In the course of the last few years, I’ve found it necessary to separate myself from institutional Christianity. I still consider myself a Christian, at least inasmuch as I am a follower of Jesus Christ. As I have continued to deliberately respond to the call of the Holy Spirit to minister and serve the Kingdom of God, I’m unwilling to totally walk away from the missional work that I’ve historically only associated with the institutional church.
The problem is that I have simply seen too much bad fruit borne by the institutionalized church, at least in America, and cannot in good conscience continue to live as part of that world any longer. To me, it glorifies a power and authority structure that I have concluded does more net harm than good – in some ways, because of how it anesthetizes people and encourages them to surrender the responsibility for their own acts of service to an organization instead of using their own hands and feet and resources; in other ways, because of how the sheer size of most churches – even a hundred people or so – creates requirements for ministry methods and facilities and administration that naturally lead to wasteful spending of Christian resources. It doesn’t TRY to be evil, and not every church is guilty of these problems, but I’ve concluded that on balance it’s vastly more likely to be more harmful than not. Even if I were to choose to join a healthy institutional church, I believe it would be propping up a system of thinking and human organization that does net harm.
However, I also recognize that despite the bad fruit, there are things that a large organization can do far more effectively than a very small group or an individual.
For example, I do not see how an individual like myself can effectively promote changes to governmental policy in ways that are consistent with my moral framework and my desire to see social ills properly addressed. I also cannot see how I can possibly bring enough financial resources to bear to address inequity and need in our society. My individual contributions will never be enough to create systemic change, and without that systemic change, the need is simply going to be far worse. At some level there is an urgent need to address systems as well as meeting individual need.
So it seems necessary to work together with whatever organizations that I see doing these things effectively. Given that the kinds of things I think are important are largely tied to my Christian faith, it seems natural that certain churches are likely to be the traditional vector for such services.
However, given my concerns about bad fruit, I find that I cannot relate to those churches in the same way I used to. I do not feel I can “join” a church in the traditional sense, putting my name on the roster, signing any kind of membership agreement, and so forth. I cannot devote significant amounts of my time to the creation and management and logistics of the institutional life of a church, even though I am interested in participating in the missional work they do.
At the same time, I do recognize that churches fill a specific generalized need in our society – there is definitely good fruit along with the bad. Sometimes the “need” is merely emotional and social – many Christians group together as a kind of social club that also happens to meet their perceived religious needs. And while I personally cannot in good conscience participate in that way, I recognize that the vast majority of other Christians have some need for the services and social features offered by their church. They don’t know any other way, and have been taught that it’s the only appropriate and holy way to meet those needs. And I’m in no position to try to disabuse any of them of that need. I hope for them to see differently someday, but I cannot find permission to be the one that attacks and tries to uproot that need. I must leave such work to the Holy Spirit – and I must recognize that not every Christian may be called outside into the wilderness of religious “nones,” like I have been.
So the question necessarily becomes, how can I work with a church yet avoid becoming unhealthily enmeshed with it? How can I avoid fertilizing the bad fruit about which I’m concerned, and yet help grow the good fruit?
The word that came to me recently as I mused about this question was “partnering.”
So I set out to consider that idea, and here is what I have learned.
What is Partnering
On one government contracting website, the following definition was offered:
“Partnering is a process designed to create a positive and cooperative relationship during contract performance or at any other time when working with others. Partnering facilitates the parties’ ability to define common goals, improve communication, and create a collaborative attitude among a group of individuals who must work together throughout contract performance.“
If we skip the part about contracts, I think this is pretty much on point to my situation: I want to work with others to get something done, even though I don’t consider myself part of their organization.
It occurred to me that there are plenty of examples in our world of people with different goals and rules coming together for a mutual purpose.
The simplest example might be a sports league. There are many different purposes at play (pun intended). Some people and corporations are interested in turning a profit, perhaps by renting their facility, or selling concessions, or selling tickets to the event. Some are interested in the community building and social welfare that comes with a healthy sports league. Some seek to improve the health and well-being of the players, and recognize that team sports is a socially-accepted and time-tested way to do it. Some people just want to promote their team because they’re invested in its financial well-being, and they need opponents to beat, but wish to work together as much as necessary to facilitate the contest.
In such a situation, it’s the very diversity of interests and goals that allows success for all involved. No single one of those goals would be sufficient for the entire system to work. So it’s in everyone’s best interest to cooperate, even if some compromise is necessary to achieve even part of their goals.
But at the same time, there have to be some ground rules for the cooperation, so that each party’s needs and goals are honored, and the weaker parties are protected. The sport of course has fundamental rules dictating the participant’s activities. There are referees to mediate the contest. There are economic laws underlying all business activity, facility rentals, ticket sales, and so forth. Routinely violate any of these boundaries, and the whole affair becomes unhealthy and will likely collapse eventually.
Perhaps more germane to my situation might be another example, this one of a small nonprofit partnering with a large corporation. There is a substantial imbalance of power and scale involved. That might be called an “asymmetric partnership.” I think it’s relevant to the idea of an individual partnering with an institutional church: a small guy and a big organization. While the unequal relationship can ultimately be beneficial to both parties, the smaller organization or individual must be very careful to ensure that its interests are protected, as it has substantially more to lose if not.
Let’s look for a moment at some advice for business partnerships. One website about adversarial partnerships says this:
“To deal with a controlling business partner, limit your communication to only your joint responsibilities, ignore their condescension, stand your ground, speak up when necessary, or exit the partnership when all fails. Business partners can turn simple decisions into complicated debates when they become controlling.“
That’s a fairly antagonistic relationship being described, but it does address some of the challenges when things are not going well.
A partnership page on LinkedIn addresses partnering relationships from a secular business perspective, but I think the key points are relevant. They are:
- State Individual Versus Mutual Value
- Identify A Shared Vision And Principles
- Take It Slow Plus Do It Right
- Establish Partnership Parameters
- Train, Evaluate And Communicate Regularly
Let’s look at each of these, but instead in the context of me (as an individual) partnering with an institution.
Individual versus mutual value: As an individual, I have to determine what value there might be in working with a given church or religious organization. As a non-member, I cannot assume the church will be acting in both my interest and that of the missional need. I don’t bring substantial value to the church if I’m not willing to join or otherwise support the non-missional activities, but I do at least bring a warm body and brain to the missional activity with which I choose to partner.
Shared vision and principles: There are going to be areas where I do not in fact share the institutional church values. After all, I chose to walk away from institutional church life on principle. However, if I’m partnering with a church to meet a missional need, at least I can agree with the church about the value of that specific work, and I should definitely agree with the principles under which it will operate. As a counter example, if a church were supporting a whites-only homeless shelter, I could not in good faith participate because of my opposition to racism, even though we shared the goal of serving the unhoused.
Take it slow and do it right: This is pretty straightforward. I need to avoid getting too enmeshed in the institution too quickly, and ensure that I fully understand what they’re doing and how, and that I agree with their principles and practices, at least regarding the missional work.
Establish partnership parameters: As I noted, this is a very lopsided or asymmetric relationship. The church is not going to bend their principles and practices to accommodate a nonmember coming alongside to do missional work. As such, I have to enter the relationship with a very strong sense of my own boundaries. What kinds of involvement are acceptable? At what point is the workload higher than I’m willing to devote? What non-missional areas of service am I likely to encounter, and must I need to be ready to gently but firmly decline? I need to settle this before I encounter the first challenges.
Train, evaluate, and communicate regularly: This is likely to be a one-way exercise. The church is likely to be largely uninterested in bending its missional work or communication methods to suit my whims or concerns. I should not expect any personalized attention. However, I should be getting enough information about what is going on with the work that I can maintain the boundaries I have set, for both the amount and method of the work.
At some level, this all feels similar to any Christian ecumenical fellowship and collaboration group. The individual churches likely will have somewhat or very divergent doctrinal positions, yet may still work well together to advance the Kingdom in a given region. It’s also similar to an interfaith partnership, where the members likely will not agree about faith practices or even the deity being worshiped, yet they choose to join together to pursue economic or social policy goals that benefit everyone involved. Both of these situations fundamentally require making choices about what is most important in the partnership, and that choice is always related to the good work that is to be done together.
It’s Their Game
But as I discussed previously, this is a very lopsided participation. As the interloper in the institution’s process, I have to enter this process fully aware that it’s not my own playing field, and I have very little control over the situation, aside from defining my own presence and participation.
In particular, I need to understand going in that I’m necessarily going to submit myself to the institution’s existing approach and methodology. I’m joining their work, not the other way around. For instance, if I show up to a soccer league, I’m necessarily agreeing to playing by general soccer rules, more specifically by that league’s rules, on that league’s field, using their ball, submitting to their referees, and so forth. If I show up with a basketball to a soccer game, expecting to pick up the ball and dribble it, I’ll never be satisfied (and likely would be encouraged to find a basketball game instead).
Second, I also need to recognize that I may not fully agree with the morals or doctrine or dogma of the church in question. And I probably don’t need to agree, as long as the work that is being done meets my own morals and ethics, unless in some way my participation in the work furthers something about the institution that I find objectionable.
For example, using the racist homeless shelter example, if I were to participate I would be implicitly lending my own support to racism. But if I simply disagreed with the doctrinal statement of a church in some way, but still find that they generally pursue a good moral framework, I should not be unwilling to partner with them.
With all this said, it seems to me that there are some major areas that require my attention if I’m going to partner with a church or other religious institution for missional purposes.
- I need to carefully study and understand all the challenges I’ve discussed here. I’ve got to know what I’m getting into, and how to protect myself and the work I want to see done.
- I need to do the due diligence research up front, so I fully understand the institution’s goals and methods and beliefs and even its history, to ensure I’m not partnering with a toxic institution.
- I need to be adaptable. I’m not in charge of any particular aspect of this situation, and the only control I really have is walking away. So I need to be willing to work with and within whatever system exists.
- I need to establish some clear guidelines and boundaries that I will use to regulate my own involvement. I need to understand exactly what I’m willing to do, for how long and how often.
- I need to maintain open communications, and seek regular updates about the progress, current goals, and future plans of the missional work. In particular, it’s likely that I will need to regularly remind the institution that I’m not involved pursuant to membership or deeper involvement with the church; I’m partnering only because they’re doing work that I consider very important and I want to participate in specifically and only that work.
- I need to frequently reevaluate the partnership so that I don’t over-commit, over-promise, or over-spend, and so that as soon as the partnership is no longer meeting my own goals I will be ready to graciously walk away.
- Have a clear exit plan. If I don’t, then I may find myself allowing the institution to gaslight or guilt or bully me into continued or unhealthy involvement.
I believe that, with these protective measures in place, I can safely and successfully partner with an institutional church or religious organization to further the advance of the Kingdom of God on earth, fulfilling the missional call that God has placed on my heart, but without insisting that everyone with whom I’m working completely meets my own standards and doctrines.