perfect partnership does not exist just like a perfect church does not exist on this side of heaven.
Partnerships Exist to Serve Work on the Field
At the church where I serve, we remind ourselves that we exist to serve the partner; the partner does not exist to serve us. Yet we also recognize mutually beneficial partnerships are ideal.
Paul and the church at Philippi enjoyed this reciprocal dynamic. One-way partnerships are not partnerships. This does not mean we only partner with potential partners that serve our needs. If they are just facilitating a short-term trip to check a box for us and it does not serve their strategy, we will pull back and not send a team.
It is our aim to serve in helpful ways alongside them for their ministry goals. At the same time, we want the partner to understand our church, pray for us, and really be invested in the partnership. Being on the receiving end alone is not the blessed life of giving more than receiving, so we look for this dynamic of mutual strengthening.
Filtering Partnerships Based on Alignment and Opportunities
We’ve chosen to steward our funding more like a rifle approach than a shotgun approach. Some churches take more of the shotgun approach, aiming for general alignment and a broad strategy, which is faithful. Our church has chosen more of a targeted approach.
A win/win would be high strategic alignment and high involvement opportunities through projects or sending pathways (short-term, mid-term, long-term, or marketplace). This opens pathways for mutually enriching engagement. We also understand these pathways are not appropriate for every context, so we also prioritize areas of high strategic alignment yet low involvement opportunities because we don’t expect every opportunity to have some tangible return on investment for us.
Some least-reached areas simply are not conducive to facilitating teams or more laborers. That’s great with us. We’ve just found that filtering our partnerships through the categories of strategic alignment and involvement opportunities helps us have opportunities where we are merely giving opportunities with appropriate on-ramps for our congregation.
Partnerships Brings Otherworldly Joy
Philippians 2:17–18 outlines the otherworldly joy we have in partnership: “But even if I am poured out as a drink offering on the sacrificial service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. In the same way, you should also be glad and rejoice with me.” Philippi gave sacrificially to platform Paul––nearly giving everything for the progress of the gospel. But that’s the point. There couldn’t be a greater cause to spend and be spent for than the gospel.
So, let’s lean into the messy struggle of partnership that forges mutual joy and glorifies God. We can’t do this alone.
This article is part of a mini-series from Chip Bugnar on partnerships in missions. To learn more, read Chip’s articles on How Money Changes Global Partnerships and What to Look for in Global Partnerships.