Everyone agrees that we must work together to accomplish the task of Matthew 28:19-20 so that we may move closer to the end goal found in Matthew 24:14. Furthermore, we all know God did not give this task solely to missionaries or pastors.
In this post-modern world, many in the Church are ready and willing to go “to the ends of the earth”—at least for short periods of time. However, as I’ve mingled with both cross-cultural workers and church leadership, one recurring emotion surfaces: frustration. Some cross-cultural workers dread the next team’s arrival and some church leaders long for a vibrant, influential role in reaching the nations, but feel stymied by overseas personnel.
It does not have to be this way. A healthy partnership finds the cross-cultural worker actively anticipating and preparing for the short-term team. He or she prays that God will multiply his or her expectations, and trusts God to work—both among the people group and in the volunteers.
In the same partnership, the church body knows they play a strategic role in fulfilling God’s will for that community and area. They care little about costs and time because they are invested in the local people and God’s work among them. They trust the cross-cultural worker to create opportunities for sharing, and they are prepared to follow the Holy Spirit as far as he leads them.
A good church-field partnership is like a marriage. It takes work. It demands seemingly excessive amounts of communication, which leads to trust. And while it may not always be comfortable, there is a sense of ‘rightness’ on both sides. Below I examine a healthy church and cross-cultural worker partnership and offer a step-by-step guide to establish and maintain a partnership that glorifies God and fulfills his vision for the world.
In 2001, the lead pastor of River Vista, a large church in the West, traveled to an Arab-influenced area in Africa. He had one day to spend with the only cross-cultural worker in the area. That new worker had no special plan for the pastor. He simply invited the pastor to accompany him on his almost-daily prayer walk through the streets of the ancient city.
They visited shops, talked with locals, and listened to the Holy Spirit. The pastor was skeptical of the cross-cultural worker’s approach, but by the end of one day, the pastor saw the worker’s heart for the people and, through him, God’s design for the work there.
Within a few months, the pastor invited the worker to speak at his church, which led to a vision trip with other church leaders. (On a vision trip two to four influential and spiritually-mature people travel to the field and spend time with the worker. Both they and the worker focus on prayer as the Holy Spirit reveals his heart for the people group and the church.)
Every time he interacted with church members, the cross-cultural worker shared God’s vision for the people group and the purpose statement which arose from that vision. He intentionally exposed the raw lostness of the city and watched for those whose hearts connected to the Father.
He would ask, “What are you seeing that is of him?” This was never spiritual tourism, never something to check off a list of religious accomplishments. After the vision trip in early 2002, River Vista officially partnered with the cross-cultural worker and his team. That relationship continues to this day.
The cross-cultural worker has characterized the relationship as one of continual communication (usually weekly) in which hearts became connected to God’s vision. When that happened, they “took a seat at the table,” and were equally invested in the vision alongside the cross-cultural worker. They offered feedback and suggestions on every major strategy decision. While the worker focused on vision on his side of the world, the partners at River Vista drove the vision on their side, making connections with other churches as well as denominational and para-church leadership. These secondary relationships strengthened the vision and led to other partnerships.
Other ministers often asked the mission pastor at River Vista, “How do you know where to connect?” He replied:
I connect with people of passion. Only with people of passion. The characteristic of a person of passion is that he has seen what God is going to do and he simply lives it out. They become Jesus people in the middle of it, where they become genuinely real. It looks like there’s not any effort to it. They just live life within the lostness.
As I reflected on both this case study and my own experience, a series of steps has emerged through which I believe the cross-cultural worker and the interested church progress toward a healthy, productive, enduring partnership. I share these in the form of two checklists.
The Cross-Cultural Worker’s Checklist
1. Establish a clear vision for reaching your people. Why are you serving where you do? Ask God for an easily-communicated end vision that is specific to your people group. (An end vision describes the time when you have worked yourself out of a job. It should be specific.)
Usually, this will include your call to serve among these people. Your passion becomes more contagious as you express it more clearly. If the cross-cultural worker has national partners, he or she should involve them in this and all subsequent points. The benefits are many, including (a) for you, cultural insight regarding how short-term teams are viewed; (b) for them, a model for how to engage as a volunteer team; and (c) for the church, a continuing relationship with the people group even if the cross-cultural worker moves away.
2. Communicate your vision. Do not be afraid to repeat your end vision story to anyone who will listen. This is God at work, and that story never gets old!
3. Examine your strategy. Where is your relationship/evangelism focus: families in homes, college students, athletes on the court, or homeless people under a bridge? How do you access those people? Can you walk down the street? Does it take extreme intentionality? Dream! Be creative! Examine the Early Church’s strategy in Acts or consider the layers of effort that initiate a CPM. Most teams start with broad ‘seed sowing’ and move toward small groups that become churches. Different layers require different strategies, and perhaps you need to consider just the next few years, but the vision remains the same.
4. Communicate your strategy. Start with, “Here’s how God has led us to engage our people in order to fulfill the vision he has given us.” You may not be sure it will work; that’s okay. Take a risk. Let people join you in the effort—including the risk—and your potential multiplies.
5. Expand the plan to include short/medium-term workers. Prayerfully stretch your thinking. How can short-term workers participate in God’s vision through God’s strategy in your place? Compare the ideal version of “how I live my daily life” to your reality. How can volunteers fill the gap? Are you frustrated about not gaining access to your people group? How can volunteers propel you into deeper relationships or establish your platform authenticity in that place?
Let me share an example. Josh loves basketball and sees God working among the basketball players in the local league; however, as an outsider, he does not have a strong voice. Josh invited a team of men from his church to play and coach basketball in his town. Their skills and Christ-like attitudes cemented Josh’s presence in the league. Even before the team got back on the plane, Josh found himself having spiritual conversations with other players. That team created a wave, the surge of which propelled Josh—and Jesus—further into players’ lives.
6. Communicate your God-given ideas. Succinctly, how do short-termers fit into your strategy? Put this information in your newsletter, on your blog, and on every prayer list that supports you. See which individuals, small groups, or whole churches latch on to what you’re doing. If you sense a like-heartedness with those who contact you, proceed to number seven.
7. Extend an invitation. As church members connect with your vision, invite them to participate in your strategy, but keep it open-ended. Strategy is not as important as a heart-level connection.
You might say, “Visit us for a few days, and together we’ll learn if God wants you to join us in his work here.” On this crucial vision trip, walk the streets of your city with them; talk about what you see God doing but also about your heart for the people. Show them what you enjoy about your city…and what breaks your heart. Pray; then pray some more.
Do not assume, however, that a vision trip means the church is ready to partner. This is the time to ‘cut bait’ if the Holy Spirit does not indicate the partnership is God’s will. If there is a heart-level connection but your ideas on using teams do not match the giftedness of the church, then reevaluate. You likely missed something because the Holy Spirit does not make mistakes. Be willing to adjust your strategy.
8. Communicate. During and after the vision trip, talk to the church leaders regularly and frequently. Keep the vision in front of them, but also begin laying out the spiritual and practical expectations for short-term teams. How long will they need to stay? What should they wear? Who can they talk to? You may not worry about these things, but the team will have many questions. Be willing to answer every one.
9. Expose the lostness. When the short-term team finally arrives, ensure every volunteer has face-to-face time with individuals of your people group. Let them sit where (and how) your people sit, walk where they walk, and eat what they eat. Without prompting, the volunteers will put themselves in people’s situations and become the best possible advocates for them (and, by association, for you). Names may fade, but faces will remain in their memories. Even years later, expect volunteers to ask about people they met.
Also, expose the volunteers to all of the long-term personnel on your team. You may have been the point person in forging this relationship, but the partnership will endure beyond you if the volunteers connect with your entire team.
10. Communicate. Along the way, ask the volunteers what the Father is showing them or saying to them. Yes, you must translate for them, take them everywhere they need to go, and repeatedly explain why things are the way they are. Be transparent about your struggles and successes. Treat them as spiritual equals, with just as much access to God as you. In particular, let them articulate changes the Holy Spirit is working within their hearts. Encourage their exploration of authentic engagement, especially in areas that feel risky to them. In this, you are creating a circle of prayer supporters that is unequalled!
11. Enjoy the volunteers. Have fun together. Include down time so you can just be American (or whatever). Ask them to show you the latest funny YouTube videos. Take them to your favorite restaurant or tourist attraction. Let them see your life for what it really is. Let them love on your children or bless you with that enigmatic date night. Through actions and attitudes—not just words—make sure they clearly understand how you value their contribution, their effort, and their presence.
12. Communicate. The airport is not the termination point of your partnership. Let the volunteers know the lasting impact of their efforts. Show them how they did actually fit into the strategy you so clearly articulated before they came.
Read Effective Partnering: The Church and Cross-Cultural Worker On-Task Together, Part Two (The Church’s Checklist; Conclusion), next Sunday on The Exchange.