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How to Get Your Church’s Mission Off Life Support

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Excerpted from “Missional Moves: 15 Tectonic Shifts That Transform Churches, Communities and the World” (Zondervan)

From Transactional to Transformational Partnerships

During our first fifteen years at Granger, we focused our energy on reaching our Jerusalem: our unreached friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. And we have no regrets on that. We firmly believe that the light that shines the farthest is the light that shines the brightest at home. If you skip reaching your Jerusalem on your way to reach the ends of the earth, something is out of order.

During that season, however, our local and global expressions of mission were disjointed. Though we were effectively evangelizing the people we knew, our mission efforts didn’t reflect our calling and identity as a church—our DNA. Everything we did was done in “support mode.” The men of the church supported an international housing organization and made periodic trips to build houses. The women supported a shelter for unwed mothers. The youth had their own projects. These were all good things. And this is what many churches do, find a good organization and support them. The problem with support mode is that it doesn’t lead to long-term growth. It’s an approach that offers a form of life support, sustaining a patient’s life while they remain critically ill or injured. Picture someone lying in a hospital bed with feeding tubes, bloodlines, and a respirator. Remaining in support mode is not really a good place to be, is it? It’s the spiritual equivalent of providing feeding tubes to chosen organizations, giving them a slow trickle of volunteers and money to keep things running.

In the midst of our growth in evangelistic ministry, we heard the Spirit’s voice inviting us to open our hearts even wider. We sensed that the time had come for us to bring the same intentionality and ownership to our expression of mission in our Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. We were determined to get off the life-support approach to our mission as a local church. We were convinced that God’s plan was for us to be fully alive in every area of influence he was providing for us: locally, regionally, domestically, and internationally. As we set out, we found that yet another missional move was needed. We quickly found that our support-mode approach to mission was rooted in an entrenched partnership model that was strangling our freedom to grow and respond as a local church. We realized that the time had come for us to make yet another shift, from transactional partnerships to transformative ones.

Transactional Partnerships

Here’s what we discovered very quickly: the work of mission “out there” is largely owned and operated by organizations. While there are a small but growing number of pioneering organizations exploring more collaborative ways to partner with the local church, most organizations still want to make a transaction with the church, one built primarily around financial support. The local church is seen as a big wallet, and the goal of the relationship is to open that wallet to fund the organization’s goals in mission. The process of a local church developing a partnership usually goes something like this:

Step 1: The church forms a missions board.

Usually, this is a group of passionate volunteers or staff. The primary function of the team is the distribution of funding to organizations and missionaries. This typically includes the organization of volunteer opportunities and short-term trips.

Step 2: The missions board selects an organization.

The local church looks for an organization to hire. Personal passions and previous relationships, and not the DNA of the local church, drive the focus.

Step 3: The church hires the organization.

The local church hires a partner organization (or several organizations) to carry out the work of mission, “outsourcing” the work of mission to the organization. The local church adopts and supports the mission of the agency or organization.

In the transactional model of partnership, an agency owns and operates the work of mission. The agency works directly with the indigenous people, whether that is the homeless population in its town or an unreached people group on the other side of the planet. If it’s a good organization, it effectively accomplishes its mission vision. Churches are planted. Wells are dug. The homeless are sheltered. The hungry are fed. The illiterate learn to read.

Often, these organizations are doing great work. That’s not the problem. The problem is the way the local church relates to the mission. Where does the local church stand in this partnership? The people sit safely in the comfort of the sanctuary, outside of the mission flow. Periodically, a few select individuals cross the divide as volunteers or as part of a short-term team, tagging along with the organization. But it is the organization, not the church, that actually owns the mission. The organization works hard to give the church a sense of ownership, but the truth is that local churches aren’t involved in the flow of mission. At worst, transactional partnerships leave us with churchless organizations and missionless churches.

Ironically, many times both the local church and the hired partners are quite happy with this asset-based relationship. The hired organization gets the funding it needs to carry out its mission vision. The sponsoring local church gets to take credit for the work that is done without having to do any of the actual work of mission. But we are convinced that this divorce between the local church and the work of mission is not God’s plan A. It’s a poor substitute for the true mission of the church. The local church is God’s plan A, and this means we need a new model of partnership.

Transformational Partnerships

In transformational partnership, we move beyond a money-driven, organization-centered, one-dimensional way of relating toward a kingdom-centered, multidimensional way of relating to mission. In this new model of partnership, the local church becomes the catalyst for a web of relationships, all built around a shared mission vision for a specific context, a vision for community transformation that is expansive, involving people from different domains of society. The local church begins by relating to different parties among the indigenous people: people in nonprofit organizations, government agencies, businesses, other churches, even leaders of other faiths. These parties explore how to work together toward a common goal. This model depends on several key factors:

1. A shared mission vision. A mission vision statement is developed together with other partners. This mission vision represents more than just the goals of a single organization. Each party has elements that drive the agenda, and it is comprised of a shared focus, shared work, shared values, shared resources, and genuine community.

2. Everyone leads and everyone follows. In the older model of partnership, one party leads and everyone else parties. In the new model, everybody takes leadership in some way, and everybody follows the lead of others. All of this is based on the expertise, affluence, and contribution of each partner. In addition, everyone defers to others who may have expertise in other areas and insists on true confluence as the goal.

3. Everyone gives and everyone receives. In the old model, one party gives and the others receive. In the new model, as each party turns their affluence into influence, the confluence leads to effluence. At that point, everyone has given something and everyone has received something. We have each brought our wealth to the mission, offsetting each other’s poverty. In so doing, we are all richer.

Transformational partnership is love in action. We come together out of our separate lives, industries, sectors, and constraining frameworks to accomplish a shared mission, one birthed by the love of God. In the process, we are all transformed.

So how, exactly, do the players from all of these different sectors of society work together?

The Car Model

All sectors of society must be engaged to experience holistic transformation in a given community. Unfortunately, collaboration between different sectors is often nonexistent or ineffective because each of the sectors lacks a clear understanding of their role in the larger framework. We illustrate these interactions between the various sectors using the metaphor of a car.

While the car model isn’t perfect, and we recognize its limitations, we offer it as a starting point—an on-ramp—for discussions about collaboration and partnership. In order for a car to run safely on the road and arrive at its destination, some critical elements are required: wheels and chassis, engine and drive train, as well as additional components (such as a steering wheel, chairs, and airbags).

In addition, you also need a well-paved, safely governed roadway to travel on.

Faith communities are the ultimate grassroots organizations. They are deeply embedded in cultures and societies all over the globe. In many cases, the leaders of these faith communities have a vested interest in the health and transformation of their communities. They are like the wheels and chassis of a car. They are closest to the ground. Without them, you really aren’t getting anywhere. But without the help of others in the community, they are little more than Flintstones mobiles. You have to run fast, push hard, and then hop on board, but you travel only twenty feet. It’s not the ideal way to get where you want to go. Other parts are required.

Businesses tend to focus on efficiency. They are committed to the bottom line: economic profitability and sustainability. They are the engine of the car, providing the drive, focus, efficiency, and financial resources needed to power a collaborative venture. Yet their transformative power is limited to the ways in which they are connected to the chassis of the faith community. A socially conscious business will not simply seek a bottom-line profit for its owners; it will seek the good of the community in which it operates. Without that faith connection, the engine is running on blocks. It may crank out profit for the personal benefit of a few, but it’s not really going anywhere for the community.

For the last two hundred years, external organizations have led efforts in mission and community transformation. As a result, they have become exceedingly efficient in targeting problems and working out solutions. Their dedication to a particular area of focus makes them ideal components to the car, but they are not the car itself. A steering wheel manufacturer, for instance, does not go to Ford and say, “Your job is to make a car that will adequately support and showcase our steering wheel!” Rather, the job of the steering wheel manufacturer is to provide a component that helps the car get where it needs to go. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and mission or aid organizations have a similar function. The car is not there to support their work. Rather, they serve a unique role, as part of the vehicle, enabling the car to get where it needs to go.

What is the role of the government in all of this? We do not believe it’s the responsibility of government, at any level, to implement transformation. It can’t. It’s not close enough to the people, and governments simply cannot facilitate the kinds of relationships necessary to provide for that kind of change. What governments can provide are the conditions that lead to an environment conducive to transformation. Governments have immense systems-building and infrastructure capacity. They can provide leadership, legislation, and enforcement of the law. In short, governments can provide the environment that enables transformation to occur, much like the roads and signs that are needed for safe travel. Roads (governments) make transformational movement easier, marking the way forward so that people know where they’re going and how to get there.

The purpose of the car model is to illustrate how and where everyone’s expertise is most valuable in the process of community transformation. Usually, we have little difficulty defining who is running which component on the ground. Still, you may wonder, “What does this look like in practice?” Let’s consider an example of what it looks like to drive the car of community transformation in India.

Twenty-nine long hours by plane and three hours by jeep will bring you to an unassuming colony of untouchables living outside the city of Kalavaiin Tamil Nadu, India. The people of this colony are of the Irula caste. They are the bottom rung of the ladder in India. A man named Kasi is the head village elder, and he has watched generational poverty grind his people into the dust.

A few years ago, many of the people in the Irula caste in Kalavai were homeless, living under trees or in huts made out of thatch and garbage. Most lived on one meal. They had no electricity or clean water. Disease was rampant. There were no educational opportunities for their children. Men were trapped on the lowest rung of the vocational ladder, working as rat and snake catchers. They were truly a people living without hope.

Today, however, every family in the colony has good housing. The huts they used to live in have been demoted to storage sheds. A new well flows in the village, providing clean water. Electricity runs to every home. The children of the village attend school. Microenterprises have broken the chains of poverty and inspire a creative, entrepreneurial spirit. A new community center has been built.

The village elder, Kasi, describes the transformation as a flower that has sprouted, grown, and blossomed. Where the spirit of the people was dying, choked by the dust and weeds of poverty and oppression, now there is life and beauty: “For centuries, it had been told to us that the Brahman people have sprung from the heads of the gods and the Irula people came from the dust on the bottom of the gods’ feet. Our name, Irula, means ‘People of Darkness.’ Since Pastor Sam and the people of Granger have come, no longer do we know ourselves as the people of darkness. We know ourselves now as the people of light!” Soon after the changes began transforming life in the village, the water from the new well washed over Kasi himself. He was baptized as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Behind this radical story of transformation is a surprising list of partners, a group of incredibly diverse people who united around a mission vision. Over the past five years, that team has included hundreds of people from Granger Community Church, virtually every single community member of the village, many of the people from the indigenous local church, as well as people in the local government, local contractors, local businesses, and some wonderful individuals from international organizations like World Relief and Hydraid. All of these people were attracted to a kingdom vision, the transformation of a little colony of untouchables.

At this point, you might be thinking, “This all sounds great, but let’s get practical. How do you actually build the car? What is the process?” We began by recognizing that the work in India was already underway long before we got there. And this will always be true. Jesus said, “My Father and I are always at work.” The transformational partnership process doesn’t begin with the question, “What can we do?” It begins with the question, “What is God already doing?”

The Process

The process of transformational partnership has three phases: mission building, capacity building, and direct ministry. We learned this descriptive language for strategic partnerships from of one of our mentors, Don Golden. Don served on staff with World Relief before joining the staff of Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has since returned to work on staff at World Relief as their Vice President of Church Engagement. Don is a no-nonsense kind of guy who understands that local churches want to reclaim their God-given place in the advancing kingdom of God.

At first, the various phases happen sequentially. But then, as the partnership blossoms and grows, the three phases become a repeating cycle of evaluation that fosters deeper levels of transformation. We’ll walk through each of the phases using our earlier example of our work in India.

In this first phase, a local church should ask the following four questions.

1. What is God doing?

The first question most American local churches ask is, “What can we do?” That’s a direct ministry question. It’s not a bad question. As pastors and church leaders, we understand the context and essential nature of that question. However, it’s a very dangerous question to start with. Why? Because before we act, we need to look and listen, identifying the ways in which God is already at work. Our invitation is to join God in his mission, not to do our own thing and then invite him to bless it. When we jump directly into ministry, we are typically focused on what we can accomplish with our resources and wisdom. Inadvertently, we can damage the development of the local people. It’s often easier to do it for them, rather than doing it with them. Or even worse, we do for them what they could have done for themselves.

With that in mind, our first year of partnership development in India focused on relationship building and inquiry into the activity of God in Tamil Nadu. A church member, Ron Vandegriend, was serving as field director for the Bible League, an international Bible distribution and church-planting organization. Through Ron, we learned of a church-planting movement that was spreading like wildfire. Our friends at the Bible League were willing to introduce us to their network of indigenous leaders, and we went as pilgrims to learn what God was doing through our brothers and sisters in Tamil Nadu.

2. Who is involved?

Three parties were involved at the start of our partnership: the people of Granger, the Bible League, and a group of fifteen indigenous leaders. Among this group of leaders, our hearts were especially drawn to a man named Rajendran, who has since become a staff member of our Granger team. Raj, who started in a low caste as a tree climber, had by God’s grace become an apostolic leader of a growing movement of church plants. As Raj and the other leaders shared with us stories of what God was doing, it felt like something ripped straight from the book of Acts.

We placed the emphasis on relating with the indigenous people before our relationships with the organizational folk back in the States. These indigenous network leaders were passionate about reproducing churches and training church planters. We asked them to orient us to their culture, their history, and their traditions. We didn’t press our agenda. When they perceived that we could be trusted, they took us to the field to stay with church planters and see firsthand what was happening. They said, “We have not met foreigners like this before. We have seen many American church leaders who come to meet the ‘famous’ people in the big cities. But few have come to be with the faithful people who labor in obscurity on the front lines.” With trust established, the foundation was laid for the next stage.

3. What are their assets?

The Bible League, as an organization, has several assets, including a curriculum for church planter training which the local people had already contextualized. Although the Bible League’s work in India was just beginning, their approach had proven successful in many other places, leading to more than twenty-five thousand new church plants in more than fifty nations. Our friends at the Bible League also provided Granger with several opportunities to build reliable relationships with indigenous church leaders as well as the infrastructure for travel to and from various locations.

As we’ve stressed before, even though the indigenous church planters we met were financially poor, they were rich in many ways. Three assets stood out to us. First of all, they were rich in faith and passion for Christ. They were red hot! Back in my college days, I (Rob) used to work in a machine shop. In the back room, they poured hot steel. When you walked into that area, the temperature jumped thirty degrees, and your body broke out into sweat. Walking into the presence of these men and women of God was like walking into that back room. Your spiritual temperature jumped thirty degrees in their presence. Mission was the focus of their lives, and almost every church planter was bivocationally growing a church among the pocket of people they lived among while working a full-time job. We also saw an asset when we looked at the rich level of community they enjoyed. Our experience in America was more typically one of isolation, living cocooned from our neighbors. But in India, every village we visited functioned like an extended family. Finally, we saw an asset in the training and preparation provided by the network leaders. They had done an outstanding job providing basic church planting start-up skills, contextualized for these pastors.

4. What are the gaps?

We began to have conversations with the indigenous leaders to discern how we could add value to the assets they already possessed. What strengths did we have that we could add to their strengths and the strengths of the Bible League? What could we do that would fill in the gaps?

As we had shared the story of Granger Community Church, a few things surprised them. First of all, they had never heard of a church maintaining steady growth for almost twenty years. Second, they were impressed by the number of people who were meaningfully engaged in service, small groups, and membership. We shared with them our approach to church health and growth, which we had learned and adapted from the Purpose Driven Church model. They were hungry to learn more about this process of building systems within the local church to balance the purposes of the church. The average church plant within their movement typically stalled at thirty to fifty people. The church planters had been trained in a sequential approach of church planting, and most of them didn’t know how to pastor a healthy church after the startup phase. By their own admission, many of the churches they had planted were not thriving. We had found the gap.

In phase 2, your focus is on just one question: what can we teach them to do that will multiply impact? The goal is to build capacity in the indigenous people. We’ll take a much deeper look at the how of capacity building in the next Missional Move. For now, let’s return to the demonstration-farming model we introduced in an earlier chapter. Through an intentional process of cultivation, contextualization, demonstration, replication, and multiplication, we developed an eighteen-month coaching process for church health that has dramatically increased the health and longevity of these new church plants. At the end of the first round of coaching, almost every church we were working with had doubled or even tripled in size. The church leaders saw improvements in the health of their faith communities, including increased numbers of people getting baptized, serving, and giving. As other church planters watched these demonstration farms thrive, they started asking, “Can I get that seed?”

As Granger added this second layer of training to existing training offered by the Bible League, there was never a need for our organizational partner to solicit funds from Granger to support this work. At this point, we weren’t just a wallet providing money for another Bible League project; we were a strategic partner adding value to an existing work. The new training we provided went beyond the scope of the Bible League program, so Granger led and funded the work directly. Eventually, we added another two layers of training, one focused on leadership development and the other on community transformation.

Over the years, our brothers and sisters in India, most especially Raj and Ron, returned the favor to us, becoming our mentors and sharing their assets with us. We gained key insights in the work of multiplication and church planting from them. As we shared with them the church growth strategies God had used in our cultural context, they taught us from their experience in disciple-making, multiplication, and reproduction. Thanks to their coaching, our church was prepared to begin several church-planting initiatives following a small, organic church model.

Five years ago, working alongside Raj, we help redesign the first level of church-planter training that had been offered by the Bible League so there was better alignment of and integration between the advanced layers of coaching we had developed later. Since these changes were made, we have witnessed more than 134,000 people gathering in more than a thousand churches as a part of that movement. Almost one hundred thousand people have made a confession of faith, not at big evangelistic rallies but in the setting of small discipleship groups. More than forty thousand people have been baptized. To God be the glory!

We now call the four different capacity-building coaching tracks we developed the “bore-well church-planting model.” Bore wells are common all over India. These wells are drilled and excavated by rotary-drilling machines, which go down hundreds of feet under the earth, penetrating deeper beneath the water table than a hand-dug well could ever go.

A bore well can provide clean water for a village for many years. If there’s water in a community, there’s life. That’s the purpose of a bore well.

The concept of bore-well church planting is simple. First, you plant a church in an unreached village. Then, you equip and empower that church to become the hub for community development, bringing God’s living water to every area of life. This training includes:

Kingdom of God Training (KGT). Fifteen months of coaching designed to help regular people plant churches in unreached villages.

Purpose Driven Training (PDT). Fifteen months of coaching designed to build a healthy church on the Five Purposes: worship, evangelism, discipleship, ministry, and fellowship.

Leadership Development Training (LDT). Network leaders, trainers, and coaches are equipped to lead the movement.

Community Transformation Training (CTT). Local churches are equipped to become the hub for community development in their villages.

At each and every level of training, we seek to be:

Small and reproducing. We use a coaching model instead of a conference model. We do all of the training in small batches of thirty with in-field coaching. Every new batch produces new coaches and trainers.

Collaborative. From day one, we work together—the people from Granger alongside our friends in India—to develop and contextualize all the training. We continue to work together as peers on every initiative.

Reproducing. With each layer of advanced coaching, Granger carried the weight of the training in the beginning, developing more indigenous ownership and leadership in each step. Now, the first two levels of the bore well are completely run indigenously, and we are halfway through the transition on the last couple of levels.

Holistic. We fused best practices in church planting with best practices in community development. This is exceedingly rare. People from Indiana and India work together building homes, teaching children, providing healthcare, sharing the beauty of their art, and so much more, giving hope, dignity, and skills to those without them.

At this point, it’s time to answer the final question, “How do the people of Granger actually get involved?” This leads us to the final phase of transformational partnership.

In this phase of ministry, we ask, “What is it our people can do that will add value to building the capacity of the local people?”

We’ve sent hundreds of our people to India. We train our teams to build capacity in the members of the Indian churches and the members of the community the churches are in. We don’t do it just for them. We focus on equipping them so they can do it themselves. We have teams that focus on construction, health and wellness, clean water, family life, microenterprise development, education, and the arts. All of these initiatives and teams are led by lay people, not church staff.

We’ll unpack in more detail the process of mobilization and leadership development in two of our later missional moves. For now, here’s a quick summary of how we engage in direct ministry.

In the next chapter, we’ll share a process we’ve developed to help implement all of this.

1. We never pay the pastors or write checks to the churches directly. We seek to enhance their work through resources like training whenever possible. Before we get involved, we want to see a local community and church assess what they can do for themselves. Once they demonstrate initiative to do this, we can talk about adding further projects that require outside resources. When we fund a project, we always ask the community to bring whatever resources it can, even if it’s a small amount.

2. We focus on smaller, modular training with ongoing coaching rather than large-scale, one-time conferences and events. Ongoing coaching helps move the knowledge we share beyond just awareness of principles down to the how-to of implementation. Focusing on small projects emphasizes relationship building. These relationships give us credibility and build trust that allows us to be involved when real, lasting changes take place.

3. We do not habitually do something for someone that he or she can do for himself or herself. Many well-meaning churches routinely violate this principle, doing serious harm to the development of the very people they are trying to help. Did we approach our ministry with local people in a truly collaborative way? Did we do it with them? Or did we take the easy way out and do it for them?

4. We see every direct ministry project as a part of a larger process that addresses foundational problems. Capacity building is a slow, ongoing process of change.

Underneath the symptomatic problems in any community are foundational problems that are not quickly or easily fixed. The downward spiral that began at the tree in the Garden has created brokenness on a personal and structural level that has accumulated over the centuries. Reversing these patterns and renewing communities takes time.

5. Every direct ministry project is seen as a “product” in a larger development process for the entire community. A well for clean drinking water, a new church plant, a new house, a new small business, or improved crops are all products of our projects. They are easy to document and photograph. The process used to create these products is just as important, if not more important, than the outcome. Did local people participate in a way that increased their comprehension, abilities, and power?

As we close this chapter, our prayer is that God will give you the courage to pursue a new way of forming partnerships and that he will give you the perseverance to stay the course. William Gibson once said, “The future is already here—it’s just not equally distributed.” In transformational partnerships, we are pioneering a way of doing mission. Yet we’re convinced that within a generation, this can become the new normal for local churches in the West. As with any new endeavor, it will require pioneers who bring that future into the present with their lives.

The old model sent out organizations to do the work of mission, leaving the local church behind to provide money. The local church was involved, but not directly. Today, local churches are reclaiming their apostolic character. They are partnering in ways that lead to transformation. They are setting sail for uncharted waters with only the stars to guide them. Some of the tools the sailors (partner organizations) have been using remain helpful and we certainly need them. But churches themselves are sensing God’s call to leave the safety of the harbor and travel the seas.

Anchors away. Let’s ride the reverse tsunami together!

Missional MovesThis excerpt is taken from Missional Moves: 15 Tectonic Shifts That Transform Churches, Communities and the World by Rob Wegner and Jack Magruder. © 2012 by Rob Wegner and Jack Magruder. Used by permission of Zondervan.

Rob Wegner serves as pastor of life mission at Granger Community Church in Granger, Ind.

Jack Magruder is the director of life mission at Granger Community Church.

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