Slaying the Dragons of Self-Interest: Making International Partnership Work

Our key choices mean surrendering our power over our structures and resources.

Individuality is the husk of personal life. Individuality is all elbows; it separates and isolates.
— Oswald Chambers

Individuality on the corporate level is robbing the Lord of the harvest of our best Great Commission efforts. In world missions, it is all elbows, separating and isolating one agency from another, and Western from non-Western agencies.

The bottom line for many of us seems to be whether our institutions are maintained, rather than, How is the Kingdom of God growing? What was born in the heart of our founders as a movement of the Holy Spirit all too often has degenerated into a quest to keep the cadaver mimicking life.

When I became president of an American missionary sending agency it was with the singular passion to see the globe covered with churches. It was to see "One church for every one thousand people," as the broad outline for our efforts. Only sheer arrogance, or stupidity, would lead me to believe that our mission could do it alone. Our goal of 500 missionaries and 1,000 new churches planted in 10 years was enough shock for a 45-year-old mission. To accomplish the global task will take more than our effort alone.

Therefore, I decided at the beginning to pursue both practice and influence. I want to plant as many churches as God allows with the resources he gives us, meanwhile influencing others worldwide to share the vision. Influence has to be more than talk, because talk is safe and cheap. Safe in that we could pursue our own goals and gloat if we made them. Cheap because it costs us nothing outside of the tightly knit structure over which I hold board-delegated authority.

Power and Resources

The secret to any kind partnership for world evangelization lies in what we choose to do with the power we hold over our structure, and how that power affects our resources. Individuality is obsessed with control of power and resources. Call it institutional pride, vision maintenance, organizational responsibility, or any other fancy, self-justifying term. Power and resources directly block the path of partnership. One group can have an influence far beyond its size by partnering with non-Western sending agencies that are not denominationally related. We want to help these agencies to become international sending agencies. So much of the effort to date in Africa, Asia, and Latin America could be called "barefoot" missions. "Barefoot" missionaries are in-continent, tribe-to-tribe missionaries, and that's great.

However, my desire to see something broader is based on two perceptions. First, the task cannot truly be universal in effort, as well as focus, until sending agencies from all continents stand on global parity with Western agencies, owning together the world evangelization effort. Until they do, they will continue to be stepchildren of Western dominance.

Furthermore, the task of Saturation Church Planting is not truly feasible without members of the whole body mobilizing together. For example, I have often wondered whether our Western obsession with going to unreached, closed people was calling or arrogance. Are there not places where Western agencies contrive to send missionaries without their giving serious consideration to a partner agency that could help them go where no contriving was needed?

Criteria for Partnership

Flowing out of our commitment to pursue 10 such partners came a checklist of essentials needed to choose them.

  1. We look for a person with a compatible vision. There is no lack of people outside of the West who share our vision about the importance of saturation church planting. They live with the reality, both theologically and strategically, that proliferation of churches is the best way to reach their people.
  2. We look for a partner with a choice. By that we mean someone who has been out of his own context, has been offered other options, but has chosen to return to his own people. Our group does not want to be the launch pad for nationals to the United States. We look for leaders who have made the sacrificial decision to return to their own land, after receiving significant Western education and job offers in the West commensurate with their abilities. We feel their vision and program is Spirit-inspired and soul-crafted. We can rely on them for the long haul.
  3. We look for a leader with personal, educational, and ministry credibility. We want people who are, and are becoming, people of qualitative distinction. They need to have an education that distinguishes them as eminently qualified to be effective in their calling. Spiritual gifted-ness must be learned through training. But even more important, if they are to exert significant influence, their peers must esteem them. Academic credentials are one element in earning appropriate esteem. Naturally, ministry effectiveness must also be evident.
  4. We look for partners with a vehicle to carry out their vision. We do not want them to join us; that is not partnership. We want to come alongside them in carrying out their part of the Great Commission. Line authorities remain distinct. Any resources put on loan to partners, or given to them, are under their authority.

Patterns of Dependency

These guidelines are not exhaustive. However, they do reflect our strong commitment to avoid three patterns of dependency. The first is paternalism. Experience, history, and nationalism, among other things, should have eliminated this relic, but it survives. Enclaves of blatant, oppressive Western paternalism persist. We want to avoid it at all costs.

There are two other more subtle forms of dependency. The second we call "benefactorism.' Aware of the dangers of paternalism, some Western agencies become benefactors by giving people access to their resources and greater opportunities. Suddenly, they wake up to the fact that the foreign brother has chosen to tie his star to theirs. The pain and failure can be just as devastating as paternalism. Almost always, someone will wake up to the dependency that has developed, and conflict follows.

The final form of dependency we have dubbed "lackeyism.' The most obvious form of this pseudo partnership is the transfer of funds alone. The obvious seems appealing, as when Americans are told, "You can support a national for $100 a month, or a Western missionary for $3,000 a month." What's more, indigeneity is used as a mask to guarantee effectiveness. On both theological and strategic arguments, we reject this kind of relation, because it is nothing more than another kind of dependency.

The arguments in favor of this kind of transfer of funds are ultimately spurious and anti-biblical, even though they contain the truth of cooperation and partnership. Just as there is no Western comer on the Great Commission, so there is no non-Western comer. The very nature of the church demands that world evangelization be at the core of its purpose and plans. 

Churches have no choice but to live out the centrality of the Great Commission. Lesslie Newbigin has stated it most clearly:

A church is no tree church if it is not missionary. and missions are not true missions if they am not part of the life of the church .... a congregation is not missionary just because it supports the work of a board or society. The question is always whether or not it is itself missionary; whether it is a witness to the people around it.

To put a geographical limitation on the mandate is no more correct than it was for the Western world to do so for so long in the past. To send financial help alone, based on a "more bang for the buck" philosophy, is a denigration of Christ's calling upon his body.

Not only is the pattern anti-biblical, it is spurious. Having worked with big churches and large budgets, I have learned that "out of sight, out of mind" applies even more to missions. Foreign people supported by the vicarious efforts of justly envisioned people are even further out of mind. The few and faithful may redirect their giving to non-Western missionaries, as a result of the impassioned pleas of their traveling representatives, but the result will not be to the overall benefit of the world evangelization movement in the U.S. Where people cease sending "bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh," they cease being missionary and the drop off of money will not be far behind.

This does not mean that money ought not to flow freely from the West to the rest of the world. But to call that partnership demeans the nature of the church, and exposes the recipients to new and perhaps more paralyzing forms of paternalism.

Partnership Characteristics

What does a healthy partnership look like? Admittedly, we have just begun to find out, but the following are some characteristics that fit the model of biblical partnership.

Responsibility. First, it is a cooperative venture. We agree on mutual responsibility for the lost, wherever they are. We share a common vision and commitment about how they can be reached. Further, we agree about how they can be evangelized by our combined efforts. Within our Mission, we look for kindred spirits who focus on church planting. We make no apologies for our church-planting philosophy: saturating a nation or a group of people with local bodies of believers.

Having said that, we do not presume to know how that can always best be done. That must be field-generated and field-specific. If the methods are not contrary to Scripture, nor illegal, immoral, or unethical, our missionaries are free to try anything.


We look for specific gifts. Each organization has certain Spirit-given resources it brings to the task. Those resources are freely laid on the table, for each to draw from the other, so they can do together what they could not do alone. A resource released is put under the stewardship of the other. Line authorities are left autonomous. The partner is not asked to join the Western "big brother," thereby losing identity. Our task is to enhance identity.


We agree on mutual accountability. Since we share the mandate, the vision, and the process, we also share the results. Misunderstandings, failures, and successes are all fodder for a better relationship. We sink or swim together. This is no whim, no new idea. It is a deep, abiding conviction of the divineness of our cooperation, and a commitment to see it through.

Case Studies

Ultimately, we signed two cooperative joint ventures with African and Indian missionary training and sending agencies that are in the process of becoming international sending agencies. The first was with African Evangelical Outreach, headed by John Apeh of Nigeria. The second was with HBI Ministries International, headed by Paul Gupta of India.

We provided our international training center for both organizations, to be the nerve center where they can maintain ties with their donors. We provide offices, telephones, computers, and so on, processing and receipting their funds in their names. This is a significant savings. Both agencies get regular exposure in our corporate mailings, as we encourage others to join them.

Both freely receive the same kind of strategic planning that is available to all our fields. Our people have been placed on loan to both organizations, serving under their responsibility and authority. Every resource, from training to planning to support development, is available to our partners.

We have received a greater opportunity to obey the Great Commission from these missions. Churches are being planted that could not have, indeed should not have, been planted by us. Together, we have been more effective in saturating places with churches.

We gained new missionaries because of our partners' speaking in U.S. churches. They came to us because of either John Apeh or Paul Gupta. Wherever they go, our agencies go together. More than the name recognition it brings to us, we believe it honors Christ's desire for unity among his people. Further, they have made available to us their properties, where we can train our future church planters in the appropriate context.

In years to come, as they grow more missionaries, we expect to see more joint ventures in places where none of us have work. Our cooperation opens up new avenues of obedience for all of us, together and apart. Of course, there are problems. If partnerships were easy, more would do it. Not only is the path fraught with pitfalls and misunderstandings, but many people try to preserve their own power base and resources. Most people just don't like to take risks. If U.S. agencies have trouble working together, it's even harder for culturally distinct agencies to make it

In the end, forging good working relations between culturally different agencies requires leadership. Leadership, as opposed to maintenance or survivorship. Robert Greenleaf says, "The great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness…These kinds of leaders know how to use the power that comes with authority to benefit the individual and build God's kingdom.”

Sometimes it will be a servant's power of persuasion and example. Sometimes it will be coercive power used to dominate and manipulate. The difference is that in the former power is used to create opportunity and alternatives, so that individuals may choose and build autonomy. In the latter individuals are coerced into a predetermined path.

Successful partnerships will be demanding. To talk of partnership without structural changes over authority, power, and resources is pure rhetoric. As Timothy Warner says, "Man has an inherent need for power, the power just to live as a significant human being, but especially power over the circumstances of life, power over people, power over the future (emphasis added)."

The kind of power Warner refers to applies to our institutions as well as to our personal lives. Institutions have no real personality outside of the people who make them up. In world evangelization, we are prone to deify our missionary agencies. In the deification of a structure, even a missionary one, the line between the entrenchment of personal power and an instrument through which God's power can flow is easily confused.

Autoher, Dwight Smith

Autoher, Dwight Smith

The lower the risk, the more likely we are to protect our own need for significance by dominating others, even, or especially, when we exercise that dominance in the name of Jesus. We will not accomplish significant partnerships until we risk releasing certain power we now have over structures and resources. If it is my structure and my resources, we are not partners: You work for me.

One church for every thousand people is a goal none of us can reach alone. But significant joint ventures between partners, no matter where in the world, can bring the goal closer to reality. It will cost

Chambers says it well: "The characteristics of individuality are independence and self-assertiveness. It is the continual assertion of individuality that hinders..." individuality hinders our ability to build the  kingdom, especially if it means our death.