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Hands across the water

Partnership—a radical concept when it was first advocated by Presbyterians—is now standard practice in many mission organizations

By Judson Taylor

Two women greeting each other

Relationships of mutual respect: The longstanding bonds cultivated with overseas churches have given mission personnel of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) entry into communities around the world. Photo Courtesy of Communications and Funds Development, PC(USA).

Five years ago, Presbyterians in New York City and Zimbabwe began exchanging annual visits and praying for each other. Members of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and the Synod of Harare, guided by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission workers in southeastern Africa, soon realized God was calling them into a deeper relationship. In 2010, nearly 1,000 followers of Jesus Christ from across Zimbabwe gathered with representatives of the New York congregation to formalize their partnership. Now Madison Avenue Church supports ministries in Harare Synod, part of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, and the synod has provided a pastor-in-residence for Madison Avenue. Children and teenagers from both countries exchange letters.

Meanwhile, in Columbus, Ohio, members of Broad Street Presbyterian Church have made a covenant with people in Peru to learn more about the root causes of poverty there, particularly in the town of La Oroya. A smelting operation in La Oroya earned the town a place on the Blacksmith Institute’s 2007 report, “The World’s Worst Polluted Places.”

A new day in mission

This kind of global collaboration was not always the norm in mission. For decades, in urban centers and rural villages across the globe, Presbyterian missionaries planted churches, built hospitals and started schools. The seeds sown by those early missionaries grew into strong churches—the Presbyterian Church of Korea, for example—and robust institutions such as the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt, and Good Shepherd Hospital in Tshikaji, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

For many years, mission personnel were sent by the denomination to feed the hungry, heal the sick and proclaim the gospel to people of other nations. But in 1956, U.S. Presbyterian leaders proposed a radical shift in world mission strategy: a partnership model focused on equipping the churches the missionaries had planted around the world to take the lead in feeding, healing and proclaiming the gospel to their own peoples. This was a daring move, even for a denomination with a history of trailblazing among American mission efforts.

“When the Presbyterian Church adopted this concept as official policy, it sent shock waves through the church,” says Hunter Farrell, director of Presbyterian World Mission. “Many of the overseas missions—what are now called partner churches—rejoiced, but it was highly controversial for years.”

Today, more than 50 years after Presbyterians crossed this new frontier, Farrell observes, “many Christian organizations advocate partnership.” 

The Presbyterians’ vision for a partnership model in world mission took shape as Asian and African nations were gaining their freedom in the wake of World War II, says G. Thompson Brown, professor emeritus in world Christianity at Columbia Theological Seminary. “Most of the countries where missionaries had begun their work under colonial powers were now independent,” Brown writes in his book Presbyterians in World Mission.

“It was a new day in missions,” Brown writes. “It called for equal partnership between the older churches of the West and the mission churches which had been established in Third World countries. Relationship would be church-to-church rather than mediated through the missionary organization.”

Adapting to this new partnership model was not easy. Overseas church leaders had to learn to deal with U.S. church bureaucracies. Sometimes authority for complex institutions passed into the hands of people who were ill-prepared to take those responsibilities. However, mission work soon flourished in new places, and overseas churches and organizations developed the capacity to support themselves independently of foreign leadership and funds.

Relationships that open doors

When the Presbyterian Church adopted [the partnership] concept as official policy, it sent shock waves through the church. … It was highly controversial for years.

—Hunter Farrell

Today, Presbyterian World Mission helps partner churches in other countries meet crucial needs that they cannot meet alone due to lack of resources and trained personnel. “Global partners now invite us to work with them,” says Farrell. “They know we know how to listen.”

The PC(USA)’s longstanding bonds with overseas churches have opened doors for ministry around the world. “Years of mutual respect and side-by-side toil in Christ’s name have created relationships that give our mission personnel entry into communities and on-site support,” says Sherron George, former mission worker in Brazil and author of two books on world mission partnership. 

“We are empowering the global church to reach more people with Christ’s message of love and facilitating reconciliation in some of the world’s most troubled places,” Farrell says. With its partners, the PC(USA) seeks solutions to suffering in the world that go beyond addressing symptoms. As Farrell explains, “We believe true transformation comes by changing systems and structures that perpetuate the root causes of poverty and injustice.”    

And there is still an urgent call to bring the good news of the gospel to places where there is not yet a church. Jesus’ Great Commission to go into all the world and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18–20) has not changed,” says Darrell Guder, the Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. What has changed is the Eurocentric view of the world that earlier missionaries from the West often carried with them into the mission field.    

Presbyterian World Mission (PWM) uses the term “mission co-worker” instead of “missionary” as a reminder that mission is something we do with others, not to others, and that the mission is God’s, not ours. When doing mission work in a country where a community of believers already exists, PWM leaders take their cue from those believers, trusting that they are the ones most capable of discerning God’s call in their location.    

World Mission leaders have begun to work intentionally in what they call “communities of mission practice.” These communities consist of congregations and individuals involved in mission, global partners (churches and organizations in other countries) and World Mission staff (including mission personnel). A community of mission practice comes together around a common mission passion, such as ministry in a particular region or in response to a particular issue. Community members commit to interacting regularly in order to learn and grow as a community, guided and shaped by the practices of prayer, Bible study, reflection and worship.    

More than 40 mission networks have been created to link the thousands of Presbyterians heading out for short-term mission service. Seminars, training materials and online mission communities provide ways for sharing ideas and best practices. The shift to working in partnership was not an easy one for 20th-century mission leaders. But judging by the fruits of the last half-century of mission, those pioneering Presbyterians rightly discerned the Spirit’s call.

Judson Taylor is an associate for mission communications for the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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  • You have given us the idea of partnership with national churches. Now tell us what that looks like in particular places: e.g. INdia, s. korea, cameroon, philippines; we need specific stories. The promotional materials from the independent churches are vivid and specific. We need that. by a e leininger on 06/26/2012 at 7:28 p.m.

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