Who to Pick and Who to Pass By: Choosing the Right Partners in Mission

About ten years ago, I led a small team into an unreached village in a country I was unfamiliar with. I couldn’t find an interpreter, so the first day we made virtually no progress. In the midst of my discouragement and frustration, however, two men with big smiles on their faces approached us. One of them asked me in near perfect English, “Are you from Washington, DC?” Dumfounded, I answered, “Yes I am!”

That man’s name was Rico, and for the previous six months, he’d been a sous chef on an Italian cruise ship where one of his coworkers had shared the gospel with him repeatedly as they worked together. Just before the job was over, Rico had placed his faith in Jesus and been baptized. The man who shared the gospel with Rico had also encouraged him to find a church when he returned home. So on his first day back, Rico made a beeline for a local man whom he thought might be a follower of Jesus. “Are you a Christian?” Rico straightforwardly asked. “No,” he replied, “But I just met a Christian from Washington, DC. I can take you to him.”

Rico interpreted for me during the remainder of that trip. We became trusted friends, and we met regularly via video calls after our trip was over. Other members of our church also continued to disciple him each time we visited. Eventually, Rico went to seminary, and now he is leading a small network of house churches in his area.

Why You Need National Partners

I’ve always resonated with Paul’s ambition to “preach the gospel where Christ has not been named” (Rom. 15:20 CSB). So when it came time for our congregation to play our part in fulfilling the Great Commission, I tried to find the place with the most urgent need. Perhaps a more experienced pastor would have taken a broader set of criteria into consideration. But at that time in my life, it was enough just to go where Jesus hadn’t been “named.” That’s how I ended up in a village where I didn’t know the language, didn’t have an interpreter, and didn’t have any idea how I was going to see the gospel make an impact in that place.

I now realize that I needed a little less of the maverick missionary impulse and a lot more of the help that comes from partnerships with national believers. Since then I have heavily relied on nationals for help on the foreign mission field. They’ve assisted with communication, transportation, and housing. And even when there are no national believers living in the immediate area, the closest church can often help with logistical preparations as well as historical, contextual, and cultural concerns.

“I needed a little less of the maverick missionary impulse and a lot more of the help that comes from partnerships with national believers.”

Some of these relationships have worked out beautifully; others have not. Over time I’ve developed a few rules for partnership rules that have helped to guide us to the right people and to keep those relationships strong and vibrant for both churches.

Some Rules for Relationships

  • Language
    Nothing slows down missionary work more than the time and effort involved in learning another language. So partner with those who speak your language sufficiently and can easily navigate the tools you use to communicate. Pass by those who have trouble understanding your language or those who are difficult to get in touch with. (They may be committed believers, but they would make difficult partners.)
  • Character
    Communication skills are no substitute for personal character, so don’t settle for every national who claims to be a Christian. Partner with those who have a good reputation with others in the community. If you walk around with someone for a few hours, do you encounter people along the way who seem happy to see them?
  • Courage
    Partner with those who know when to tell you no. If a national partner says yes to every request, it’s often because they are trying to earn your approval instead of doing what is right. This a recipe for unhealthy pragmatism on their end and unintentional paternalism on your end. So look for those whose confidence in Christ allows them to tell you no from time to time.
  • Mission
    Partner with those who welcome you into their homes and introduce you to all their friends and family members. I have found this is a good indication of their eagerness for evangelism and their desire to partner with your church. Avoid those who only want to introduce you to their business contacts and work associates for reasons that lack any obvious missional purpose. Unfortunately, this is a common strategy among those who are more interested in your money than in your partnership on mission.

Praying for What Only God Can Provide

Ultimately, finding national partners for missions work is not like any other item on your mission trip’s to-do list. Indeed, it is a grave mistake to go to the mission field without an expectation of and dependence on God’s providential guidance. Even the most thorough plan will not come to fruition without earnest prayer.

“One of the men asked me in near perfect English, ‘Are you from Washington, DC?’ Dumfounded, I answered,‘Yes I am!’”

Remember, you are not simply looking for someone who can help you avoid amateur cultural mistakes. (That’s a qualification that anyone can naturally acquire.) Rather, you are looking for someone who has the aforementioned linguistic skills, godly character, confidence in Christ, and heart for the mission. And that combination is something only God can produce and provide.

Clint Clifton is the founding pastor of Pillar Church in Dumfries, Virginia. Since its inception, Pillar has started at least one new church each year, including churches in Iceland, Indonesia, Japan, and Hawaii. Clint also serves as the NAMB Send City Missionary for Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Maryland. He is the author of Church Planting Thresholds: A Gospel-Centered Guide.