Chances are that when you’ve attended a Christian wedding, you’ve heard an allusion to Ecclesiastes 4:12: “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
This verse describes a wonderful vision for Christian marriage, but it is also equally applicable to the power and strength of churches working together in partnership. One such partnership is now evolving between several evangelical churches and an organization in one particular region of the United States. If this partnership succeeds, it will catalyze a church planting movement and will mobilize that church for an expansive missionary sending movement.
The church partners come from common historical and theological roots. Each was founded by a handful of eager believers who longed to see a biblically faithful church grow and influence their city. Central Church* grew out of a home Bible study that started in the fall of 1968. Today more than 1500 people attend the church each weekend. The church has traditionally attracted many high-level professionals and entrepreneurs.
Community Bible Church began in 1985 when seventeen people met in a home to discuss the possibility of starting a new church in the northwest part of their city. In 1986, 75 gathered for the church’s first worship service. In 1994, it moved into its current facilities. In the early 1990s the church’s leaders committed the church to a church planting vision, planning to start ten churches in 20 years in their area. Thus far, the church has planted three daughter churches.
In another city 90 miles away and home to the more than 50,000 students of a large university, First Church began as a fundamental independent church in 1961 with a handful of members. Over the years it evolved into a grace-oriented Bible church. From its beginning, the church grasped the implications of reaching the local university students for Christ. Collegiate ministry has long been the major staple of the church’s ministry. Now located just off campus, as many as half of its 3,000 attendees come from the university during the school year.
Many students from Central Church and Community Bible Church graduated from high school, migrated to the university 90 miles away, and found their way to First Church. For years much cross-pollination has existed between these three churches. Several overseas workers receive financial support from all three churches. Yet, in the past few years, and independent of each other, each church began to realize that it could not continue to be involved in international ministry in traditional ways.
Bill Peterson, Community Bible’s Global Outreach and Evangelism Pastor, says, “Six years ago we decided that we needed a more focused strategy for our cross-cultural ministry. Up until that time this ministry was very traditional and scattered. Individuals asked us for support and if their ministry sounded good, we supported them. But we realized that if we didn’t bring purpose and focus to the ministry, the results would continue to be scattered.”
George Fields, an Associate Pastor at First Church whose parents were instrumental in the church’s early history, recalls the church’s cross-cultural ministry history: “At our first conference, we voted to support three individuals each at $10 per month. That has mushroomed into a current-day annual cross-cultural ministry budget of $300,000 supporting 56 workers. But it’s difficult to rally increased giving and involvement around workers who most people don’t know. Our orientation has historically been more of a ‘shotgun approach.’ When someone came out of our church and wanted to serve overseas, we simply supported him or her with few questions asked. A few years ago we decided to continue supporting these overseas workers, but also to target three to five areas around the world, to be determined by where God was clearly working.”
Franklin Turner from Central Church echoes similar sentiments. “Five years ago we supported 30 workers on the field, but very little rhyme or reason guided what we were doing. When I came on as the new chairman, the cross-cultural ministry committee began to consider how we might become more strategic, in part so that the church would better understand what we were doing and become more actively involved in it.”
Each church began a journey of determining where in the world it might become strategically engaged. Through activities such as praying, analyzing current relationships and workers that they already supported, sending leaders on exploratory trips, and consulting with other organizations, each church emerged with a resolution to serve in the nation of China.
In the case of Central Church, the cross-cultural ministry committee was advised to bring church leaders into the discovery process as early as possible. The committee asked a group of the church’s pastors and elders to journey to China on a vision trip in December 2000. “I thought that we would send our leaders on several vision trips before making any decisions about the future,” says Turner. “But God spoke to our leaders in a significant way while they were there. They became strongly convinced of God’s call on the church to minister in China.”
In every city Central Church’s leaders heard the same story about China. While the gospel had made tremendous inroads into rural parts of the country, few from the ranks of students, intellectuals and professionals in large cities had responded to the gospel. By the time that Central Church leaders were ready to return, they had determined that the church would somehow be involved in serving among China’s urban upper classes.
All three churches already supported workers serving cross-culturally in China. Each discovered a common thread woven through many of those workers. A student group at the local university had been sending students on short-term visits to China for years. Some had become long-term workers, with connections to the three churches.
One such worker took note of each church’s evolving interest in China and encouraged them to meet and consider what they might accomplish through a partnership. And in January 2001, all three churches began meeting regularly and prayerfully considering what God might be orchestrating.
Also invited to these meetings were representatives from the student group active at the local university. Not only had this organization had much informal influence on these three churches, but it also brought to the table an already-existing structure for future involvement. This organization would continue to send the churches’ students to China. A related organization with ties to China would continue to influence students for Christ there. A third entity, headquartered in the same city as the first two churches, was already structured to send professionals in short-term capacities.
It seemed to all that God was clearly orchestrating a partnership, but the next question to be answered was what the precise mission of such a partnership would be. Each church brought different strengths and vision to the table. Community Bible Church, with its focus on church planting, wanted to see churches planted in China. First Church, strongly rooted in collegiate ministry, yearned to see a partnership connect with college students in China. Central Church, a church with many business experts and entrepreneurs, wanted to jumpstart an outreach to professionals in China. Says Turner, “If we were going to rally our church around this partnership, our leaders believed that we needed to find additional business and professional avenues for involvement.” Turner and Central Church elder Kirk Brown went back to China in April and July 2001 for the purpose of discovering partners with which the partnership could work in a business context. They discovered an organization that serves professionals through business consultation and schools for English language and leadership development.
The vision that has evolved for the partnership is one of serving among students and young professionals in several Chinese provinces and working with the church as it receives believers from this class of people. Those collective churches, in turn, will become senders of workers into the rest of the country and beyond. Thus, the Heartland Partnership was born.
Members of the Partnership have been meeting for a day of planning every month or two except during summers. In the nearly two years of the Partnership’s existence, much of its time has been spent laying the foundations for future ministry. “We’ve gotten on the same page of a common and specific vision,” says Fields. “We’ve developed a strategic plan and identified which partners will carry out which goals,” says Turner. Additionally, the three Partnership churches are preparing to jointly hire a man who will serve as the partnership facilitator. Kirk Brown, the former Central Church elder with a substantial business background, has moved to China and works among Chinese professionals.
All Partnership churches have been pleased with the involvement of the student organization they came to know through the local university. “They’ve had connections with China for decades. They provide us with great training and have already established the structures through which we can serve,” says Peterson. “I can’t imagine doing what we’re envisioning doing without them. They started the work there. They have brought us into an amazing network of people and organizations,” says Fields.
While all three of the Heartland Partnership’s churches are larger in size, none believes that involvement in partnership is restricted to larger, more “sophisticated” churches. “Cross-cultural ministry sophistication is more of a byproduct of partnership than an initial requirement,” says Turner. “When I first visited China, I wasn’t very sophisticated. Since then I’ve read a lot of Chinese history, made Chinese friends and am learning to speak Chinese. Churches will develop sophistication as they wade out deeper into partnership.”
Fields agrees. “Depending on the nature of the partnership, churches’ size or sophistication is not the issue. I’d encourage churches considering a partnership to go for it. The process of exploring and getting involved will answer a lot of your questions. Don’t prematurely exclude yourself on the basis of the notion of your size or your perceived resources if a partnership’s goals and vision are the same as your own.”
To the church that cannot picture itself involved in a partnership, George Fields advises, “Pick one thing that you can do well. Focus on doing one simple thing well. You’ve got to focus. Keep it simple. Or ride the coat tails of a bigger church that already has a vision and has developed infrastructure for ministry.”
Could each of the churches have accomplished this vision without working in a partnership? “Possibly,” says Fields, “but not nearly as quickly and effectively. What will hopefully take the Partnership five to ten years would have taken our church alone at least 15-20 years.” “As a single church we never could have dreamed up as big of a vision, as specific a focus, or as comprehensive a strategy,” says Peterson. “If your church has the chance to join a partnership, don’t miss the opportunity.”
*Names of churches and individuals have been changed.
Mobilizer magazine. Copyright ACMC 2002. Adapted and used with permission.