When Pastor Joe Wittwer visited Iglesia Elim in Armenia, El Salvador, he saw the massive needs and wanted to help. He had already formed a close bond with Elim's husband and wife pastoral team, Frank and Paty Ardon. Despite gang warfare in the neighborhood, they were partnering with Compassion International to provide weekly care for more than 300 children and their families.
The burgeoning six-day a week ministry had forced them to add a separate building on the church grounds. But the mortgage wasn't cheap. At $500 a month (on a total mortgage of $18,000), the church was struggling to make ends meet.
A group of women helped offset the costs by making tamales and selling them in town for 25 cents apiece, but that only netted about $140 a month. Joe Wittwer's church, Life Center in Spokane, Washington, wanted to help their new friends in El Salvador, but they weren't sure how.
In the past, the pattern would have been for Wittwer and his church to swoop in and start paying the monthly mortgage, or just write a check for $18,000 to get rid of the mortgage altogether.
But that kind of "help" often ended up having negative unintended consequences. The North American churches, loaded with money, were cast as the saviors or experts sent to rescue the helpless "junior" partners. While this approach might solve a short-term problem, it rarely produced long-term solutions or fostered healthy relationships.
Now, a "Church to Church" (C2C) initiative, developed by Compassion International and the Willow Creek Association (WCA), is attempting to help churches avoid these past pitfalls by promoting genuine cross-cultural church partnerships.
C2C is simple: Compassion International matches a WCA church from North America with a church that's running a Compassion program in a village in India, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Peru, Bolivia, Uganda, Kenya, Haiti, or the Philippines.
Compassion International provides training that helps the churches avoid one-sided, dependent relationships that are based on giving money and fixing problems rather than building friendships and finding ways for ministry to flow in both directions.
Such partnerships aren't easy. Differences in language, expectations, communication, and distances (which sometimes span 11 time zones) can create profound misunderstandings. Despite these barriers, C2C has initiated 65 of these globally, and another 40 church partnerships are planned by the end of 2011.
As friendships have blossomed, the churches in India, El Salvador and Ethiopia are helping their American partners learn (and unlearn) what they know about the gospel, discipleship, community, and the mission of the church.
I talked with six participating pastors about what they've learned.
Spiritual vitality around the globe
First, the American pastors are seeing first-hand the spiritual vitality of churches across the globe. The older, traditional model of global church partnerships assumed that churches in the "developing world" were spiritually weak and missionally ineffective. But the American C2C partners I interviewed consistently praised the spiritual vitality of their global partners. For instance, consider these two international churches:
Church A consists of one church meeting in 16 locations. They have a well-defined mission: "To glorify God by making disciples." With a clear, three-step process for making disciples, they've mastered the "simple church" concept.
Church B launched a creative, organic farming business that supports their outreach to children and families. The word around town is that if you're ever in trouble, you can run to Church B and you'll find love and safety.