Planting Trees, Reaping Forests: The Fruit of Long-term Partnerships

An old Chinese proverb about planting trees says, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” The same holds true for cross-cultural church planting partnerships.

Indeed, the most fruitful work emerges out of relationships that mature with time and cannot be microwaved into existence. And if you do not have genuine partnerships like this in your local church, the next best time to start is today.

Our church has experienced the benefit of several missions partnerships, and we increasingly value three types of fruit they produce.

1. Realistic Expectations for the Mission

Long-term partnerships teach the church what it takes for the gospel to be planted in unreached contexts. When our family of churches started the Iceland Project in 2006, for example, we were overly optimistic about our potential for short-term impact. After more than five years of cross-cultural mission trips, we were humbled by the painful lack of any real signs of progress.

We didn’t give up, however. And one day—as if out of nowhere—we saw the Lord raise up a qualified church planter to spearhead the work in Iceland. Since then, we have continued to support his work, and we helped sustain his family through various trials.

“Long-term partnerships teach the church what it takes for the gospel to be planted in unreached contexts.”

Now we are continually amazed at this growing church, which is springing out of the hardest of soils. We are equal parts in awe of God and humbled to be part of the journey. The partnership process has been a sort of training we would not have even known how to design. And the result is that our people are less naïve about the cost and challenges of advancing the gospel, both abroad and at home.

2. Mutual Edification in the Mission

Long-term partnerships help national partners flourish through genuine interdependency. But healthy interdependence is a tricky business in any cross-cultural work. The further removed we are from one another geographically and culturally, the longer it takes to figure out how to work together like true peers.

We have observed that cross-cultural relationships can easily fall into a ditch on either side of the road. On one side, our pride can cause us to relate to national partners in condescending ways. When this happens, we fail to affirm their strengths and learn from their faith in ways that would make us godlier and more equipped in our own context. On the other side, an overreaction to this error can treat national believers as heroic experts who have nothing to learn from any outsiders, whether theologically or practically.

“Long-term partnerships help national partners flourish through genuine interdependency.”

On a recent trip to Indonesia, I watched as our national partner (whom we have worked with for ten years) challenged some of our preconceived notions about how to carry out a facet of gospel ministry. It was clear that he felt comfortable being our teacher. Yet I also watched as our partner thanked one of our church members for the marriage counsel given to him and his wife on one of our previous trips. He also asked our advice on some leadership decisions he had been considering. We gave some input. But mostly we affirmed him in his ability to navigate the context in ways that far surpassed our insights. All in all, there is a great sense of trust, and we have learned what it looks like to be fellow-laborers in God’s field.

3. Powerful Encouragement for the Mission

Finally, long-term partnerships can power the mission through seasons of discouragement and change.

Our goal has always been to work with national leaders to multiply churches among the unreached. In our two primary partnerships overseas, God has graciously helped us to weather significant challenges of every type. In truth, we would not have remained as meaningfully engaged without our national partners compelling us to continue to work together. They’ve also told us that they would likely have given up without our partnership in the work.

“Long-term partnerships can power the mission through seasons of discouragement and change.”

Of course, the real benefits are not our own. They belong to those we continue to evangelize and disciple together. We remind one another often that we have more to look forward to in the future than all that we have to celebrate from the past.

The Future of Forestry

If every church were a tree in the kingdom God—then what might happen if we all aimed to plant not just one more tree, but a whole forest of oaks?

That’s what our church has prayed for. That’s why we have pursued deep fellowship with national churches in places that make even the most difficult ventures seem possible. We long to see our partnership with that church in Indonesia bear fruit among the unreached Loloan people in western Bali. And in Iceland we are talking about planting in new cities, like Akureyri in the north. But above all, we are humbled and excited to watch God keep his promise to bring forth fruit from our labors as we follow him to the nations.

The best time to start cross-cultural partnerships like these was twenty years ago. But the second best time is now!

Colby Garman pastors Pillar Church in Dumfries, Virginia, where he spends his time working to make more and better disciples for church multiplication in military communities and among unreached people groups. He and his wife, Annie, spent two years in Iceland serving with the IMB. They also are busy raising four daughters. You can follow Colby on Twitter.