In this three-part series, Sa Zhong Zi makes a case for the necessity of partnering with locals in ministry. Today, the author discusses how to choose local ministry partners and the need to “date” them before committing to working together. If you have not yet read Parts 1 and 2, make sure to do so in order to better understand the author’s full argument.
Sa Zhong Zi (meaning “sow seeds”) is the pseudonym for an American assisting with the support and strengthening of the Chinese house church.
The practical question arises now of who should we partner with when we engage in the ministry of church planting? I believe our goal of reaching biblical koinonia is well served by continuing with the illustration of marriage to better understand this issue.
The brother in Christ who discipled me as a young Christian, working in full-time campus ministry, was a very wise man. After decades of being in full-time campus ministry he had learned some hard lessons. Early on in our discipleship relationship he gave me some sage advice. “Before you partner together with another Christian you should ‘date’ them.” The idea was that it is often unwise for us to jump into partnerships, even with fellow Christians, before we get to know and understand them. Their personality, gifts, theological stance, situation in life and many other factors will be relevant when we consider how to partner with another individual. These are all factors we consider before we select a spouse (or even have one chosen for us).
I realized the wisdom in this brother’s advice after I had invited a member in our church to work with our ministry, only to find out later he was not suitable for the responsibilities I gave him. Eager to give him responsibility, I asked him to lead our weekly Bible study with Chinese graduate students. After the first study I realized I had made a big mistake. He often would focus the discussion on controversial political issues during the Bible study that were a distraction for the non-Christian Chinese students. We were trying to help them understand the gospel, but this brother kept putting up obstacles. These stumbling blocks were unnecessary, but despite my continued warnings, this brother could not resist the temptation to discuss these issues. The decision I made to place him in this position was too hasty. I “married” him to the ministry role before “dating.” I should have invited him to participate and observed to see if he was gifted in this way.
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Could I have koinonia with this brother? Absolutely, yes. Should I ask him to lead a small group in our investigative Bible study? Probably not. At least not until I trained him for the role. Koinonia, therefore, must necessarily be understood in a broader sense than the specific area of whether or not I include this brother in leading our Bible study. Directionally I could seek to understand and even look for new ways to partner with this brother, but it must be based on understanding those elements of his subordinate identity (namely personality, gifting, theology, political views, and many others).
My specific focus in this paper is on who we should select to partner with among local leaders. With respect to choosing national ministry partners there are two potential groups.
I will call the first group, Group A. In many cases with Group A, the selection pool might be quite small or even non-existent. In those cases the problem you face is whether you should start with those you already have among the small Christian community or wait until God raises up new leaders that may hold greater long-term partnership potential.
The other group is Group B. For Group B there is a larger pool of potential local ministry partners to choose from, in which case the missionary may find it more prudent to be more selective in who he or she chooses to partner with based on the principal stated above. I would like to focus my comments mostly on Group B in particular although some of the principles I address would also be applicable for Group A as well.
I would like to propose three principles that can potentially help us in choosing national ministry partners. These are not the only things you should be aware of; rather, these are the things that I have seen most often neglected among the foreign worker community that I have interacted with over the past twenty years. The three principles are:
Balancing your primary and secondary identity
Finding a common vision
Consider the uniting potential of creeds and confessions
1. Balancing your primary and secondary identity
As a young seminary student I was invited by Chinese church leaders in the U.S. to join with them in planting a church. I was very excited and eager to share what I had learned in seminary, but it quickly became obvious that many of the Chinese who wanted to work with me did not like my theology. They assumed that we were all on the same page because we are all Christians and I probably assumed they would like what I had to say. After all, I was the theological expert, right? Those assumptions were based on a naïve view that differences such as theology and ministry philosophy are not important. While it is true that they should not separate us, there needs to be some time spent understanding each others positions before we jump into a project, a church plant, or some other ministry endeavor. We need to be realistic about those issues that can divide us and diligent in searching for ways that we can cultivate real directional koinonia despite those issues.
This leads us to the first principle. Do not underestimate secondary identity. To truly engage in koinonia we need to merge an intensely realistic perspective with a faith-filled passion to see God do what man cannot, namely unite in directional koinonia. We cannot afford to ignore our subordinate identity as Baptists or Presbyterians or Non-Denominational any more than we can ignore our identity as being American, Dutch, or Korean. At the same time, we need to understand and live out the truth that those identities are subordinate to our primary identity in Christ. Our union with Christ is fundamental and must form the foundation of any true koinonia.
Nonetheless, sometimes in our efforts to reach out to our fellow Christians and move toward greater koinonia, we downplay those differences only to find out later, when conflict arises, that those differences played an important role in the conflict that occurred.
2. Finding a common vision
The second principle has to do with finding common ground. Something that has been immensely helpful to our church planting ministry in China has been the presence of a common ground through which people from different theological backgrounds (different secondary identities) can work together. This common ground rests between the two common areas of conflict – doctrinal beliefs and ministry methods. This is what Tim Keller calls a theological vision. He writes, “…Between one’s doctrinal beliefs and ministry practices should be a well-conceived vision for how to bring the gospel to bear on the particular cultural setting and historical moment. This is something more practical than just doctrinal beliefs but much more theological than ‘how-to steps’ for carrying out a particular ministry.”
When we initially gathered house church leaders together to start church planting training, it was not everyone’s cup of tea. Most of them did not follow through and there was no pressure for them to do so. Four of the original participants, however, did want to continue. Four years later, that group had grown from four churches to hundreds. Some of these were new church plants, but most were existing churches. The focus was on one simple question: “What is the gospel and what are the implications of it in my life and the life of my church?” Churches, pastors, and lay leaders were hungry for the training and the community that came out of this group. There were Presbyterians, Baptists, and non-denominational churches that flocked to these trainings and the work continues to expand as I write this article.
This common theological vision has helped us to foster a directional koinonia that has enabled churches from all over the country representing many varying theological stances and ministry philosophies to work together in real partnership for the sake of the gospel. It serves as a common final goal that all team participants agree to work toward.
But having a common vision needs to be coupled with an agreement among the team on how to reach that goal. There needs to be smaller, short term goals that serve the final goal. There also needs to be a mission statement of how the team plans to reach that final vision and what strategies the team plans to use to reach that vision. In their book Leading Multicultural Teams, Evelyn and Richard Hibbert give some very valuable tools to help develop these aspects of the team. They write, “A team’s purpose drives it to overcome the challenges of working together to create strong group cohesion and achieve synergy, in which the performance of the team is greater than the sum of individual members’ efforts.”
There was a defining moment in our church planting movement in China when we gathered leaders together to hash out the mission, core values, and strategy of the movement. The churches represented had a common theological vision, but the mission statement, strategy, and core values were not clear. During the meeting, the large group split up into several smaller groups representing churches from the four regions of China (north, south, east and west). After the smaller groups reconvened, they were astonished to see that what they had written nearly identical content. This was a defining moment for the group. Not only did it highlight the presence of the Holy Spirit working to unify these churches (they were all existing churches coming from differing theological stances), it also showed the strength of having a common theological vision as a starting point.
3. Consider the uniting potential of creeds and confessions
Another practical thing that can help cultivate this sense of directional koinonia is the use of creeds and confessions. We recently formed a coalition of seminaries in China to work together around our common theology and belief in the classic reformed confessions. In our group we have both Baptists and Presbyterians working side by side. Although the coalition is young, I have been surprised at how quickly the group gelled and got down to business.
The current sentiment around creeds and confessions is not positive. Most people look at the dividing element that has surrounded creeds and confessions. Consider, however, the Apostle’s Creed and how many Christians subscribe to this simple statement of the Christian faith. While many would find such a simple creed too limited to address the deeper theological issues that divide Christians, it is nonetheless an excellent place to start. The potential to bring together believers from differing denominational backgrounds, cultures, and languages around this simple creed is great. Consider the positive elements of how a commonly agreed upon creed can foster unity and partnership.
Creeds and confessions can be historical or modern. Some other examples of this would be the Cape Town Commitment, a document written by a working group led by Christopher Wright, and the Lausanne Covenant, which was written under John Stott’s leadership. These documents were written to articulate what the Lausanne movement embraces and what errors they seek to avoid. While these documents do not bear the nomenclature of creed or confession, they function with the same purpose.
Whether you are serving in a field where locals are mature in their Christian faith or one where the work is just getting going, the need to partner is necessary. In some cases that partnership may only be a plan for the future, in others it is a living reality. No matter the situation, it is my hope that we follow the wisdom and instruction of the Holy Spirit as we approach this indispensible aspect of ministry.
There are opportunities to partner with all kinds of people on the field, but we need to approach this with a sense of both godly conviction and Spirit led discernment. I trust that following the principles outlined in this article will be a needed bit of helpful counsel for the foreign worker, regardless of what his or her field looks like. May the Lord bless the work of his church and may his kingdom come and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
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