Are Real Partnerships in Global Missions Possible?

“For effective North American-global partnerships to exist, we need to revise our paradigms, or the ways we look at things.”

Excerpted from “Western Christians in Global Mission: What’s the Role of the North American Church?” by Paul Borthwick (IVP, © 2012)

Partnership Equality

Partnership has become one of the most overused buzzwords in the global Christian mission enterprise. A search on Google for the phrase partnership in mission points to over seventeen thousand sites. But the word has many potential meanings. For one, partnership can mean, “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.”

For another organization, partnership means, “our church wants to send short-term mission teams to your location.” For another, it refers to the array of groups that have joined in partnership, which means they have agreed to come under our organizational umbrella or fit into our strategic plan (and we’re sending them money).

In his foreword to Cross-Cultural Partnerships, Duane Elmer records his experience in Canada of trying to unpack the meaning of the word partnership in a conference of Christian workers:

Five years ago I spoke at a conference in Canada where two-thirds of the attendees were Canadian missionaries and the remaining one-third were First Nations people. The conference theme was “Partnership.” After opening remarks, I asked the group a question: “What comes to your mind when you hear the word partnership?” The missionary members offered words like mutuality, sharing, respect, cooperation, collaboration and so on. It struck me that, as far as I could tell, none of the First Nations people had spoken. After a long silence, a First Nations person spoke firmly but dispassionately: “When we hear the word partnership, what comes to our mind is that this is another way for the White man to control us.”

North American mission leaders offer the same basic critique. Joe Handley, president of Asian Access, a ministry dedicated to coming alongside of leaders across Asia, writes:

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Unfortunately, for the most part, the North American mission force talks a great game about partnership, but paternalism and colonial patterns still predominate. My sense is that the global church would love to partner but isn’t interested in the strings that are attached or the models of ministry we bring. Rather, they are looking for friends who model Christlike family: servant-oriented to help lift up and encourage/empower. Thus, servant-based friendship that brings resources at the right time and measurements but does so without control. This friendship requires unique listening skills and sensitivity to the cultural milieu and cues in each region.2

Richard Tiplady of the European Missionary Association observes, “We have to be very careful about how we use and understand that word partner. For many Northern/Western Christians (and I include Europeans here alongside North Americans), our ‘partners’ are those people in Latin America, Africa or Asiawhom we help. That’s not partnership.”3

Ron Blue, veteran missionary and an adjunct professor in world missions and intercultural studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, says that although we in North America talk much about partnership, in reality we’re talking about sponsorship. He observes, “It appears to me that those of us in the North American empire are rather slow to yield control to others.”4

Bill Taylor, former executive director of the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission and a peripatetic world traveler, takes the problem deeper. He blames both North American and Majority World leaders for the breakdown: “What does partnership between Global North and Global South look like? A respected veteran cross-cultural servant told me recently: ‘At the end of the day, and after forty years of observing it, all the talk is great, but regretfully the selfish desires of our mission leaders from both South and North take over. Authentic, mutually-respectful, trust-giving partnerships don’t just happen. It takes more work and requires a kind of humility that most people are either not really interested in or capable of. I’m surprised I’m not more cynical than I am.”5

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