by Curt Cole
For agencies to thrive in the future, partnerships must be more and more at the core of strategy, and those partnerships must focus on deeper involvement with local churches.
Radio as an Extension of Ministry
A few years ago I visited a potential media partner in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Mexico has long been, and continues to be, a difficult part of the world for local Christian radio. However, not too long ago, there appeared to be a window of opportunity to help plant a radio station with community partners.
Before the first scheduled meeting, we were taken to an orphanage, where a young boy stood up, clasped his hands together, and prayed loudly and beautifully for us, his new friends. Then, we were shown a building that could be designed for use as a production studio. Finally, we sat down with the leadership group and heard their vision.
As they introduced themselves and we began to talk, it became clear that this was a group of pastors and local business people, and that radio seemed like a natural extension of what they were already doing. The orphanage, pastoral training, taking care of the sick, feeding the poor …they wanted radio to feed and nourish the holistic nature of their local church ministry.
Unfortunately, this station never made it to air, primarily because of government regulations. But the reality is that their core vision for using media and health care as a tool for the local church is one that drives our partnerships today. God’s plans run through the church, which means our plans should as well.
The South American country of Ecuador in many ways mirrors the growth of Christianity in the Global South. When I arrived in Quito as a new missionary with HCJB World Radio in 1993, I was told in our orientation that only four percent of the population of Ecuador was evangelical. In 2012, INEC (the Ecuador National Statistics Institute) released an extensive report on the state of religion in the country, and evangelicals now numbered over eleven percent.1
I first served as a member of the English Language Service of HCJB World Radio, producing programs for English audiences in North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific. At that time, a large antenna farm near Quito broadcasted hundreds of hours of short-wave programming, targeting many of the major languages of the world, as well as some local indigenous groups in the Andes region. In addition, World by 2000 had just been launched as a major initiative among global Christian broadcasters.
Initial Seeds of Partnership
But it didn’t take long to realize that significant change was in the air. The Iron Curtain had lifted just a few years before and the HCJB Russian Language Service was in major transition. After years of letter drought, feedback began pouring in from listeners across Russia, thanking us for the years of broadcasts and informing us of many local churches that were started because of those broadcasts. But there was also another request: “Come to Russia and help us do radio.” So a few brave souls ventured out, and radio planting was born.
Any large, older mission organization is now experiencing monumental change or it is dying. Despite the inevitability of global shifts in technology, politics, and evangelism movements, we as mission organizations are often slow to respond.
We tend to love our infrastructure and resources that took years to finance and build. It is always exciting to start something new and see it grow. It is not much fun to dismantle it. We like building up, not tearing down. But less infrastructure means less overhead, less administration, less managing stuff…and more focus on serving the local church with their dreams and vision.
As the last century ended, what started in Russia became common as countries that were formerly closed to missionaries opened. At the same time, short-wave listenership declined and radio planting thrived. In late 2009, HCJB closed its large short-wave transmission site in Pifo, Ecuador. The transition was on—from a doer to an empowerer, from a manager to a servant.
Meanwhile, hundreds of local, primarily low-power community FM stations were spread across Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central/Eastern Europe. In parallel, our health care division, which had long been in the shadow of radio, was given equal billing and charged with taking their community development strategies beyond Ecuadorian borders, focusing first on disaster relief at the request of local radio partners in places like Pakistan and Indonesia. That led to the mobilization of dozens of Latino doctors and nurses to serve cross-culturally, many experiencing mission for the first time.
One Step Further…Entering Long-term Partnership
Now, suddenly we weren’t owning and operating as much …but we were having a far deeper impact through local partnerships. Our missionaries
became more mobile and adapted quicker to changing environments. Lessons were learned through failure and success. But a common thread emerged that remains the core of our missiology today: Partnership that is born and nurtured through the local church is the best path to a synergistic, holistic relationship that helps the local church accomplish its mission.
Although HCJB was never truly a church-planting mission, it had over eighty years of history with the Ecuadorian church. Many early missionaries not only built radio towers, but churches as well. One of the largest churches in Quito, Inaquito Church, was founded by HCJB missionaries and today is sending Latino missionaries to some of the most remote mission fields on the planet. East of Quito, in multiple indigenous communities, churches were planted and nurtured by teams of HCJB missionaries and employees. Today, clean water projects in remote Andean communities are often driven through local church leadership.
Today, our ministry focus for Latin America is mobilization, believing
that the Latin American Church is ready to be equipped for global ministry.
The roots of HCJB run deep in Ecuadorian culture and the growth of the evangelical Church in this Andean country. Today, our ministry focus for Latin America is mobilization, believing that the Latin American Church is ready to be equipped for global ministry. We are not abandoning Ecuador, but we are significantly downsizing our footprint, believing that the local church there and across Latin America is capable of significant global ministry impact.
Our core mission is encapsulated in Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:35: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” This is why we do what we do …but how we do it is through the local church.
It is fundamental that the local church must own and drive the vision, which means our role is to figure out how to best support that vision. We serve them. The partner will always understand better the needs of their local community. They live and breathe it every day.
One of my favorite examples of this is the King of Kings Baptist church in Fish Hoek, South Africa. Pastor John Thomas showed up in the U.S. at a broadcasters’ convention in 1993, looking for help after receiving an FM license and not having a clue how to get the station up and running. In a God-ordained meeting, one of HCJB’s radio planters was there as well, and a partnership was born to help get CCFM Radio Fish Hoek on the air and become one of Cape Town’s top radio stations.
But that was just the beginning for King of Kings. In 1999, Pastor John woke up one day and read in his local newspaper that forty-four percent of people living just down the street from the church in Masiphumele township were HIV positive. It turned out the statistic in the paper was an exaggeration—the actual figure was seventeen percent. But it didn’t matter. Jesus’ words to care for those in need were clear and commanding to John. He challenged the church to get involved, and they responded. The ministry called Living Hope was born.
Today, Living Hope ministers to thousands of people around Cape Town through community development in the townships, food for individuals who are destitute, education programs for youth, agri-business training that pulls people from poverty, and a full hospice clinic that allows AIDS patients to die with dignity. This is the power of the local church to change communities through healing and teaching.
Another partner in Asia uses radio as a tool to plant churches. This group strategically selects a target area with few believers, partners with us to plant a local radio station, then invites listeners to be a part of a listening club. The leader of the club is a seminary-trained indigenous missionary who has been sent to the station. Through creative relationship evangelism, listeners meet Jesus—and a church is born!
Blessed through Occasional Challenges
One unsettling, sometimes uncomfortable, reality to a partner-driven model of ministry is that it is difficult. It takes tenacity and ultimately it means giving up control. It means that the church partner can decide to take things in another direction. It means confusion and cultural misunderstanding over the use of funds. And at times, it means that donors don’t understand how we can possibly relinquish management and oversight to someone else. But it’s worth it.
For agencies to thrive in the future, partnerships must be more and more at the core of strategy, and those partnerships must focus on deeper involvement with local churches. Seek to define the scope of the partnership from the beginning, but be willing to flex as it moves forward. Missionaries must be flexible, too. Our missionaries should be driven by serving others, not by what they know. And our organizations must continue to explore creative ways to second missionaries to and from partners.
As HCJB, now known as Reach Global, continues our transition to a partner-driven mission, one of our regional directors continually uses the phrase “ravenous collaboration.” Perfect. In March, I was with one of our Asian partners, who leaned over during our meal and thanked me for the past four years of radio planting together. He said, “You have never run ahead of us and you have never lagged behind us. Instead, you are right alongside us, supporting our vision for hundreds of new radio stations.” I am still smiling.
Curt Cole grew up in a missionary family in Ivory Coast, West Africa. Curt currently serves as vice president of International Ministries for Reach Beyond, which focuses on equipping churches to reach the unreached through media and health care.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 484-488. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.