Over the past two decades, the work of church planting movements has significantly advanced around the globe. One of the core convictions the practitioners in these networks share is that church planting is the most effective way of advancing the Great Commission. But has this effectiveness of advancing the great commission through planting new churches been stifled by restricting their work to the confines of their denominations and traditions? This question is addressed in Together for the City: How Collaborative Church Planting Leads to Citywide Movements. The authors, Neil Powell and John James, are persuaded that church planting movements that work together across denominational and traditional boundaries, with ecclesiastical generosity, can reach communities more strategically.
Though this book is written from the Western perspective, their persuasive insistence on collaborative efforts across boundaries can be extremely helpful in advancing the work of church planting in Africa. In my own country, South Africa, churches in the cities, suburbs, townships and the rural areas usually look very different from each other. But collaboration across these contextual boundaries can significantly advance the work of church planting.
Why Work Together?
The big ‘why’ (or reason) behind advocating for greater collaboration is this: the spiritual need is more urgent than we think. Independent churches, ecclesiastical networks and traditional denominations are unable to meet this vast and pressing spiritual need on their own. Furthermore, the endeavours of churches to mobilise their congregations with a vision for church planting to reach the lost will not reach everyone in their city. Operation World has reported that the growth of the Evangelical Church is disproportionate to the population growth in the United Kingdom, Europe and America.
Closer to home, Africa houses 17% of the world’s population and a staggering third of the world’s Muslim population. Christianity is still the largest religion in sub-Saharan Africa, but the influence of false teaching is on the rise. Syncretism is rampant and Western secularism is growing. In Powell and James’ words: “We are in dire peril” (p17).
The need is far too great for just one church, denomination or network to meet. We need to enlarge and expand our vision
Collaboration saves lives
In urging collaboration, the authors illustrate what it might look like – recounting an inspiring story from World War II. Operation Dynamo was Britain’s mission to rescue their expeditionary forces facing German defeat in France. Churchill ordered that as many troops as possible be evacuated from the port of Dunkirk, in France. The British estimated that they would only be able to rescue 45,000 men. After rescuing 25,000, on the second day, those in command called for the help of every available vessel in the British Isles. This enlarged vision saw over 900 vessels, mostly piloted by civilians, respond to the crisis. In eight days over 330,000 men were rescued.
In like manner, Together For the City calls churches, denominations and networks to join “God’s Operation Dynamo” (p17). The need is far too great for just one church, denomination or network to meet. We need to enlarge and expand our vision. Partnerships must be forged. We must literally work together for the city – cutting across the boundaries of denomination, tradition and ecclesial style.
5 Principles for Collaboration
Powell and James outline five principles for this, which they see as implications of the gospel. These principles aid in enlarging one’s vision for gospel collaboration. I explore these five principles below, with the hope that they will spur you on to collaboration in new gospel partnerships; working together to reach our cities for Christ.
In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus warned the disciples that not everyone who calls him Lord and performs works in his name is known by him. From this sobering text, church leaders should learn that it is not enough to simply preach, pastor and plant churches to see people come to faith in Jesus. We can do all of these activities in the name of Christ and at the same time be considered evil-doers by him. Therefore faith and ongoing repentance are necessary precursors to any efforts aimed at seeing others come to faith in Christ. So before church leaders set out to enlarge their vision, let us remember that fidelity to Christ is primary.
One can easily fall into the snare of running on the fumes of ingenuity and past accomplishments
Looking beyond ourselves
As a church planter or network leader one can easily fall into the snare of running on the fumes of ingenuity and past accomplishments. It is a short step from this approach to self-reliance. Just as bad is the desire for recognition. These expressions of distrust in the Saviour have dangerous ramifications for both individual leaders and the local church. They limit our ability to see the bigger picture. For I only see what I can do; how I might be glorified through my efforts. But when we are trusting Christ we set our sights beyond what we can do. We fix our gaze on what he has already accomplished for us on the cross.
Developing this theme, Powell and James describe how churches can move from being inward-focused to being outward-focused, and ultimately city-focused. This trajectory can only be fully realised when our vision is enlarged by the realisation that it’s not our ability that creates gospel growth, but Christ.
If we are convinced that people are lost without Christ then we will then be compelled to urgent action
With fidelity as the primary principle, four other principles flow from it. The first of these is urgency. When we read Paul’s epistles, especially his letter to the Romans, we encounter a clear sense of urgency to preach the gospel. For there are many in our world who do not know Jesus. Paul’s faith in Christ leads him to describe himself as a ‘debtor’ (Romans 1:14). He feels both ‘compelled’ (1 Corinthians 9:16) and ‘eager’ (Romans 1:15) to proclaim Christ. Powell and James cite David Platt, who gives four reasons from Romans, why faith in Christ creates an urgency to reach those who are lost:
- People’s knowledge of God is enough to damn them to hell forever
- The gospel has the power to save them
- God’s plan warrants sacrifice on the part of his people
- Jesus deserves the praises of all people
Powell and James, therefore, conclude that if we are convinced that people are lost without Christ then we will then be compelled to urgent action.
Faith in Christ creates an urgency to reach those who are lost
The second principle flowing out of fidelity is compassion. When our hearts break because of the lostness around us, our vision grows. Powell and James discuss Goodhart’s concept, from The Road to Somewhere, of being a people of ‘anywhere’ versus being a people of ‘somewhere’. ‘Anywheres’ are not tied down to a specific location because they are educated and mobile. They value autonomy and can easily navigate social change. ‘Somewheres’ on the other hand value security and familiarity. They are more connected to a group identity and place. In order for our hearts to break at the lostness around us we need to be invested in a specific community. We need to have the mindset of a ‘somewhere’.
In order for our hearts to break at the lostness around us we need to be invested in a specific community
Caring for your community
Missiologists speak of being incarnate when trying to reach a community. This is the idea of ministry that follows the pattern of Jesus. For he left glory to come and identify with humanity. Powell and James assert that if we do not become an incarnate church we cannot have compassion for the people we’re trying to reach. We will be indifferent towards evangelism and discipleship.
Incarnational churches, pastors and church planters have ‘somewhere’ mindsets. They identify with the neighbourhoods they serve, they feel the weight of lostness around them and their hearts break. Therefore they are in the best position to work together for the city; to reach their neighbourhoods with the gospel. This is why a greater vision for collaboration is needed. A ‘somewhere’ church located in a specific context is best able to reach the people in that context; much more than what a church located in a different context might.
Considering Africa’s contextual diversity, these ‘somewhere’ churches in townships and rural areas must be seen as better able to reach their neighbourhoods. Therefore, urban and suburban churches desiring to pursue ministry in these areas should first consider partnering with the ‘somewhere’ churches. Since they are already invested in these contexts.
Generosity is the fourth principle cultivated by gospel fidelity to Christ. Powell and James ask if we will refuse partnership with others here on earth even though we expect to spend eternity with them? The answer to that question should be a resounding: ‘No!’
will we refuse partnership with others here on earth – even though we expect to spend eternity with them?
Beware of toxic tribalism
In Mark 9:38, the disciples demonstrate this kind of exclusivist attitude in their understanding of who’s allowed to minister in Christ’s name. Jesus rebukes them and reveals his inclusive nature. When people are truly seeking to do ministry in Jesus’ name, and for his glory, they joyfully join hands with others carrying out that same commission. They work together for the city. In Matthew 9:37-38 Jesus provides an urgent sense of the task before us. We also learn that he is the one who sends labourers into the field—not our denomination, missions agency, or church planting network. Because the need is so great, we ought to lock arms with anyone the Lord of the harvest sends out into the same fields we’re working in.
When people are truly seeking to do ministry in Jesus’ name they joyfully join hands
When we get on with the work of ministry we easily fall into promoting a toxic tribalism. This tribalism that makes us think that only our methods work. Only our endeavours are strategic! That our part of the harvest field is the whole field. This appears more like the mission of Satan to divide than Christ’s to reach out and graciously include. Tribalism does not seek the glory of Christ our Saviour, but our own. When we truly grasp the gospel and load our confidence for salvation in Christ alone, generosity towards others follows. Even if they do not follow our traditions and distinctive doctrines. Gospel generosity is an implication of faith in Christ. It powerfully aids the kind of collaboration that Powell and James advocate.
For our continent, the implication of this principle should lead well resourced churches in the cities and suburbs to partner with churches in the townships through sharing resources. But, importantly, linked with the point below, they must also see the workers in those contexts as co-labourers, who have all been sent out into the field by the Lord of the harvest.
The fourth principle that follows fidelity to Christ is humility. Paul exhorts us to consider the extent of Christ’s humility in his incarnation (Philippians 2:1-11). He calls us to embody that same humility and then exemplifies this by revealing his own (Philippians 3:8, 17). Paul rejoiced that the gospel was being preached, even if it meant that he suffered (Philippians 1:12-18). He rejoiced even when the gospel was preached with false motives. All that mattered was that that people were hearing the gospel.
We cannot let rivalry and envy define our relationships with others preaching the same gospel
Put rivalry and envy to death
Powell and James assert that healthy church planting rejoices in the ministry success of others. In Frank Thielman’s commentary on Philippians he laments that, “The fellowship of the modern church lies in tatters because of rivalry over turf, competition for money and influence, and petty theological disagreements.” We cannot let rivalry and envy define our relationships with others preaching the same gospel. Rather we should strive together for Christ’s glory.
We can only truly rejoice in the advancement of the gospel experienced by others when we have faith in Christ, trusting in him for the salvation of the world. An implication of faith in this Christ, who demonstrated the ultimate act of humility in his incarnation, is therefore humility. We will not be concerned with turf, money, influence and recognition. This humility is willing to hold the hand of anyone willing to partner with you for the glory of Christ through the preaching of the gospel.
Come Together for the City
Powell and James are calling church leaders, churches, denominations and networks to see the bigger picture. They are calling on Christians to recognise a dire need. People desperately need to hear about Christ. The size of this task means that the efforts of a single church, denomination or network is inadequate. We truly need to work together for the city.
This vision for collaboration will be birthed by fidelity to Christ. This fidelity drives us to see the mission as urgent. It breaks our hearts as we encounter the lost in our cities and communities. Fidelity to Christ will breed generosity within us, a willingness to join hands with all of our fellow labourers called to the harvest field. Finally it will generate the humility that rejoices as the gospel goes forth, despite ourselves.
Is Your Vision Big Enough?
Powell and James present a compelling argument for collaboration as they generously share their own case study. Together for the City is filled with practical examples of how they’ve achieved this in Birmingham, England. Their emphasis on gospel vision is, however, most notable. It constantly reminds the reader that we cannot jump into the ‘how’ without considering the ‘why.’ This book convincingly shows why we should seek to partner with others for the good of the communities we serve. Their work challenges the reader to enlarge their vision in such a way that they start seeking out opportunities to collaborate with other churches and networks. Such a unity will not only result in greater gospel proclamation, but in glory to our God.