Churches Partnering Together (Book Review)

churches-partnering-togetherWhat would it look like for churches partnering together for the gospel?  With God’s blessing and power at work, the sky is the limit.  Most Christians have thought at one point, “What a great idea!  I wonder if our church could do something like that?”  Only to watch the idea outright rejected by the pastor or die in committee.  How discouraging for creative minds who only want to see God’s kingdom advance in new, fresh, and exciting ways.  Most of those ideas that go nowhere get shot down by the realities of time, budget, and people restraints.  Responsible decision makers have to protect the institution and bottom line, right?  Well, there is something good to be said for guarding against recklessness.  But what if churches have not considered the possibility of working with other local churches to tackle lingering problems that no single church has been able or willing to tackle alone?  This is the kind of question the book, Churches Partnering Together: Biblical Strategies for Fellowship, Evangelism, and Compassion, seeks to answer.

Author

From the back cover: “Chris Bruno (PhD, Wheaton College) is the executive director of the Antioch School Hawai’i and pastor for discipleship and training at Harbor Church.  He is the author of numerous articles and reviews for several journals and websites.  Matt Dirks (MDiv, Talbot School of Theology) is pastor for preaching and leadership at Harbor Church in Honolulu.  In addition to training church planters, he has also helped launch partnerships for church-based theological education and ministry training around the world.”

Chris is the dean and professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Northland Graduate School.  It appears he is in the Southern Baptist tradition.

Matt is a contributor for The Gospel Coalition and also involved in social justice through his work to rescue sex trafficking victims in Hawaii.

Thesis

The authors argue that most churches are too small to accomplish larger projects for the Christ’s kingdom, therefore they ought to team with other nearby congregations of like faith and practice (not necessarily from the same denomination) to establish church partnerships to facilitate shared fellowship, evangelism, and compassion.  Church partnerships are not just for smaller churches, because larger churches need what smaller churches can offer, and vice versa.  The biblical model and precedent for these types of church partnerships is the Jerusalem Collection partnership, spearheaded by the Apostle Paul, that unified a network of Gentile churches in sharing with their poor Jewish brothers in the church at Jerusalem.

Overview

As is often the case, a book’s table of contents provides a useful overview of the book’s message.  Churches Partnering Together is no different.  Here is a summary of each chapter:

  1. Catching the Vision: Understanding Kingdom Partnership.  The authors define what church partnerships are and aren’t, what they are for, and when they are desirable.  Here we discover the nature of the first church partnership (The Jerusalem Collection) and the purpose of church partnership (fellowship and unity, evangelism, and compassion).
  2. Laying the Foundation: Building on the Gospel.  There are many inadequate foundations upon which churches might seek to build partnerships.  But kingdom work that glorifies God must be built on the gospel.  Gospel-less partnerships are a waste of time and energy at best, and destructive to the mission of the church at worst.  Kingdom partnerships have particular characteristics.  They strive for the kingdom of God to be proclaimed continually.  They recognize that the kingdom is owned by the poor in spirit.  They realize that the kingdom begins small and may be slow growing.  They know the kingdom is gained by forceful people (“the violent bear it away”).  And they remember that the kingdom gives more responsibility to those who use what God has already entrusted to them.  The authors argue that networks are helpful, but they are not the same as church partnerships.  By way of comparison and contrast, they say a network is passive but a partnership is active.  A network is about sharing information, expertise, and inspiration, while a partnership is about shared responsibility.  A network focuses inwardly on individual churches/leaders, but a partnership is focused outwardly on God’s expansive kingdom.
  3. Clarifying the Mission: Identifying Roles and Resources.  It is helpful to think of the task of building a church partnership as climbing a mountain.  In order to climb a mountain, one must clarify the mission, the goals, and the resources available.  The Mission is “a unique calling from God that’s bigger than your church can handle alone.”  The Goals are “big things that must be accomplished through the power of Christ to achieve the mission.”  Resources are “the gifts, expertise, material resource, experience, and connections needed” to fulfill the mission and accomplish the goals.  Action is ultimately necessary, but careful planning before action will help you avoid or work through common obstacles.
  4. Leading the Charge: Catalytic Leaders and Churches.  What are some characteristics of catalytic leaders?  They are respected, radically dependent on God, act as role models, selflessly humble, hard workers, and passionately committed to people.  What are some characteristics of catalytic churches?  They are empowered by God’s grace, radically joyful, and they start small and increase.  Both leaders and churches tend be entrepreneurial.  The biblical example is the Macedonian churches.
  5. Staying the Course: Patience and Perseverance.  On the way up the “mountain” of the church partnership, there will be various obstacles.  They include slow progress, transience, other pressing priorities, differences in ministry style, flakiness, and internal/external opposition.  (This reminds me of Nehemiah’s wall building project!)  These obstacles threaten to derail the partnership if the various “diseases” are not diagnosed and treated: self-dependence, man-fearing, despair, and impatience.  Do not be surprised at the common stages of growth in a church partnership (forming, storming, norming, performing).  Through these various stages, there are reasons to persevere, especially the reward of Christ.
  6. Giving and Receiving: Interdependence in Partnership.  The biblical example is the interdependence that existed between the churches of Corinth (primarily wealthy and Greek) and Jerusalem (primarily poor and Jewish).  Partnership is like a healthy friendship, not a one-way “ministry” relationship.  Benefits are for all parties, some of which are stronger gospel fellowship, encouragement, inspiration, refreshment, spiritual and practical sharpening, greater passion for other areas of ministry, and tangible assistance.  There are certain enemies of cultivating and maintaining interdependence in church partnership.  Some of these enemies are confronting an attitude of inferiority and uselessness (or of superiority and arrogance), not recognizing limits of interdependence, and sowing sparingly.
  7. Expanding Ownership: Building Engagement, Enthusiasm, and Dedication.  Taking ownership over the work of the church partnership is important.  A sense of ownership can be cultivated by avoiding an atmosphere of pressure and guilt, fostering an atmosphere of delight in duty, of mutual praise, and of openness and accountability.  True shepherds do not work in the church partnership as “hired hands.”
  8. Launching a Movement: Multiplying Ministries for God’s Glory.  You never know how God will grow and bless the church partnership you begin.  Lots of ministries may spawn off the catalyst.  One can trace a straight line in the Bible from the ministry of John the Baptist through Jesus, Paul, and Timothy planting churches in every town on the island of Crete.  This is just one example of multiplying seed.  Multiplication of church partnerships is how God rapidly grows the kingdom.  There are three options when the opportunity arises to multiply new ideas.  One could say Yes, trying to do it all.  The risk is doing too much which may lead to the downfall of the partnership.  One could say No, trying to stay laser-focused.  The risk is quenching the Holy Spirit’s work.  Or one could consider giving birth to a new partnership because the goal of church partnership is to ignite, by the Spirit’s power, a gospel movement.  What makes a movement?  Tim Keller says movements are marked by a compelling vision, they lead to a culture of sacrificial commitment and intrinsic rewards, they are characterized by a stance of generous flexibility toward organizations and people, and they spontaneously produce new ideas and leaders.  There are certain signs that a church partnership is ready to reproduce.  If your church partnership is ready, then get ready to lose control!  But this is a good thing, because the end goal is not a well-managed, maintained, and ordered partnership, but rather the glory of God and favor of man.  Consider the church partnership movement of Calvin’s Geneva.
  9. Putting it All Together: Kingdom Partnership Step by Step.  This is a summary chapter with a list of 14 things to do to start a church partnership.  Each item on the list includes a helpful assessment form diagnosing where your church partners are at in terms of moving forward in a healthy manner.
  10. Appendix: Frequently Asked Questions.  The authors tackle questions on whether only experts should be doing church partnerships; the differences between the local church, parachurch ministry, and kingdom partnership; getting a reluctant pastor on board; doctrinal differences that should or should not get in the way of church partnership; the financial question of who pays for it; and the partnership terminus.

My Thoughts

This book is introductory in nature.  It functions as both a how-to-get-started manual, and a simply study of the first century Jerusalem Church partnership.  I really appreciate what the authors are trying to do, which is convince churches of the likelihood that more and more kingdom work will necessarily be done through church partnerships in the future.  Why?  Because as the world becomes more bifurcated between the secular and religious, leading to greater conflict between the church and the world (dominant culture), churches will find themselves needing each other.  In a hostile or indifferent environment, Christians who don’t naturally cooperate in the Christian subculture will eventually look at each other as fellow exiles.  Expats always have a certain affinity for one another.  The unity and fellowship should be leveraged for God by developing church partnerships.

I wish the authors had spent more time discussing the practical steps necessary for achieving unity between churches of different doctrinal traditions.  What sort of creed, confession, or statement of faith has proved successful at both uniting and establishing boundaries?  One of the ecumenical creeds (Apostles’, Nicene) seems too generic to unite an evangelical partnership.  But one of the Reformation-era confessions (Augsburg, Thirty-Nine Articles, Belgic, Westminster, London Baptist) seems too explicit to encourage unity across doctrinal lines.  Perhaps a modern statement of faith and philosophy of ministry such as The Gospel Coalition founding documents could suffice?  It would be helpful to know how churches that have already established partnerships found doctrinal unity.

The numerous examples and stories of church partnerships are encouraging and thought-provoking.  But an example of a brainstorming session, or a list of many kinds of ideas for establishing church ministry partnerships would be immensely helpful.  This could assist churches that sense the need to be in fellowship and partnership with other congregations find a project to pursue.  Obviously such a list would necessarily be a-contextual and would need to be reimagined for a particular community’s issue.  But I can’t help thinking that such a list could prod churches in the right direction.  Along these lines, if the authors want to start a movement of church partnerships, why not maintain a website featuring such partnerships?  While a website is not an adequate basis for church partnership (and could become a distraction), it could create a network of like-minded churches to share ideas, meet each other, and launch related ministries.  A website like this could facilitate a church partnering movement!  The authors and their contacts could launch the website to get the rest of us move ahead where we’re stuck.

Memorable Quotes

“In thousands of cities across the globe, churches large and small haven’t considered the amazing things God could do through them in partnership with others.  He used kingdom churches to turn the first-century world upside down (Acts 17:6).  What will he do in the twenty-first?” (p. 31)

“I believe in eggs, but we must get chickens out of them…Brethren, do something; do something; do something.  While committees waste their time over resolutions, do something.  While Societies and Unions are making constitutions, let us win souls.  Too often we discuss, and discuss, and discuss, and Satan laughs in his sleeve.  It is time we had done planning and sought something to plan.  I pray you: be men of action, all of you.” (Charles Spurgeon quote, p. 64)

“If you don’t throw all your seed out on the ground, you won’t have food to eat, but you’ll still have the seed.  It won’t do you much good when you die of starvation, but at least you’ll still have it.  If you do thrown out that seed and it doesn’t grow, you won’t have food to eat and you won’t have any seed.  So with every toss of your arm, you’re making yourself more and more dependent on God.  He’s got to come through and make this seed grow, or else you’ll die!  And that’s exactly where he wants you.  It’s common sense that you’ll have more if you keep more, but Paul believed the opposite: you’ll have more if you give more.  When you and your church sow bountifully, you’ll reap bountifully.” (p. 111)

“Think about what happens when the glory of God is at the center of the movement.  Believers are blessed and give thanks to God because of you: ‘You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God’ (2 Cor 9:11).  In addition, the watching world notices ‘your light [shining] before others,’ and they ‘see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven’ (Matt 5:16).” (p. 142)

Other Resources

Book reviews:

Sample the book’s first two chapters

Matt Dirks discussing the topic of Churches Partnering Together:

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