Partnering directly with poor churches is a promising way to do mission for affluent churches. Skip the middleman and Go Direct is the mantra of this internet age.
I personally like the idea of this approach because of the possibility it holds for real, long term, mutual relationships to emerge between rich and poor. But if you’ve been involved in one of these “Church-to-Church Partnerships” you’ll know that they are FRAUGHT with difficulty. Fraught.
I feel your pain. Maybe you started out thinking you had a Partnership of Equals and somewhere down the track realized you had become some kind of benevolent Santa Claus in a wildly unbalanced patron-client relationship - complete with the once a year visit and bags of toys for children.
So, it’s not surprising that churches who have experienced these pitfalls turn to concepts like Empowerment to help guide their way through this minefield. But words lose their meaning through overuse. And Empowerment is one of those words we love to abuse – an idea that started out as an important concept and deteriorated into a noxious cliché.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone working with the poor who doesn’t “believe in Empowerment”. But when you add in cross-cultural complexity, and mix in some serious power imbalance because of how much money you bring to the table – and you have a recipe to make everything worse. Much worse.
Face it. You're going to screw this up. I know because I have, many times.
It's going to take more than rhetoric to be truly empowering.
I visited an impoverished community on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. A group of well-meaning Christians from Western countries had come to bless these poor Cambodians by building them houses. Each of the houses they built had a solid tile roof and concrete block walls, a cute front door and a brass plaque on the front - stating who had worked hard to come and build it.
The only problem was, poor Cambodians build their houses on stilts so they can sit underneath during the heat of the day and enjoy the cool breeze. So, no-one wanted to live in these ill-conceived foreign monstrosities. They stand empty and abandoned on the edge of the village - a testament to another failed partnership.
A stone’s throw away, stands a rusting pump and well that had been installed by a different group of foreigners, which had fallen into disrepair and also lay abandoned - for multiple reasons that I won't list here.
Each group had good hearts and probably were deeply impacted by their trip. They probably went back to their home church bursting with amazing tales of miracles and encouragement.
But Jesus says we should judge a tree by its fruit and I'm having trouble seeing the fruit for the poor in this scenario.
So, here's an alternative approach, straight from the life of Jesus. It’s found in Luke chapter 9. A passage in which Jesus gathers his team together for an inspiring chat.
Imagine you are part of that team. Cos, you know - you're a disciple too. So, it's not that weird.
There are twelve of you, and sorry to say, so far you’ve proven to be a pretty lackluster bunch gathered mostly from the margins of society – fishermen and outcasts.
But Jesus figures it’s time to send you out on your own to do some ministry. So He gives you Power and Authority to go kick some demon asses and heal some sick people. That's all you need and you're set to go.
But then Jesus gives you one final instruction that blows your mind. It just seems too hard. Too crazy. Get this - Jesus commands your team to take NOTHING for the journey:
- no stash of Dr Pepper or peanut butter or any food at all
- no Northface backpack with built in compartment for a sleeping bag
- no visa card or even any local currency
- no change of clothes…
Read it for yourself in case you think I'm making this up:
He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. (Luke 9:3,4a)
Hmmm. This is a hard one. I mean, you’re going to need a change of undies at least, surely!?!
Before you write this one off as simply too tough, let’s grapple with it for a moment shall we? Here's my suggestion of how to understand what Jesus is doing here:
In stripping your team of their basic resources, Jesus is forcing you to rely completely on the local resources of the villages you visit as you do ministry.
He is forcing you to empower local people by your posture of dependence. Matthew put it even more clearly:
“Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for a worker is worthy of his food” (Matthew 10:9-10).
This is actually an incredibly IMPORTANT principle.
You see, bringing outside resources to help solve problems, without the ability of local people to copy that same strategy is the opposite of empowering – it’s immensely DIS-empowering. It sends the clear message that problems can only be solved by well-resourced outsiders.
Sure, those resources you bring will make an immediate difference. They will solve the problem. For now. But what happens the next time those people face a similar problem? They will be forced to turn back to you (or someone like you) for help again, thus setting in motion the inevitable patron-client relationship that we all know and love to hate.
So, Jesus is laying a foundation for an approach to ministry that is built entirely on working within the limitations of local people and encouraging reliance on God rather than you.
Let me give you an example. I was visiting a poor family in a rural village a few months ago and they asked me to pray for their sick child. I had never met them before, but I had been taken there by an Alongsider (young Christian mentor) who was their neighbor.
Now, imagine I have a powerful gift of intercession – imagine I can pray for folks and they are healed. Imagine I was the most equipped candidate to pray for that boy that day. And now imagine I did pray for him and he was healed. Where would they turn next time someone fell ill? To the magic white foreigner of course.
I didn't want that to happen.
So instead, I asked the Alongsider to pray for that boy. The Alongsider, a 17 year old local Christian girl became a local resource person who they could turn to for help in future. Ultimately, the goal is for them to know they can turn to God directly for healing.
I know, I know, it feels awesome to be the one that poor people look to for help and to be able to provide that help so easily. I've felt that power. It feels awesome to report back to your church about all the people you "saved". But it’s not about you. It’s about what God wants to do through local people and particularly your local church partner.
Jesus is saying - leave your resources behind. Strip yourself down and come only to offer a way that relies on God and what He has placed in the people's hands already.
Strip it back. Give up the posture of benevolent donor. Stop being a White Savior.
You’d think the disciples would have learnt this important principle by the time they get back from their mission trip. They had been reliant on God. They had taught reliance on God. They had seen miracles...
When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, but the crowds learned about it and followed him. (Luke 9:10,11)
This is the point where the stakes are raised. And maybe it's the type of scenario you have in your mind when you complain to me that this stuff just doesn't work in the real world of massive needs. They face a bunch of hungry people. 5000 of them.
And here's what Jesus says to them: “YOU give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13).
What? Can you believe this guy? Remember, they have just gotten back from a trip where they were forbidden to carry food or money, so they are highly unlikely to be carrying the resources to feed 5000 people. Highly. Unlikely.
On the surface, Jesus’ command to feed 5000 people seems pretty ridiculous. UNLESS, you had just been learning how to have eyes to see the resources that local people have.
Unfortunately, it seems the lesson was still sinking in, as the disciples struggle to grasp what Jesus is doing here.
And that's where once again we see Jesus patiently demonstrate the principle of Local Ownership and Local Resources. This time it's a little boy with a handful of tuna sandwiches who gets the ball rolling. So often it's the young and vulnerable that we tend to overlook, and yet have the faith to trust in God. And we see the immediate need being met - 5000 hungry people fed - in a way that every single person there could replicate in future if they have the faith.
Now, not everyone is going to be down with this approach. Some people are looking for church partnerships because they have an agenda that is not a Kingdom agenda. That's why Jesus says, "If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (Luke 9:5)
It seems a bit harsh to me, but Jesus is making the point that not everyone is going to have the faith to see this as a good thing. In that case, don't be discouraged.
Just. Move. On.
So, there it is. How to partner with a poor church without screwing everything up. At the heart of this approach is a willingness to come empty-handed and open-eyed, just as Jesus did (Phil 2:7) and in humility and solidarity, point people towards God and the resources He has already blessed them with.