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Partnership as Mission

Aaron M. KauffmanBy Aaron Kauffman

A few months ago I had the opportunity to hear César García, General Secretary of Mennonite World Conference, speak about the role of North American mission agencies in the global church. García comes from the Mennonite Brethren Church of Colombia, a church birthed through the mission efforts of North Americans. When someone asked him whether Westerners should continue to send missionaries to other parts of the globe, I held my breath.

García’s answer was a resounding yes. His basic message was: “We need each other in mission. When we work together across cultures, we uncover our cultural blind spots, and we all gain a clearer picture of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.”

A popular word for what García is talking about is partnership. But that’s an overused term in the mission world. Nearly everyone claims to engage in global partnerships for the sake of the gospel. What’s actually meant by that word can vary a great deal, and it doesn’t always resemble Garcia’s vision of mutual discovery.

In his book, Western Christians in Global Mission, Paul Borthwick outlines several less-than-ideal ways the Western mission enterprise seeks to “partner” with the global church:

  • Help: “We have the resources, and you have the need.”
  • Excursion: “Our church wants to send short-term mission teams to your location.”
  • Sponsorship: “You send us money, we’ll find the Majority World worker for your money to support and then we’ll send you results of his or her ministry and a picture for your refrigerator.”

None of these ways of partnering is completely misguided. Nor is VMM completely innocent of acting in these ways. But these forms of partnership all have the tendency to become the means by which North American Christians fulfill their own need to be needed.

The Bible paints a different picture of partnership. In Philippians 1:3-6, Paul writes to a church he helped to plant. This is not an unequal relationship of the powerful missionary to the needy convert. In fact, from day one, Paul is the needy one, relying on the hospitality of Lydia, a local Gentile woman who offers her home as a base of outreach (see Acts 16:15).

Years later from a prison cell, Paul sends a thank you letter to the Philippians for a recent gift:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (NIV)

The Greek word rendered “partnership” in this passage is koinonia. It suggests a close personal relationship in which everyone has something to offer. Koinonia certainly includes an economic dimension—it describes the church’s common purse in Acts 2—but it is not primarily about money. It’s about depending on one another as true members of Christ’s family, and inviting others to join in.

When followers of Jesus engage in mutual, transparent and interdependent relationships across cultures, they become both an example of God’s upside-down kingdom and a means for its extension into the world. True partnership allows us all to see Jesus more clearly.