The very first church I pastored was the First Baptist Church of Rosebud, TX.  Rosebud wasn’t exactly a bustling metropolis.  We numbered 1459 residents back in the day.  I remember going to denominational meetings and professional gatherings and coveting the resources that larger churches had at their disposal.  

Even when I moved to a larger church in Arkansas, we still had to partner to do a lot of things.  We had a dream of commissioning some amazing friends and colleagues as missionaries to South Africa but there was no way we could work what they would have required into the budget of our medium sized church. And so we started a long, painstaking process of calling other churches and then we worked with our friends who wanted to go and serve to work with organizations in South Africa to be part of this rag tag coalition.  We managed to pull together a network but it wasn’t easy and we always had to work to make sure we had enough resources to provide the necessary support.  I used to wonder what it would have been like to have enough all on our own, to not have to spend so much time in the process of coordinating the diverse hopes and decision making processes of so many independent partners.  It would have been easier.

In recent days, however, I have come to repent of any ill-considered impatience or frustration where such partnerships are concerned.  As I’ve mentioned in other recent CHC articles, our organization is involved with Belmont University in a study of alternative forms of congregational thriving, and one of the clearest characteristics of the churches we’ve studied is that these thriving congregations don’t just partner with other churches and organizations financially, the partnerships go much deeper than that. In most cases, there is a critical element of the church’s identity that actually depends upon the resources/energy/know-how provided by that partner.  What we’re seeing isn’t so much a partnership but an ecosystem of cooperation that requires mutual dependency for mutual thriving.  In one congregation it’s a partnership with other churches, in another it’s a partnership with a school, in still another it’s a partnership with local government, but in every case something catalytic is produced by the exchange of ideas and yes even by the painstaking effort it takes to coordinate shared effort.

In a recent edition of the Harvard Business Review, Chandra Gnanasambandam and Michael Uhl, two Silicon Valley executives, talked about pathways to innovation. It might shock you to hear this but Silicon Valley began to realize in the past decade that the giant innovative leaps of the 1990’s and early 2000’s had slowed dramatically.  The heady days of a group of geniuses producing a leap forward in the dark, musty confines of a founder’s garage weren’t really happening anymore.  There was, however, an exception to that rule.  Innovation had moved out from behind the locked doors of the R&D departments in Silicon Valley to bar rooms and weekend getaways between friends.  In the few safe places where people could have conversations across the lines that divided companies, innovation was still occurring. 

And it’s not just in Silicon Valley, a study was conducted a few years ago of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the late 20th Century, and one of the most surprising results of the study was that such breakthroughs weren’t happening in the laboratories but the lunchrooms when scientists of different disciplines were discussing their work together.  

There is a lesson here for the 21st Century Church, if we pay attention. Mutually dependent partnerships open our congregations up to mental and spiritual resources that go beyond the size and scope of our congregations.  They also can give us opportunities to build relationships that might become missional friendships where it’s not just two people or two organizations partnership but a meeting of hearts and lives that includes Jesus in the mix.  If 90% of congregations in America are plateaued or declining numerically, then maybe one way of thinking about our metrics is that we should never want to be so large that we try to do things on our own.  It might be easier, but it’ll cut us off from lessons and opportunities that might accomplish even more for God’s Kingdom. 

Matt Cook
Dr. Cook joins the Center as a full time Assistant Director after having
served local congregations for more than twenty-five years with nearly twenty years as Senior Pastor in churches in Texas, Arkansas, and North Carolina.He is completed his undergraduate degree at Samford and his M.Div and Ph.D. (Church History) at Baylor University. He has been highly involved in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on a both the state and national level, having served on the Coordinating Councils of both Texas and Arkansas, as well as having served as the Moderator of CBF National. He was also the founding conveyor of Current, CBF’s young leaders network. He can be reached at mattc@chchurches.org.