Partners in mission #1: Partnership instead of dependence

Last month, together with some of our younger leaders, I spent a week in the Balkans with Brian Jose from Radstock. Brian had many stories of people from the West turning up in the Balkans, expecting to ‘do’ mission for local churches. He asks them, ‘Would you let an Albanian take over your meeting or programme if they turned up out of the blue?’ And they always say ‘No’. But they can’t see that’s what just they’re doing! They assume they know best or that the Balkan church ought to be grateful for their help.

We visited a church started by a well known mission agency. In time local leaders were put in place. All well and good. But the agency still owns the building and so still controls the church. The missionaries themselves are not under the authority of the church. They act independently.

Albanian churches are expected to listen to Westerners. They are not quite trusted. There is still a sort maternal relationship. They are treated as children. They are not true partners in mission.

We find similar issues being address in the letter to the Galatians. Some people in Galatia are teaching a message that, Paul says, ‘pretends to be the Good News, but is not the Good News at all’ (1:6-7). They are saying Gentiles who have put their faith in Jesus also need to be circumcised. Paul’s response is this: ‘If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you.’ (5:2) That’s pretty clear.

But there’s another thing going on. There’s an underlying assumption in what the false teachers say. It’s this: ‘You Gentile Christians ought to listen to us Jewish Christians. You ought to do what we say. After all, our church in Jerusalem is larger, stronger, older, better resourced, more established. We have a long history stretching back to Abraham. The Good News came from us. We’re your mother church. We’re just being maternal. We want to look after our children.’

Think how that might sound today. ‘You Albanian Christians or Kurdish Christians or Afghan Christians ought to listen to us British Christians. You ought to do what we say. After all, our church in Britain is larger, stronger, older, better resourced, more established. We have a long history stretching back to the Reformation. The Good News came from us. We’re your mother church. We’re just being maternal. We want to look after our converts.’ No-one quite says it like that, but that’s the subtext of a lot of mission activity.

But Paul rejects this. He wants a partnership of equals; partnership not dependence.

Partnership between churches

That’s why he says what he says in 1:12: ‘I received my message from no human source, and no one taught me. Instead, I received it by direct revelation from Jesus Christ.’ The gospel message is not from Jerusalem. It’s not the property of the Jerusalem church. Nor the British church. The gospel did not originate with us.

This puts Paul in a dilemma because, as it happens, the apostles in Jerusalem agree with Paul’s position on circumcision. It would have been so easy for Paul to say, ‘The big guns in Jerusalem are on my side so listen to me.

But if he had done that then he might have won ‘the circumcision argument’, but he would have lost ‘the equal partners argument’. He would have conceded that Gentiles churches were under the authority of the Jerusalem church. And he won’t do that.

And so we get this strange narrative in chapters 1 and 2: ‘I met the apostles – but not straight away (1:15-17). I met the apostles – but only a few of them (1:18-19). They agreed with me – but their opinion doesn’t really matter (2:6, 9).’

In 4:25-26 Paul says ‘Sarah, represents the heavenly Jerusalem. She is the free woman, and she is our mother.’ Where is our mother church? Where is the church who gave us birth? Where is the church to whom we are accountable? Not in Jerusalem. It’s not a church in Sheffield. It’s not the headquarters of mission agency. Our mother church is in heaven. Our mother church is the congregation of people gathered around the throne of Jesus.

The church in Galatia is not even under the authority of Paul. Look at 1:8: ‘Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you.’ The church in Galatia is under the authority and headship of Christ – not the church in Jerusalem, not even Paul. And the church is led by the Spirit through the word – not by messengers from Jerusalem and not even by letters from Paul. This letter is a letter of persuasion, not of dictate. And the same is true for Albanian churches and Pakistani churches and Kurdish churches. They are not under the authority of mission agencies or Western churches. They are under the authority of Christ, led by the Spirit, owing allegiance to the heavenly church.

So if we want to work with churches in Albania or Pakistan or Kurdistan then we need to work as equal partners.

In the Balkans we met a church planter called Arvid. Brian told us how a Westerner came through Albania and was telling Arvid all the things he wanted to do. Arvid got quite agitated because the guy was expecting them to get on board with his agenda. And in his outburst Arvid mentioned Brian’s name. ‘Oh, you’ll listen to Brian,’ the guy said in frustration. Arvid replied: ‘Brian influences us because he listens to us.’ A partnership of equals.

It’s not that the Western church has nothing to contribute. Of course it has. We have a history, resources, understanding. But we must work with others churches as equal partners. They, too, have a history, resources, understanding. Indeed, it comes to their context, they will usually have a better understanding. There are many things we can teach them. But there are also many things we can learn. As we work with churches around the world we must work together as equal partners.

Creating partner churches

‘But what about when there is no church? How can you work with a local church when there isn’t one or they’re all very new Christians?’ Let me respond with another question: Where is Paul when he writes to the Galatians? We don’t know for sure. But we do know that, wherever he is, he’s not in Galatia! He planted the church and then moved on.

And that was his habit. Sometimes he stayed for a few years, sometimes a few weeks. But he always moved on to let the church develop without him. He was still involved – that’s why he’s writing this letter. But he allowed local leaders to take responsibility for the church. His goal was a partnership of equals. And he did that by moving on. That might sound risky to us, but Paul entrusted them to the Holy Spirit.

In one town we visited in Albania there was a church started by a missionary from the UK. Twenty years later he is still there. He will not hand on the work. So the church remains dependent on him. It is causing a lot of frustration.

Paul’s goal is a partnership of equals. Partnership not dependence.

6 thoughts on “Partners in mission #1: Partnership instead of dependence

  1. Hi Tim
    Thanks for a very thoughtful blog. It is not difficult to see how the ‘parochial’ Western way of planting churches has detrimentally influenced the spread of Christianity in many countries and prejudiced many unbelievers against welcoming the gospel. Many now equate the gospel with Western culture and imperialism because of the controlling dominance and cultural baggage of western missionaries in the past.
    Paul’s clear example was to plant, equip the new believers as best he could, then move on to plant elsewhere, allowing them the space to develop their own spiritual giftings and for leaders to arise among them rather than him controlling them or them becoming dependent on him.
    Are your comments relevent only to missionary situations overseas or do they also have something to say about how we do church planting in the UK and in our own culture/sub-cultures?

  2. Hi Tim,
    I certainly agree with your conclusion of the importance of partnership as opposed to the dangers of an over dependence on the ‘mother”church but not necessarily your argument for it.

    Paul obviously wanted the young churches to stand firm (rooted and grounded in Christ’s love) but he did have a strong paternal relationship to both his young leaders (whom he regarded as sons) and also the churches (whom he regarded as his spiritual children).

    It was in fact this fatherly care made him so angry with the Jewish Christians who were preaching another gospel to his beloved children. He had his own traditions that he expected his spiritual children to follow even though he may have been off in some other part of Europe preaching the gospel.Had he left them to their own devices they would have been: ‘tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine’.

    Also, regarding the groups who have planted churches in say Eastern Europe they probably do not trace their history back to the Reformation ( if they even know much about it ) as they are probably ‘New Churches’ that were formed in the 1970’s!I do agree that they are often the overbearing sort that smothers the natural spiritual growth c.p Discipleship Movement.

    All that said the ‘missionary church ‘ must be truly ‘humble messengers of the gospel’ having a fatherly relationship on young churches ( as regards care, and protection)but also letting the young churches grow to maturity ‘onto a perfect man’- in much the same way as the Chinese churches came into their own when the Western support was forced to go. Ultimately the goal must be partnership in the same way that a recent convert will grow spiritually from baby to child then to adult when they may stand together as mature Christians.

  3. Actually, the situations I encountered did not involved ‘new churches’. They involved traditional Reformed churches and mainstream evangelical mission agencies! In my repeated experience I’m afraid it is an error to assume new churches make mission and contextualization mistakes because they have not learnt the lessons of mission. I know mission agencies often talk in those terms. But, in my experience and others more experienced than I, traditional mission agencies have just as many control issues! Of course there’s huge variation, but that variation does not correlate to new church-older mission agency.

    As for Paul’s example, you need to wait for my second contribution on this topic or, better still, read Roland Allen’s visionary work, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours.

  4. It is good to see that the older Reformed churches are very much involved in church planting in Europe but sad to see them taking on such a big brother attitude. I have Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods ( I must go back to it again), but would you not agree that though we must let the Spirit do His work, we must tend, nurture, encourage, and dare I say correct when necessary, without becoming authoritarian and controlling until the young church has come of age, grown up and mature-and equal partners. At this stage they would have a responsibility to challenge the ‘sending church’.

  5. Pingback: Partners in mission #3: Putting the local church at the heart of mission « Tim Chester

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