Transforming Friendships

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June 2020 | Volume 15 | Issue 6 | by Matthew Philip

International and Trinity young adults attended Urbana together.

Transforming Friendships

How one church’s international relationships taught them to be faithful friends

Over the last 10 years our church’s global engagement paradigms have shifted. The refreshment and learning that transformed our mid-sized congregation, Trinity Church in Lansing, MI, occurred as we listened and responded to prompts from the Spirit and gentle hints from our global partners.

Like many North American churches, our historic success metrics were the number of missionaries supported and the size of the missions budget. Today we describe our program as a web of friendships with numerous stories of transformation as we learned to be faithful friends on an intentional journey.

We are neither unique nor exceptional. But we are desperate for a way to engage in Kingdom work that is more reflective of the gospel than of corporate America. We have become passionate about walking as friends and equals with global churches who share similar DNA—together seeking to discern a missiological agenda based on the unique strengths we each offer and the values we share.

SHIFTING TO CONGREGATIONAL LEADERSHIP

As we began this friendship journey, one of our early “aha moments” was realizing that the friendship was better held by our congregants than by the senior pastor or the missions committee. The involvement of ordinary folk at both ends of the global friendship allowed for more authentic interactions, deeper connections, and genuine acts of care and compassion. Church attendees who would not normally be part of global missions (for lack of missions training, deep pockets, or teaching gifts) quickly realized that their natural ability to be friends and their normal curiosity to navigate cultural differences were often more than enough for engagement.

Some years back when our Ireland church-to-church partnership was in its initial phase, one of our U.S. leaders fell ill and his condition quickly deteriorated. Our best doctors and fervent prayers seemed ineffective. Our Irish partners joined us in prayer, and the Lord nudged them to send someone over to lay hands on him. Their then-tiny church raised money for a ticket and sent a woman leader over without even informing us that she was coming! She came, laid hands on him, and prayed. That weekend his health turned around and he was healed.

That visit solidified our partnership. We learned something about prayer, about friendship, and about the necessity of acts of love between ordinary people as part of missio Dei.

STRENGTHS-BASED PARTNERSHIPS

Another area of transformation on our journey concerned our Western attitude of pragmatic problem-solving. Our church tended to too quickly see our partners’ issues as opportunities for us to be messiahs: “What are your needs?” “How can we be a blessing to you?” So many questions…so little listening.

Over the years as we learned to stay longer in a discovery posture, we began to recognize the unique gifts the Sovereign Lord has generously given them—not just for their flourishing, but for our benefit! This discovery process allowed the gifts of both partners to be identified and celebrated.

Over the years as we learned to stay longer in a discovery posture, we began to recognze the unique Gifts the Sovereign Lord has generously given them–not just for their flourishing, but for our benefit!

I remember one morning when three from our Midwestern church met with the leaders of the Irish church. We were into our third day of conversations, not in a fancy hotel conference room but in the kitchen of one of the Irish leaders. We had spent the previous two days outlining what it meant to be friends without promoting our own agenda and how to relate to each other as parts of one Body (1 Cor. 12), etc.

By Day #3 of relationship building, I wanted something more tangible. I thought the question, “What are your needs?” would be both caring and potentially revealing of future engagement. As I opened my mouth, other words tumbled out: “What are your strengths?”

For the next couple of hours, we shared our respective congregation’s strengths. They had five distinct ones (cold-contact evangelism and feeding the homeless, for example), and we eked out two and a half! The dynamic in the room changed, and we could see their confidence growing as they related to us as equals, maybe even more than equals.

From the 1 Corinthian passage, we learned that we need the global church in order to better know and experience God! From our Zimbabwean partners we learned team leadership and how to shake the gates of Heaven. Our Romanian Baptist friends modeled how to deal with demonic activity. Our Irish Pentecostal friends taught us to love the homeless and the marginalized. Our Colombian partners schooled us in indigenous missions. Our Chinese underground family led the way in business as mission, and the list goes on. Without these friends, not only would our Body be impoverished and malnourished, but we could be grotesque, as an eye saying, “I don’t need an ear, or hands, or feet.”

We need the global church in order to better know and experience God!

 FOR THE SAKE OF OTHERS FROM DAY ONE

Once we were globally connected with an increasing number of diverse global partners, the temptation to rest became a distraction. Keeping a missional agenda as central is a constant struggle—whether launching a church plant the next county over, sending gifted professionals across a cultural boundary, or loving the marginalized in our own backyards. It takes intentionality and effort to remain outward focused, to not settle for just the personal spiritual growth of the few in the fold. However strong and deep our two-way relationship is, we have learned to keep front and center that the purpose of our friendship has an external point of reference. We exist for the sake of others.

We have become passionate about walking as friends and equals with global churches who share similar DNA—together seeking to discern a missiological agenda based on the unique strengths we each offer and the values we share.

Our Chinese church leaders helped shape this paradigm for us. One Sunday, after bicycling with them for over an hour to get outside of their city in SW China, this nascent church of 25 gathered in a circle in a secluded rural field. As they prayed and sang, my ear picked up tonal shifts that indicated worship in different languages. This minority church, the first in their people group, were intentionally worshipping in neighboring “unreached” languages so that one day they could send language-proficient emissaries to these “unreached” neighbors.

As they prayed, I also heard them mention Iran and Pakistan. They were praying for missio Dei to extend and grow, and for them to be part of God’s mission in other countries! From day one they were baking the outward impulse of the gospel into their praxis of faith, despite not having a single theological degree and no more than $50 among them! Later that evening I learned that they had already identified three key leaders on their team to send. I am embarrassed to admit now that I was shocked, thinking it neither strategic nor wise for them to send their best.

I could repeat this story in other contexts: Our Hungarian partners sent their lead pastor, a retired PhD science professor, to reach the ostracized Roma people. Our Zimbabwean friends refused to replace their dilapidated tin-roofed church building, but instead used their funds to send evangelists to a dozen preaching points every week so that others who wouldn’t otherwise hear could have a gospel encounter!

SHIFT TO THE YOUNGER GENERATIONS

As our program matured, we realized that the average age of most of our leader-based relationships was going up! We were not engaging the teens and young adults in our congregation; our pipeline was empty. Around this time we discovered we had some extra money in hand. Instead of randomly distributing it among our global partners, we decided to pray and ask the Lord for guidance.

Influenced by our earlier study of Ruth Barton’s Pursuing God’s Will Together, our leadership team almost immediately felt a nudge to invest this money in the next generation. Further conversation and listening prayer led us to invite young adults from our global partnerships to attend the 2015 Urbana mission conference. We covered their conference fees and in-country expenses; they were responsible for international tickets and visas. That December we hosted 30 amazing young people representing a dozen nationalities and blended them in with our own college students to experience Urbana together. Read more details here.

This initiative helped us discover how crucial it is to focus on the younger generation, both “there” and “here.” We started loving our global partners’ children, investing in their younger leaders, inviting their college students to our homes, and designing contexts for our youth and theirs to serve beside each other–sometimes in a third country! We also launched a young adult, family-friendly missions 101 experience here in North America. As a result of these intentional shifts, all our church-to-church partnerships grew in relational depth and vibrancy, not to mention social media fluency!

THE JOURNEY CONTINUES

I was once told of a conference in Nairobi “to reach” sub-Saharan Africa. Asked why Americans were not on the invite list, the organizers said, “We have enough money!” The story forced us to ask ourselves, “Don’t we as the North American church have more to offer than money? What about our problem-solving brilliance or our charming personalities?”

Barton suggests that the best thing we can bring to the table “is our transforming selves.” Not our strategies, nor our dollars, nor our convening abilities.
Approximately six years ago, our missions leadership team suspended normal missions committee work for 18 months to ensure we had the fundamentals right, that we ourselves were in the process of transformation. We revisited the basics of discipleship, incorporating spiritual disciplines into our daily rhythms. We studied and practiced as a leadership community (no longer just a “committee”) our “hear and obey” response. As a result, we entered a whole new dimension of spiritual vitality. Our global friends were inspirations (see the stories above) and cheered us on our transformational journey. We now have something meaningful to bring to the partnership table: our stories of transformation from our walk with Jesus.

Dana Robert in Global Friendships says it plainly, “Faithful friendships are difficult, but not impossible…. It can also be revolutionary: it points to God’s Kingdom.” She adds “Even in difficult circumstances with no apparent chance of ‘results,’ friendship remains a Christian calling.”

Our idea to friend a few global churches and to journey together as peers came from a desperation for new Kingdom possibilities. On that journey we have been discerning and discovering a common missional agenda with His people, for His people.

We have not arrived, but these transformational moments, and others, continue to bring life and vitality to our community of faith and a message of hope for the nations. In the process, our church also began to bridge the gap between discipleship and global missions. We discovered the gifting of many in our congregation and the richness of cross-cultural friendships. And we are gaining a better understanding of missio Dei.

RESOURCES

Daniel Rickett, Making Your Partnerships Work 
Dana Robert, Global Friendships 
Ruth Haley Barton, Pursuing God’s Will Together 
Trinity Church, Church2Church Partnerships–PDF Summary
Charles Davis, Transformational Cycle–Power Point and Notes

 

 

Matthew Philip has been director of global outreach at Trinity Church in Lansing, MI, for over 12 years. Previously he served with InterVarsity as the assistant director of Urbana. Matthew and his wife Anita have two children.

 

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