Gospel Partnerships in Missions


Editorial Comment: This post is the last of 10 articles explaining Reaching & Teaching’s 10 Missiological Distinctives.

On October 8, 1805, William Carey and his colleagues entered into a covenant together that would mark their team’s missiological commitments in India. This covenant was to be read in every quarterly Mission Station meeting so that the team would not wander from the convictions that brought them together in the first place. Since I first read the Serampore Covenant, I’ve been struck by its eighth article, in which Carey and his team committed themselves to gospel collaboration with their Indian brothers and sisters. They recognized that European missionaries could not accomplish the enormous task of reaching India alone. 

To this end, the Serampore team committed themselves to “forming our native brethren to usefulness, fostering every kind of genius, and cherishing every gift and grace in them.” The motivation for this commitment was simple: “It is only by means of native preachers that we can hope for the universal spread of the Gospel throughout this immense continent.” In other words, rather than side-stepping the national church, Carey and his colleagues wanted to bring it to full health and maturity so that they could work alongside it to advance the gospel in India. “In this respect,” the team declared, “we can scarcely be too lavish of our attention to [our national brethren’s] improvement.”

Reaching & Teaching wholeheartedly shares the Serampore team’s commitment. We want to carry out our mission by collaborating with faithful Christians throughout the global church. This collaboration begins with missionaries’ sending churches and continues on the field through national churches.

Gospel partnerships between missionaries and national churches were an important part of the first-century Christian mission. These partnerships involved the commitment both to help younger, weaker churches get healthier and to work alongside churches to spread the gospel to others. We see numerous examples of such partnerships throughout the New Testament, especially in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. 

Perhaps the clearest example is Paul’s long-time partnership with the Philippian church. Paul commended the Philippians for their exemplary generosity toward his ministry (Phil. 4:15). From its “first day” (Phil. 1:5), when Paul moved from Philippi to Thessalonica, the church in Philippi partnered with him financially “once and again” (Phil. 4:16). A decade later, as Paul awaited his prison sentence in Rome, the Philippians continued supporting him. It was literally a gospel partnership extending “from the first day until now” (Phil 1:5). As a local church planted by Paul, the Philippian congregation joyfully and sacrificially (1 Cor. 8:1–5) partnered with their beloved Apostle by sending him workers and resources to continue the work of the gospel around the world (Phil. 4:18; 2 Cor. 11:9). Paul later called the Corinthian church to imitate the Macedonian church’s commitment to gospel partnership, specifically by collaborating in meeting the Jerusalem church’s tangible needs (2 Cor. 8:1–2). 

Examples of this kind of collaboration abound. Consider how eager Paul was to receive coworkers from his gospel collaborators. On his second missionary journey, Paul was accompanied by Silas who had been serving the church in Antioch. Later, he recruited Timothy from Lystra. The growing congregations planted by Paul throughout the Roman world became a supply chain of gospel coworkers over the years (Acts 20:4).

Consider also Paul’s plan to receive support from the church in Rome for his mission to Spain (Rom. 15:24). Although Paul had not personally visited the Roman congregations, he asked them to serve as a supply outpost for his journey to the Empire’s western extremities. Paul was eager to work with the global church to carry out his mission. 

But this collaboration wasn’t limited to receiving help from national churches. Gospel partnerships are two-way streets. They involve an ongoing investment in other churches’ health and maturity. For Paul, this often involved personal visits. Paul’s team regularly visited existing congregations as they traversed the Roman world. And we’re repeatedly told in Acts how the churches were encouraged and strengthened by those visits (Acts 14:22; 15:41; 16:5; 18:23).

Another way Paul partnered with churches to strengthen them was by sending them coworkers whom he had mentored. He sent Titus to the Cretan church. The Cretans had heard the gospel in their own language on the day of Pentecost. Yet it was necessary for Paul to send Titus to strengthen them by raising up elders among them. Paul didn’t ignore Crete just because a church existed there. He understood that the church desperately needed godly elders who held the gospel firmly, defended sound doctrine, and protected the flock from false teaching (Titus 1:5–14). In a similar way, Paul served the churches of Ephesus, Corinth, Phillipi, and Thessalonica by sending them Timothy, his “true child in the faith” whom he had carefully trained for ministry. Paul’s charge to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2 points to the important role that leadership training plays in these kinds of gospel partnerships: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”

The goal throughout the apostolic generation was local churches that could replicate and sustain themselves with sound doctrine. As Paul sought to stir the Roman church to partner with him as he planned his trip to Spain, he encouraged them by writing, “I am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). Paul’s optimism and respect for the church of Rome is exemplary. This should be our attitude toward the global church today. This doesn’t mean we are naïve regarding the church’s health. While “satisfied” with the church in Rome, Paul still wrote a substantial letter to them outlining key doctrines of the faith. One of the greatest benefits of ongoing gospel partnerships is the ability to teach and encourage one another as the opportunity presents itself.

There are many ways that missionaries can partner with the global church to make mature disciples, establish healthy churches, and train local leaders. So we begin with the conviction that, where possible, we will do our work in collaboration with national churches. No matter our task or our context, we must ask ourselves, “Are there local churches here we can cooperate with?” Rather than side-stepping the national church, we long to forge partnerships that leverage and strengthen national churches. 

What does this look like? It begins with the missionary’s commitment to join a local church on the field where he can participate as a productive, contributing member. As a member of that church, the missionary integrates into and participates in the congregation’s life and normal discipleship processes. He offers his time, gifts, and resources to serve the church and contribute to its health. He benefits personally from the church’s ministry of the Word. 

In the context of membership, healthy gospel partnerships are forged. In some cases, his work in the church will be his primary ministry. For example, a missionary may serve by overseeing a church-based seminary or discipleship program that will equip the church’s elders. In other cases, he will work outside the church as an extension of that local church’s ministry.  

Of course, the missionary can partner with other local churches, too. Perhaps he can develop or strengthen a network of national local churches. Sometimes, the missionary will be sent out to plant or strengthen other churches alongside national believers. Other times, the local church becomes a platform from which the missionary and the church’s leadership can provide leadership and pastoral training for other churches. Churches planted around the world in years past should be today’s gospel partners. Today’s church plants can become tomorrow’s partners.

Sometimes, when national churches are weak and unhealthy, gospel partnerships will involve church revitalization. Like Paul, missionaries must be willing to walk alongside struggling churches. They must partner with local believers to ensure things are put into order. Often, it’s more strategic to walk alongside a willing local church partner than it is to plant a new church. This is especially true in areas where the gospel has been preached but the churches are unhealthy.

In turn, a strengthened national church serves as a potential new supply line for more gospel workers among the nations. A commitment to gospel partnerships means that missionaries are serving to exponentially multiply the gospel’s work force in a region or country. 

Some missionaries will be sent to establish a church at the ends of the earth among a people and a language that have never heard the gospel. Work in these contexts usually involves multiple stages, each providing opportunities to partner with local churches. The early stages of pioneer church planting often involve landing in a town or city to learn a country’s trade language and culture. During this time, which often takes several years, missionaries can join a local church and partner with national churches and believers. As the missionary team begins to press into an unreached context, they can do so in partnership with the national churches. The goal is to work alongside existing national local churches when possible. 

In the early stages of moving into an unreached context, missionaries, in a sense, take the church with them. We believe that a church planting team should ordinarily covenant together as a local church in a pioneer context. The members will watch over one another, care for one another, and admonish one another while regularly meeting together to sing, pray, sit under the preaching of the Scriptures, take the Lord’s Supper, and exercise church discipline as the case requires. In practice, that team operates as a church, so we believe it should identify as such. When someone responds to the gospel and gives a credible testimony of his or her conversion, they will be baptized and integrated into that church.  

It takes time, energy, and humility to partner with local churches who speak a different language in another land. It takes time to assess the like-mindedness of potential partners around the world. It takes energy to persist through the cultural barriers and partner on a multicultural team. It takes humility to enter as a learner and to stop and ask churches around the world “How can I help?” rather than inform those churches how you intend to assist them. It takes humility to hear that you may not be needed in the way you expected or planned.  But the effort is worth it. 

We must acknowledge various challenges to partnership and lessons learned from the past. At times, missionaries have been paternalistic in their partnership with local believers. Rather than seeing the local believer as an equal partner, they can be seen as an extension of the missionary’s ministry and held back from making their own decisions. Missionaries can assume all the authority resulting in unhealthy dependency on outsiders for the ongoing support of the local church. We seek to partner in ways that build up the local church so that it is self-supporting, self-governing, and self-replicating. A healthy local church is an autonomous local church.

We must also acknowledge the problem of colonialism. Sometimes, missionary efforts might serve as a vehicle for importing outside cultural values. Missionaries are representatives of Christ and His kingdom and must be careful not to attach extra-biblical expectations to the gospel.  

Historically, Christians have laid aside theological differences in missions contexts “for the sake of the gospel.” In some cases, we believe this is wise and necessary. But we also believe that theology matters and we must acknowledge theological differences by engaging at different levels with different partners. Simply setting aside all theological differences communicates to national partners that theology doesn’t matter. Consequently, we recognize that certain activities can involve partnership with a broader theological network (mobilization and evangelism) than others (church planting, theological education). Our partnerships go deepest with those around the world who are most like-minded.

Reaching & Teaching is soteriologically reformed and thus committed to the doctrines of grace. We are baptistic and committed to historically Baptist doctrines of the church. We are complementarian in our understanding of the roles of men and women in the local church. Missiologically, we are church-centered, believing that the local church is the means and end of missions. We are confessional, holding to the theological commitments outlined in the New Hampshire Confession (1853, Revised). 

We can collaborate most closely in church planting with partners who hold to these commitments. We will gladly cheer on the church planting efforts of other gospel-centered agencies. We will seek partnership in ways that do not ask either party to set aside theological convictions. 

The Great Commission was not just given to the churches that Reaching & Teaching serves. It was given to the churches served by other agencies and organizations in North America and worldwide. It was not just given to local churches who hold to our theological convictions. It was given to other gospel-believing churches who are committed to different secondary doctrines. 

To ignore the global church is to neglect the opportunity to mutually encourage local churches around the world as they obey the Great Commission. It’s to miss out on witnessing what God is doing throughout the world. It’s to disregard the example of partnership we observe in the New Testament. 

As our missionaries labor around the world, they teach global Christians that only the Church among the nations can win the nations for Christ.

Ryan Robertson

Ryan Robertson serves as President of Reaching & Teaching. He is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Missiology program at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Ryan and his wife Erin have three children and are members of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY, where Ryan also serves as an elder.

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