In my last article entitled “Herding Cats” I wrote about the potential of the missional impact of teams and each local congregation. In this article I want to reflect on a wider larger team, that of the wider Church, and the potential of interdenominational partnership for the sake of the mission.
On the day of my induction at Harlow Baptist I went into the local pub, The Crown, which sat across the road from the church, and introduced myself as the new baptist minister. After looking at me in amazement and disbelief, the publican eventually declared that he had never seen a Baptist Minister in his pub before. This gave me the opportunity to ask him whether he had ever attended the Baptist Church before. His answer surprised me. He responded by saying, “I will only attend church when churches stop fighting each other and start working together.” I hadn’t seen that response coming, but I think he has a point. Why would anyone seek out the Church if the recent history of church life is one of disunity and infighting?
My personal experience while working with Viz-A-Viz in the 90’s was that we worked with all types, shapes, sizes and denomination of churches and were often working alongside an organisation or collaboration of churches. Much of my work in my early years was working with groups of churches within Chelmsford, Basildon and Billericay. I think this experience informed me that mission across churches is very possible and very effective. I have concluded that missional work done in partnership with other churches and denominations is both biblical, efficient and effective but not always easy, requiring good relationship, a good dose of realism and from time to time compromise for the sake of unity. Let me try and unpack some of my thinking.
I am convinced that the greatest effective tool for mission is the Church itself. What I mean by that isn’t so much our building, services and rituals, although these can play a part, but instead how we relate together and how we are his community, his family. If there is disunity and infighting in the family why would any one want to be part of that family?
Probably the most explicit passage in scripture about this is Psalm 133 when the psalmist writes, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” The psalmist seems to believe that where there is unity there is the blessing of God not just for the people of God but for the whole community. I don’t think this is about strategy but about spirituality. It seems to me that Jesus has the same view in his prayer in John 17 that we might be one and that in seeing the unity of the Church the world might know that Jesus was sent by God.
It’s remarkable how many churches try to do everything on their own. It seems to me that we prefer competing against each other rather than complementing each other. When I was at Harlow, it made sense to work with other churches. We were a small church with initially just 23 members. We had a vision to reach the children, young people and families of Old Harlow but very little resource to do so. Surprisingly, we discovered that the same vision was shared by the other two churches within the Old Town. So together we took assemblies in the local primary schools, ran a chaplaincy in the secondary school and initiated a children’s work that we called ‘Kidz Klub’. After a few years, the Kidz Klub Holiday Club was seeing over 100 children attend, which accounted for 25% of the families in the Old Harlow. After several years of working together we also established the first youth club in the Old Town for years, called ‘Revelation’. None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the partnership and unity across the three churches.
Thirdly, in my experience, uniting in mission across churches has been effective. In all my seasons of ministry at Viz-A-Viz. Harlow and Eastleigh I have seen effective mission emerge. At Viz-A-Viz this was particularly seen through a number of two wide schools ministry. In Chelmsford, we reached every secondary school and the vast majority of primary schools across the town, through a joint initiative called SYM (Schools and Youth Ministries). The majority of the churches contributed and it was through that wider unity that almost every child and young person in Chelmsford had the opportunity to encounter Christians within their schools for over two decades.
At Eastleigh 16 churches covenanted together to walk with each other is mission and to try and do together what could be done together rather than alone. Remarkably this led to the establishment of a united front through Street Pastors, Eastleigh Basics Bank, support for vulnerable people through an initiative called ARK, a CAP debt support centre, a homeless project, called Fledge, and an annual weeks mission called ‘Hope’. I can’t imagine any of these initiatives happening without a unified approach to mission.
It requires good relationship
One of the key areas of working with churches I have found over the years has been the importance of relationships. When I first moved to Harlow I was excited about the prospect of being involved with a town wide schools ministry. Sadly, having attend a couple of town-wide ministers meetings my passion for schools ministry seemed to be falling on deaf ears. It took me awhile to realise that it wasn’t because my passion was wrong but because others didn’t know me. I had to learn to be patient and to understand the history of church unity across Harlow. I needed to spend time with each leader and to appreciate what really was achievable within the relationships that were developing.
Coming to Eastleigh, my approach was different. I didn’t leap in with an initiative but instead was pro-active in getting to know people, churches and the town. Interestingly, although it took longer, the relational path proved to be more effective.
It requires realism
However enthusiastic I have been about unified mission I have learnt over the years that I also have needed a good dose of realism. All the illustrations I have offered have not been easy and there have clearly been moments when inter-church mission hasn’t work so well. There have been moments when I have had to conclude that a certain initiative wasn’t something we could do together. I think this has come with maturity as the year have passed by and I have learnt not to be too disappointed. I have conclude that it is possible to work together but not on everything and that is OK.
It requires a degree of compromise
Finally, good interdenominational relationships, require compromise. Each church’s theology, ecclesiology, missiology, expectations and commitments are all different. In unity, to expect everyone to aline to our position is unrealistic. Of course, there are certain things that I wouldn’t consider compromising on but most things have ‘wriggle-room’ and for the sake of togetherness and mission it has been worth the wriggle. The willingness to consider a compromise, reflects both a respect of the other and valuing the relationship we have together in Christ. I have tried to adopt a ‘somehow we can make this happen’ attitude wherever possible. This hasn’t always been the case but I have been surprised that on many occasions it has worked and the end result has been remarkable.
The past 25 years of ministry have convinced me that mission is not just about passion, knowledge, strategy and gifting, but also about unity. My publican friend, as far as I’m aware never did start attending church but I think his point is still valid. The mission of God and the Church is far stronger and more effective when we are one in Christ and the world recognised this to be real and true. For me unity is worth pursuing for the sake of mission.
This is article 6 of 8. You can view the whole series here.
 Psalm 133v1
 John 17v21