Reviewed by Trent Hunter
I’ve read excellent books in recent years on church life and polity. I’ve read excellent books on evangelism. I’ve read excellent books on strategizing for Christian compassion through ministries of mercy. Along the way, I’ve read plenty of careful and needed critiques of the role of the parachurch, its tendency to do the work of the church, and the church’s need to do what it’s called to do.
What I haven’t read personally is a book about churches partnering together to do these things. I have now though. Chris Bruno and Matt Dirks have written a book whose title tells us exactly what they aim to encourage and how: Churches Partnering Together: Biblical Strategies for Fellowship, Evangelism, and Compassion.
Chris and Matt are a good match for a project like this. Chris directs the Antioch School, a partnership of local churches across the Hawaiian Islands. They partner to train church leaders, pastors, and church planters. The Antioch School is based out of Harbor Church in Honolulu, where Matt is pastor for preaching and leadership. These authors bleed local church commitment and local church partnerships.
Central to their project is the idea of what they call, “kingdom partnership.” Here’s how they define this in their introduction:
“A kingdom partnership is a gospel-driven relationship between interdependent local churches that pray, work, and share resources together strategically to glorify God through kingdom-advancing goals they could not accomplish alone.” (18)
Across nine chapters they discuss the biblical/theological basis for these partnerships, unfold a process for launching a partnership, and finally a strategy for expanding and multiplying partnerships. Along the way they hope to “encourage smaller churches to stop passively coveting megachurches and larger churches to stop trying to go it alone” (18). That’s a worthy goal.
The Jerusalem Collection, Calvin the Church Planter, and Prison Ministry in the Twin Cities
One unexpected blessing of reading this book was the chance to learn about God’s work in a variety of places. These writers did their research. Each of nine chapters is peppered with stories of churches partnering together in the first century, across church history, and around the globe today. This observation actually provides a nice outline for discussing the book’s strengths.
First, the book’s aim and subject matter is biblically centered. There are plenty of books on the practical work of the church that give merely a nod to Scripture, with references in parenthesis here and there. But while there’s plenty of room for wise counsel, advice, and wisdom in a practical book like this, it is nonetheless written from Scripture up.
The book’s biblical center of gravity is its examination of an often overlooked but seemingly everywhere present dimension of Paul’s church planting ministry: the Jerusalem collection. If you’re like me, you may have noticed but you haven’t reflected on the import of the collection for how we view the church’s work. Bruno and Dirks want to pay attention to this layer of the New Testament story.
Every Easter, we revel in Paul’s resurrection victory chant: “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” (1 Cor. 15:54b–55). We want to live out Paul’s implications of the resurrection: “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (v. 58). But then we ignore Paul’s specific application of labor in the very next verse: “Concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do” (16:1).
You can find many more references to the collection in Paul’s letters and in Acts. He just couldn’t stop talking about it. And by the time Paul finally delivered the gift to Jerusalem, he was bringing money and representatives from almost every region where he had planted churches. This was a multinational church partnership that Paul viewed as the “seal” and “fruit” of his entire ministry! And you might be surprised to find out what kind of churches led it.
The implications are many and they are obvious, and so the authors return to the subject in some fashion, it seems, in almost every chapter. For example, “the Jerusalem collection partnership was a powerfully tangible demonstration of how the gospel transcends race, culture, and tradition” (28). In terms of how it got started, “it was not the big, wealthy churches such as Corinth that were the catalysts for the Jerusalem collection partnership. It was the small and poor churches in the region of Macedonia, such as the church in Philippi” (76). And, as a model for our own partnerships, “Paul worked hard to make sure the leadership of the Jerusalem collection partnership was shared, open, and accountable” (125). Again, the book has a thick Bible core orbiting around the story of Paul’s efforts with the collection, a project mentioned across the pages of Acts and his many letters.
I’ll mention two more strengths briefly. The book is also historically minded. The authors share the story of the Student Volunteer Movement and its demise after letting go of the gospel (47), of William Carey’s work with the Baptist Missionary Society (64), and of Hawaii’s Great Awakening in the early 20th century (67). Then, I was helpfully reminded that John Calvin was more than a pastor or theologian, but a church planter who partnered with several churches to plant 100 churches in five years and as many as 2000 in another five years before his death (143).
Finally, the book is globally aware. To help flesh out their material Bruno and Dirks introduce us to a number of works happening in our day around the globe: Churches Helping Churches, a partnership between Mars Hill Church and Harvest Bible Chapel (31); the Surge Network in Phoenix, a network of 20 churches teaming up to train future church leaders (36); Twin Cities Ministries and their rehabilitation work with former prison inmates (82); the churches that make up an organization called 20 Schemes planting churches and ministering among the poor in Scotland (101); and the work of Common Grace in Colorado, a partnership of churches ministering to at-risk children in area elementary schools.
I had a professor in seminary who was an avid evangelist and a brilliant storyteller. When he recounted his interactions with unbelievers in sharing the gospel we left us feeling like we could talk to anyone. The book has a similar effect but on the subject of partnership.
A Few Small Suggestions
My critiques are few and small. If I could change three things about the book, the first would be to modify slightly some of their language. In discussing the relationship of Mission, Goals, and Resources, they define mission as “A unique calling from God that’s bigger than your church can handle alone” (53) and ask, “What specific mission is God calling your church to pursue?” (65). In my view, this unhelpfully implies a kind of revelatory certainty in discerning God’s direction. Sticking with the language of opportunity and stewardship would get the job done and would be less confusing.
Then, given just how well this book interacted with relevant material including footnotes, I was hoping they might interact with Ryan Kelly and Kevin DeYoung’s recent piece on the same rarely-addressed subject, “Extra-Ecclesial Gospel Partnerships: A Mess Worth Making.” The reason is obvious, though. Kelly and DeYoung’s article was published in the Spring of 2014, no doubt after the manuscript for the book was due. But maybe more realistic would have been some interaction with or citation of one or both of the 9Marks journals that overlap with the subject of the book, Church and Parachurch: Friends or Foes? and Church and Churches.
Finally, and this is super-picky, in the introduction the authors confirmed that, “Almost every sentence in the book was written collaboratively by Chris and Matt, but we use the pronoun I when Matt is speaking personally and the name Chris when Chris is speaking personally” (22). Since we heard a lot from Matt but only once from Chris (141), it may have been helpful to indicate what strengths each writer brought to the project and/or simply state that many of the personal anecdotes were from Matt’s experience as a pastor in Hawaii and thus would be using the pronoun, I.
But these are small suggestions, and few enough to signal just how grateful I am for a timely, well researched, carefully structured, and thoughtfully composed project. Churches Partnering Together is an important book for churches that desire to do more than they can do by themselves.
Trent Hunter serves as Pastor of Administration and Teaching at Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of Graphical Greek: A Quick Reference Guide for Biblical Greek and blogs regularly at Above All Things. He is married to Kristi, and they have three children, Carson, Madalyn, and Shae.
Buy the books
Churches Partnering Together: Biblical Strategies For Fellowship, Evangelism, And Compassion