The process of transformational partnership has three phases: mission building, capacity building, and direct ministry. We learned this descriptive language for strategic partnerships from of one of our mentors, Don Golden. Don served on staff with World Relief before joining the staff of Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has since returned to work on staff at World Relief as their Vice President of Church Engagement. Don is a no-nonsense kind of guy who understands that local churches want to reclaim their God-given place in the advancing kingdom of God.
At first, the various phases happen sequentially. But then, as the partnership blossoms and grows, the three phases become a repeating cycle of evaluation that fosters deeper levels of transformation. We’ll walk through each of the phases using our earlier example of our work in India.
PHASE 1: MISSION BUILDING
In this first phase, a local church should ask the following four questions.
1. What is God doing?
The first question most American local churches ask is, “What can we do?” That’s a direct ministry question. It’s not a bad question. As pastors and church leaders, we understand the context and essential nature of that question. However, it’s a very dangerous question to start with. Why? Because before we act, we need to look and listen, identifying the ways in which God is already at work. Our invitation is to join God in his mission, not to do our own thing and then invite him to bless it. When we jump directly into ministry, we are typically focused on what we can accomplish with our resources and wisdom. Inadvertently, we can damage the development of the local people. It’s often easier to do it for them, rather than doing it with them. Or even worse, we do for them what they could have done for themselves.
With that in mind, our first year of partnership development in India focused on relationship building and inquiry into the activity of God in Tamil Nadu. A church member, Ron Vandegriend, was serving as field director for the Bible League, an international Bible distribution and church-planting organization. Through Ron, we learned of a church-planting movement that was spreading like wildfire. Our friends at the Bible League were willing to introduce us to their network of indigenous leaders, and we went as pilgrims to learn what God was doing through our brothers and sisters in Tamil Nadu.
2. Who is involved?
Three parties were involved at the start of our partnership: the people of Granger, the Bible League, and a group of fifteen indigenous leaders. Among this group of leaders, our hearts were especially drawn to a man named Rajendran, who has since become a staff member of our Granger team. Raj, who started in a low caste as a tree climber, had by God’s grace become an apostolic leader of a growing movement of church plants. As Raj and the other leaders shared with us stories of what God was doing, it felt like something ripped straight from the book of Acts.
We placed the emphasis on relating with the indigenous people before our relationships with the organizational folk back in the States. These indigenous network leaders were passionate about reproducing churches and training church planters. We asked them to orient us to their culture, their history, and their traditions. We didn’t press our agenda. When they perceived that we could be trusted, they took us to the field to stay with church planters and see firsthand what was happening. They said, “We have not met foreigners like this before. We have seen many American church leaders who come to meet the ‘famous’ people in the big cities. But few have come to be with the faithful people who labor in obscurity on the front lines.” With trust established, the foundation was laid for the next stage.
3. What are their assets?
The Bible League, as an organization, has several assets, including a curriculum for church planter training which the local people had already contextualized. Although the Bible League’s work in India was just beginning, their approach had proven successful in many other places, leading to more than twenty-five thousand new church plants in more than fifty nations. Our friends at the Bible League also provided Granger with several opportunities to build reliable relationships with indigenous church leaders as well as the infrastructure for travel to and from various locations.
As we’ve stressed before, even though the indigenous church planters we met were financially poor, they were rich in many ways. Three assets stood out to us. First of all, they were rich in faith and passion for Christ. They were red hot! Back in my college days, I (Rob) used to work in a machine shop. In the back room, they poured hot steel. When you walked into that area, the temperature jumped thirty degrees, and your body broke out into sweat. Walking into the presence of these men and women of God was like walking into that back room. Your spiritual temperature jumped thirty degrees in their presence. Mission was the focus of their lives, and almost every church planter was bivocationally growing a church among the pocket of people they lived among while working a full-time job. We also saw an asset when we looked at the rich level of community they enjoyed. Our experience in America was more typically one of isolation, living cocooned from our neighbors. But in India, every village we visited functioned like an extended family. Finally, we saw an asset in the training and preparation provided by the network leaders. They had done an outstanding job providing basic church planting start-up skills, contextualized for these pastors.
4. What are the gaps?
We began to have conversations with the indigenous leaders to discern how we could add value to the assets they already possessed. What strengths did we have that we could add to their strengths and the strengths of the Bible League? What could we do that would fill in the gaps?
As we had shared the story of Granger Community Church, a few things surprised them. First of all, they had never heard of a church maintaining steady growth for almost twenty years. Second, they were impressed by the number of people who were meaningfully engaged in service, small groups, and membership. We shared with them our approach to church health and growth, which we had learned and adapted from the Purpose Driven Church model. They were hungry to learn more about this process of building systems within the local church to balance the purposes of the church. The average church plant within their movement typically stalled at thirty to fifty people. The church planters had been trained in a sequential approach of church planting, and most of them didn’t know how to pastor a healthy church after the startup phase. By their own admission, many of the churches they had planted were not thriving. We had found the gap.
PHASE 2: CAPACITY BUILDING
In phase 2, your focus is on just one question: what can we teach them to do that will multiply impact? The goal is to build capacity in the indigenous people. We’ll take a much deeper look at the how of capacity building in the next Missional Move. For now, let’s return to the demonstration-farming model we introduced in an earlier chapter. Through an intentional process of cultivation, contextualization, demonstration, replication, and multiplication, we developed an eighteen-month coaching process for church health that has dramatically increased the health and longevity of these new church plants. At the end of the first round of coaching, almost every church we were working with had doubled or even tripled in size. The church leaders saw improvements in the health of their faith communities, including increased numbers of people getting baptized, serving, and giving. As other church planters watched these demonstration farms thrive, they started asking, “Can I get that seed?”
As Granger added this second layer of training to existing training offered by the Bible League, there was never a need for our organizational partner to solicit funds from Granger to support this work. At this point, we weren’t just a wallet providing money for another Bible League project; we were a strategic partner adding value to an existing work. The new training we provided went beyond the scope of the Bible League program, so Granger led and funded the work directly. Eventually, we added another two layers of training, one focused on leadership development and the other on community transformation.