6 Characteristics of a Healthy Missions Partnership

Today we love to be connected, networked, and involved. And the pursuit of Christian missions is certainly no exception. This is largely a good thing, as local churches seem increasingly inclined to stay connected to missionaries they send and to partner more relationally with others they support. But as with all things in a fallen world, there is a potential for most any trend to work for good or for ill.

So we should make sure we think about missions partnerships carefully, wisely, and biblically. So with that in mind I want to offer six principles for partnering with overseas workers in global evangelism.

Before we get there, let me clarify what these principles are and what they are not. These aren’t things directly commanded by Scripture. But neither are they mere observations or best practices about what seems to make partnerships work. Instead, these ideas flow from biblical priorities for churches and church planting.

Those general priorities include the importance of humility (Phil. 2:1–11; 1 Pet. 5:5), the creating and shaping of God’s people by his Word (Ezek. 37:1–14; Matt. 4:4; 2 Tim. 4:1–3), the beauty of cooperation among churches in gospel work (3 John), and the gospel “rightness” of committed love for specific missionaries (Phil. 4:10–20). It’s my hope that reflecting on these broad priorities will help churches more carefully consider how they can engage humbly with global gospel work.

1. Servant-Minded

Every partnership begins with the motivations you bring to the table. Are you seeking to serve workers overseas or to be served by them? Don’t just pass this by with a mental wave of the hand—think about it honestly. Many churches seem to view missions partnerships as a way to enhance their own “missions program” rather than as an avenue to serve Christ by serving his missionaries.

So what does a humble, servant-minded partnership look like in practice? Well, it’s characterized by a desire to do “the ministry of whatever.” Being willing to do whatever the field workers or missions leaders deem helpful is the right place to begin. It means saying, “What can we do to serve and partner with you? Nothing is too big and nothing is too small.”

“Being willing to do whatever the field workers or missions leaders deem helpful is the right place to begin.”

This willingness to start small and be faithful in an incrementally deepening partnership is hugely important for building trust. Some overseas workers have spent years learning a language and engaging a culture, only to have careless short term teams from the United States come and blow up years of work. Their fear is legitimate.

But as a church demonstrates a willingness to help foreign workers in even small, behind-the-scenes ways—like caring for children while their parents attend training meetings—it earns the workers’ trust as well as the opportunity to gently propose biblically based change.

2. Pastor-Led

Leadership begins not with the pastor’s own passion for missions—that’s great, but insufficient. It begins with a pastor regularly preaching through the whole corpus of Scripture, opening up the implications of the gospel Sunday after Sunday.

God is a missionary God. He has a passion for the nations, and Scripture is full of that passion. From the books of Moses, through the histories, to the Prophets, and on throughout the Gospels and Epistles, God’s passion to call worshipers from all languages, tribes, people, and nations is foundational (see Gen. 12:2–3; Isa. 19:19–25; or Rev. 7:9–10 for just a taste).

Congregations whose shepherds regularly preach this rich biblical message will begin to have their worldview shaped by it. They will learn that the gospel is about more than merely growing “their” church. It’s about more than their own culture or country. The gospel is for all people everywhere.

Understanding both the urgency of the task—“How will they hear unless someone is sent?”—and the greatness and worthiness of God will fuel a passion that touches a whole congregation. Preaching like this is in fact the most foundational thing a pastor can do to lead his congregation in missions.

A pastor must not only preach; he must also pray regularly from the pulpit for the work of the gospel overseas. This instructs the hearts of his people as they hear that God’s kingdom is about more than just “our group.” It exposes their minds to God’s vast global plan.

Such prayer reminds them each Sunday that Jesus is Lord of the people of Tobago and Uzbekistan and Bhutan as well as their home town. Prayer from the pulpit that embraces the global cause of Christ is one of the best antidotes to such God-belittling provincialism. Such prayer can do more than you may imagine to expand the hearts of a congregation.

Finally, a pastor who faithfully shapes his congregation’s passions by the Word can then show them how to direct their passions by going out himself to support the work of missions. He should not go alone but should take key leaders with him. When a pastor demonstrates the importance of cross-cultural gospel work by giving his own time to it, the impact on the congregation can be huge.

3. Relationship-Based

Partnerships shouldn’t be based on projects but on personal relationships. Often we’re tempted to think that we need to have our fingers in many places around the world in order to be faithful to the Great Commission. But keeping up with many contacts in many places often results in shallow and ineffectual relationships.

In most cases churches would do better to pick a few workers and go deep in their relationship with their work. This kind of focus requires a humble admission that while God is infinite, you and your congregation are not. And it requires the loving discipline to resist overextending your congregation into shallow, feel-good engagements every time you hear about some new opportunity. But the results for the kingdom can be striking when this sort of discipline and focus prevails.

Again, when evaluating whom to invest in, three principles have proven helpful to our church. We try to partner with workers who are the following:

  1. Excellent in their work. We want to partner with workers who seem to be doing work well and who are biblically thoughtful about how they do it.
  2. Strategic in their focus. We want to partner with workers laboring in places where there is little gospel light or where their work aims to strengthen local churches.
  3. Widely known by the congregation. We want to partner with workers who not only are known to the church leadership but are known (or willing to do the work to become known) throughout the whole congregation.

4. Commitment-Centered

Your church should be willing to seriously commit to the workers with whom you partner. Workers all too often tell of churches who mean well but turn out to be fair-weather partners, or who lose interest in a partnership when situations on the field limit their involvement in short-term trips or projects. Instead, consider committing to serve a team of workers in any way they find helpful. Be willing to do trips if they find that helpful. Be willing not to come if the timing isn’t right.

Being commitment-centered also means working with a long attention span, for the long haul. In good years and bad. When your partnership is encouraging or just plain hard.

Finally, this commitment should show itself in a desire to celebrate thoughtful biblical faithfulness, even if fruit is slow in coming. Your commitment to faithfulness can help your partnering workers to persevere in proclaiming the plain gospel message even when the results aren’t seen.

5. Congregation-Wide

It also should come as no surprise that a healthy church partnership generally presumes that the congregation, not just a few leaders, actually owns the partnership. When the average church member understands something of the focus and direction of the church’s partnership, then the ground is laid for a fruitful relationship. This can be encouraged by regularly updating the entire congregation on the church’s international involvement. In my own church this is done through a short report during members meetings and through regular prayers for missionaries on Sunday nights.

To get to this point our congregation has tried to teach that active concern for missions is a normal part of the faithful Christian life, not an optional add-on. For us this has also meant eliminating special mission committees and giving oversight of our missions efforts to the church elders. This has helped members see that missions is a core part of the ministry of the church, not one among many optional ministries on the periphery, for certain people who are “interested in that sort of thing.”

It’s also important to involve the congregation in praying for missions. In our own congregation, we hear a brief one-to-two-minute update, every Sunday night, for a worker we support (out of about twenty, total) and then pray for him or her. We regularly host workers when they are in town and interview them before the whole congregation. Then we pray for them. We also print the names and general details of our supported workers in a prayer directory given to every member of our church. As much as security concerns allow, we put the names and general locations of our workers in front of all members, not just the “missions club.”

6. Long-Term Focused

Finally, most fruitful and humble partnerships will almost certainly be long-term focused. By this I mean that your church should work to cultivate long-term overseas workers from your own congregation.

At the outset of a partnership, why not articulate the explicit goal that some of your own members will uproot their lives and plant them long-term in another culture for the sake of the gospel? Even more, if possible, why not aim to eventually staff an entire missionary team from your church or in partnership with other like-minded churches?

Being long-term focused may also mean doing short-term trips with the long-term mind-set. Rather than just providing “missions experiences,” consider trips that support the work of existing long-term teams to whom you are committed. See your short-term work primarily as a way to support your longterm partners in whatever ways they need, and secondarily as a way to raise up your own members to join the work long-term. Workers on the mission field generally need more boots on the ground—day in, day out—not just friends passing through.

Faithfulness in Missions

Your church may approach things somewhat differently. You may have different resources, different timelines, and different needs. You may think of better things to do than the specific examples in this article.

But the core biblical priorities of humility, a focus on God’s word, cooperation with others and commitment to stick it out are important in any missions engagements, whatever that may look like in your local church.

And this kind of faithfulness and wisdom will, I think, bring great glory to God. Isn’t that ultimately what we’re aiming for in missions partnerships after all?

Andy Johnson earned a PhD from Texas A&M and now serves as an associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.

Editor’s note: This is an adapted excerpt from Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global (Crossway, 2017).