A Divine Tapestry
By Brent Fulton
Building a network of missional relationships is a nebulous undertaking. Yet, if we truly believe—as Christ prayed in John 17:22–23—that it is our unity as believers that enables the world to know who he is, then we must be intentional about bringing together God’s people in corporate witness.
“A noble endeavor,” some might say, “But where are the measurable outcomes?”
Just as Noah’s construction of the ark would have been a failure had God not brought the animals and, eventually, the storm that vindicated Noah’s outlandish mission, so our efforts to foster relational unity in missions are fruitless apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. The results—the measurable outcomes—are ultimately in the Lord’s hands.
The experience of ChinaSource over the past twenty years is a testimony to God’s faithfulness in using the intentional building of missional relationship networks to produce long-term fruit.
Launched as a cooperative effort by the Missio Nexus predecessor organizations (EFMA and IFMA), along with World Evangelical Fellowship and the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, ChinaSource was, from the beginning, an experiment in collaboration. Its original vision was to serve the North American mission community as a clearinghouse of balanced, accurate China information and a catalyst for joint ministry. Beginning with consultations in North American and Asia, along with a limited-circulation quarterly journal, ChinaSource’s work grew to encompass partnerships involving international organizations and Christian leaders in China.
When the vision for ChinaSource first took shape in the mid 1990s, the emphasis was very much on expatriate organizations serving the church in China. Bibles were still scarce in some areas; trained leaders were in short supply. The church was primarily rural and, in many ways, under resourced. There was much to be done.
Today the question foreign organizations are asking (or should be asking) is how to serve with the church in China.
In keeping with this shift, ChinaSource’s revised mission statement envisions:
A trusted platform facilitating the flow of critical knowledge and leading-edge research among the Christian communities inside China and around the world and engaging them in collaborating to serve the Chinese church and society.
Through online resources, publications, consultations, and ministry-specific initiatives, thousands of individual workers and hundreds of organizations and churches have engaged with ChinaSource. Churches have found organizations with which to partner. Mission organizations and foundations have received valuable strategic input. Individuals have connected with others who shared their vision and passion, and many are still working together today.
While we may have hoped for these results when we started twenty years ago, there were no guarantees that our efforts would bear fruit in the lives of those we served. The outcomes were in God’s hands; our task was simply to create favorable conditions for relationship building and mutual learning, trusting that, as we did so, the Holy Spirit would do His work.
Undergirding this relationship building has been a set of guidelines that ChinaSource adopted early on as it began contemplating how to bring together people who had valid security concerns due to the nature of their work and who did not necessarily trust one another. Interdev’s Phill Butler, who later went on to found visionSynergy, provided valuable input in this process.
Originally designed for in-person consultations involving scores of participants from dozens of different agencies, these guidelines have been used over the years in a variety of gatherings and initiatives, as well as virtual communities. They have been borrowed and adapted by others, and they inform our current editorial policy concerning how we share information through our publications and online resources.
While there is no foolproof process for building relational networks, many have found these guidelines helpful in addressing some of the foundational issues in facilitating collaboration and mutual learning. In the spirit of “casting a brick to attract jade” we share and discuss them briefly in hopes that they might spark further dialog among those called to similar catalytic roles in the missions community.
A level playing field. The contributions of all participants are of value; no single individual or organization is put in the spotlight.
Those being asked to join a network are usually quick to discern whether all participants have equal footing or whether, in reality, “some are more equal than others.” If they realize that they have been invited only to support someone else’s agenda, they will not likely stay for very long. Given a network’s natural attraction to those seeking to promote a particular ministry or approach, it is incumbent upon the network facilitators to provide equal time for all to share about their work.
Respect for diverse approaches. We respect the validity of various approaches to China service and do not discount or seek to discredit the work of others, especially for the purpose of promoting our own work.
Whether it’s the fine points of Scripture translation, “smuggling” Bibles, or support for indigenous workers, there will inevitably be myriad topics on which not everyone agrees. Constructive discussion of these matters is important (see below), and participants should not be welcomed or excluded based on their respective positions on these issues. Rather, the network should seek to create a neutral environment where different perspectives can be shared openly.
Unity despite political differences. Desiring to be supportive of the whole Body of Christ in China, we refrain from debating the relative merits of working with “official” versus “unofficial” church bodies.
Somewhat unique to the China situation, where ministries have often divided sharply over the question of whether to work with the “house church” or churches affiliated with the government sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement, these principles could apply equally to other contexts where one part of the church enjoys government support and others face discrimination.
Early on in the networking process we met people who were not willing to be seen in the same room as, much less have a conversation with, those on the “other side” of this political divide. Over time attitudes changed when each side began taking the time to listen to the other. Suspicion gave way to mutual respect as both parties realized they were pursuing similar goals but in different ways. New friendships were formed, constructive sharing took place, and ministry to both the official and unofficial church benefited as a result.
A common faith. Out of respect for one another’s theological backgrounds and positions we seek to situate our discussions within that broad area of common ground which we as Evangelicals share, and we neither promote nor condemn distinctive doctrinal positions.
As in other parts of the world, evangelical organizations involved in China run the gamut theologically. They cannot be expected to give up their unique positions for the sake of trying to work together. At the same time, collaborative ministry efforts often require that participants major on the essentials of the Gospel and resist the urge to promote one particular stance over another. A healthy network should provide a place where participants from different faith traditions can learn from one another and thus develop an appreciation for the unique gifts that each brings to the task at hand.
Reconciliation. Should one participant feel constrained to exhort another regarding a chosen approach or sphere of work, this should be done in a spirit of love and sharing and should be handled privately.
Open forum discussions, virtual communities, and publications or blogs that promote the sharing of diverse opinions all run the risk of becoming platforms for unhealthy debate. This often happens when certain individuals take it upon themselves to publicly condemn those of the opposite “camp,” whether defined in terms of politics, theology, culture or missiology. Sometimes the debate can get intensely personal for reasons that have little to do with the network itself or even the issues being discussed.
Lobbed into a nascent community where relationships may be fragile at best, such “grenades” can quickly polarize members and cause some to leave in disgust. In extreme cases the resulting conflict is so severe that the network splinters or disintegrates altogether. The enemy delights in sowing discord. Such attacks are to be expected, and they underscore the need to be alert and bathe the entire network and its operations in prayer.
On the other hand, constructive dialog conducted in private between those who have differences can demonstrate the power of forgiveness. Even if the parties still cannot see eye to eye, their coming together in love and humility may provide a positive example of reconciliation for the rest of the network.
Confidentiality. All matters discussed are considered confidential and are not to be shared outside the consultation without prior permission. Nothing is for publication.
Creating a safe space for honest information sharing and meaningful learning requires that all participants be committed to safeguarding confidentiality. Protocols concerning the mention of specific place names, people, or organizations can help to create the guardrails within which constructive conversations can take place. Participants should be encouraged to tell their own stories but to refrain from relating others’ stories without prior permission. While it may be appropriate to share at some point with a larger audience what was discussed or presented within the network, the parameters for doing so should be clearly spelled out. When in doubt, participants should approach the speaker directly and ask how much of what she shared may be repeated outside the network gathering.
Security. News of upcoming or past consultations, including the names of participants, should not be shared outside the organizations represented at the consultation, nor should this information be communicated within China or to any representative of Chinese government or a mass organization.
Similar to the previous point, this guideline recognizes that, in environments like China, information about participants or about the network as a whole could be damaging if it were to fall into the wrong hands. Government entities charged specifically with monitoring religious activity would obviously be interested in knowing about the network and its members. In the case of China, entities such as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement that interface with overseas Christian groups have, as part of their mandate, the task of gathering information about what these groups are doing in the country. While some members of the network may enjoy positive working relationships with government entities, other members work strictly “below the radar.” For the sake of all involved, those who do work openly need to agree that they will not divulge to government or official church partners their relationships with other groups engaged in China.
Participants are free to share within their own organizations about the network, what they are learning, and how they are involved. In cases where organizations are collaborating on specific ministry initiatives, multiple people at the staff, leadership, and board levels may need to be kept in the loop. They, in turn, must be committed to protecting others in the network by following agreed upon security protocols. In communicating with donors about ministry related to the network, care must be taken not to reveal details that others in the network would not be comfortable sharing or that could result in damage to the ministry.
Growth through relationships. Participants should not take the liberty of telling others about the consultations, but should instead recommend such persons to the steering committee.
Every healthy network needs a team of committed leaders responsible for ensuring the integrity of the network process. They serve as gatekeepers, bringing in those who should be part of the community while, as necessary, protecting the participants from those whose presence might be detrimental.
Sometimes they are called to serve in a manner similar to Barnabas’s role with Saul, inviting participants who may appear to some as threatening but who actually have a unique contribution to make to the group. This function obviously calls for much prayer and discernment, as well as careful discussions with other participants in order to pave the way for the new member to be accepted. At other times they may need to err on the side of caution by not extending an invitation to someone whose behavior, motives, or existing relational issues with others in the group suggest that their involvement would not be helpful.
On this last point, it is inevitable that conflicts will exist between some participants, often over issues that predate the network itself and may have nothing to do with the actual ministry in which the network is involved. Apart from cases of obvious behavioral or character issues that would otherwise preclude involvement in the network, the participant selection process should not be abused by favoring one side in a conflict over the other. Nor should the mere existence of known conflict be grounds for excluding participants. Rather all participants should be considered on their own merits. Where possible the network should try to encourage reconciliation among participants.
Effective networks are dynamic. Since those actively participating in a network are the most likely to know others who should also be involved, leadership should urge participants to suggest new additions to the group. Invitations should be issued from the leadership to the prospective member (along with direct encouragement from the person who made the initial recommendation).
Mutual Accountability. By virtue of their attendance at the consultation, participants agree to be held accountable by their peers for upholding these principles and thus ensuring the integrity of the consultative process.
In formal gatherings or even online communities, we have asked participants to sign a copy of these guidelines as a condition for their involvement. While it may come across to some as legalistic, this exercise provides a natural opportunity to orient participants to the expectations of the group. Clarity at this stage can help prevent misunderstandings in the future. Involvement in the network comes with the expectation that individual members will not only adhere to the guidelines but also help to enforce them by reminding others who, whether through carelessness or willful actions, fail to abide by the standards of the network.
Fruit that Remains
Effective ministry networks have clear purposes and procedures. Members need to know why they are involved. They are focused on shared objectives. They celebrate together when those objectives are met.
Yet the most valuable and lasting fruit may be the relationships themselves—relationships that allow for a degree of collaboration that goes beyond what anyone could have planned or anticipated.
Recently a family engaged in pioneering work among China’s ethnic minorities came under intense political pressure. They contacted a colleague for help. She, in turn, reached out to someone she knew on the other side of the world. Their brief email exchange touched off a chain of events encompassing multiple individuals who had no organizational ties, no formal obligations to one another, and no reason to get involved apart from the trust they had developed through years of relationship.
One couple stepped in to provide emergency member care for the family. Another found housing. A lawyer agreed to take their case. Others covered the legal costs. After they relocated, someone else in this chain of relationships welcomed them into a new church family in their recently adopted hometown.
Today the recipient of these many blessings marvels at how God orchestrated these relationships—some going back as far as thirty years—to care for every aspect of his family’s need in a time of extreme crisis.
There was no master strategy. No organizational structure. No MOU’s. No well-rehearsed contingency plans. Just a network of seemingly random relationships divinely woven together by the Holy Spirit.
A skillfully woven tapestry has two sides. One side displays an exquisite work of art. Turn the fabric over, however, and one finds a tangled mass of knots and meandering threads that bears no resemblance to the beautiful design on the obverse.
Like a beautiful tapestry, a healthy network also has two sides. One side speaks eloquently of the power of Spirit-led collaboration. On the other side, behind the beauty of harmonious relationships and well-executed ministry initiatives, lies an unsightly mass of miscues and misunderstandings, of hurt feelings and missed opportunities—the messiness that inevitably results when fallen individuals attempt to work together.
Yet without these scars and disappointments there would be no fruit. All are a necessary part of the tapestry of relationships, the material that the Master Weaver, in his wisdom, chooses to knit together for his eternal purposes. In his timing he will turn the fabric over, revealing a glorious design, the glory “I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22–23 ESV).
Dr. Brent Fulton is founder of ChinaSource. He and his wife, Jasmine, reside in Southern California.