SEPs: Partnering for Kingdom Profits
P. Mark Richards
In a small town high in the mountains of North Africa, Abduhl worked patiently straightening his stock of paper and other goods he sold in his stationery shop. Outside, the street was filled with the din of animals, their owners, and a remarkable range of vehicles. Densely-packed crowds milled about the nearby public market.
It was mid-day and Abduhls shop was deserted when a stranger appeared at the door. Abduhl wondered who he was as the man walked in.
Are you Abduhlthe Abduhl whos been writing letters to a radio program? the man asked after hed looked around the place a moment. He crossed the room to where Abduhl stood.
Abduhls heart jumped within him. Who is this man? he wondered. Secret police? Someone from the radio program?
It had been more than two years since hed first heard the program. Late one evening as he listened to his radio, he had come across a program that talked about a man named Jesus. Abduhls heart had been open at the time, and he had been eager to hear more, so he began listening to the program regularly. Soon he enrolled in a Bible correspondence course the radio announcer had offered.
Abduhl found it hard to stay up late at night to complete his course work while running his shop and helping his widowed mother, but he pressed on nonetheless. It had been just a few days before that Abduhl completed his third Bible correspondence course. And now this man was inquiring . . . .
But, Yes, said Abduhl, I am Abduhl, . . . the Abduhl who has written to a radio program. He knew his admission could land him in jail, but how could he not tell the truth?
He waited a moment in agony before the stranger broke into a smile, stepped forward, and opened his arms wide in an embrace of friendship. I am Muftah, said the man. Ive come to bring you personal greetings from those youve been writing to. We work together to make the programs.
After a few moments of excited conversation, Abduhl suggested that they go out for lunch together. And so, with the shutters drawn and the door locked, the two went to a nearby caf for a long meal.
That night, following an afternoon of conversation together, Abduhl invited Muftah to his home for dinner. Late that evening Muftah had the privilege of leading Abduhl in a prayer of acknowledgment and dedication to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Before Muftah left, he told Abduhl of a European businessman he knew who lived in town. I know he loves Jesus, too, said Muftah, and I think he could be an encouragement to you, . . . to help you know more of Jesus and His ways. Would you like to meet him?
Abduhl agreed, and the three met over coffee a few days later. It was the first of a series of weekly meetings between the European and Abduhl. Within six months, Abduhl had progressed so far, the European man encouraged him to get involved in a leadership training course.
In order to attend, Abduhl had to close his shop early one day a week, board a bus and ride all night in order to get to the city; and after a day of study he had to reboard the bus for another all-night ride to get to his own town just in time to open his shop for another days business. But he felt it was worth it, and now there are three others who have become believers in Abduhls town high in the North African mountains.
Abduhl serves as leader for the group. They meet quietly in homes. Two of the four have been baptized. The other two, full of fear about their familys reactions, have hesitated. But despite the fear and the intimidation of local authorities, the small fellowship is growing stronger.
SEPs: Classic Coordination
Stan Locke* is involved in the Strategic Evangelism Partnership (SEP) that helped bring Abduhl to the Lord. Radio, personal letters, and Bible correspondence were linked to reach Abduhl, he said. But personal contact, follow-up by a tentmaker, and longer-term discipleship were also part of the story.
A communication strategist who has watched the development of the SEP idea said he believes the SEP approach is the only effective way to go in most so-called closed countries. The idea of linking radio closely with the personal witness of tentmakers and other forms of communication helps deal with the problem of access to these countries, yet keeps personal relationships a priority.
One member of the team that developed the concept and term Strategic Evangelism Partnership said, We chose (the name) Strategic, because our work is focused exclusively on major unreached language groups. Then Evangelism (is part of our name) because the emphasis is on building a viable, reproducing church in a language group. And finally, Partnership, because the strategy is based on bringing various ministries together, each with a special contribution to make.
These partnerships are where groups concerned about unreached peoples get together to coordinate their efforts. Typically they involve radio, literature, Bible correspondence courses, and personal contacts all linked together for a common objective.
SEPs are now at work among six different major unreached language groups. Besides the one in North Africa, there is one in Pakistan (focused on 70 to 75 million people in two unreached people groups), and four others are being developed in major unreached language groups in Hindu, Marxist/Socialist, and Islamic areas.
As Frank Marcus, a leader in the North African SEP, says, We think there are powerful incentives for Gods people to get together in a much more carefully coordinated way to reach the unreached.
He said this kind of coordination is particularly important because Most of the high-priority unreached language groups are located in high-risk areas. the governments and religious leaders are actively opposed to Christs message of freedom and reconciliation.
Then, too, duplication is reduced and, frequently, you get conservation of critically-needed resources including people, money, and facilities.
Marcus said he believes the credibility of the Gospel itself is enhanced when believers cooperateparticularly in Hindu, Islamic, and other traditionally-oriented cultures.
Graham Cook, with one of the member agencies in Pakistan, said, These cultures give highest priority to relationships and community. These values tower above money, prestige, or personal power. So the way the messengers of Christ live and work together has a profound impact on how the audience receives the message.
Certainly, said Marcus, Were seeing more and more that theirs a special freeing of the Holy Spirits power when believers are living and working in unity.
Leaders in several of the SEPs say cooperation yields many dividends. For instance, Jim Price, with an evangelism ministry in North Africa, said the partner agencies in his SEP decided last year that they needed to do a better job of coordinating their follow-up efforts.
Too often, he said, agencies were trying to follow-up on the same peoplesometimes jeopardizing the very lives of those they were trying to follow-up. In more than one case, he said, new converts received so much attention, police and postal authorities took note and called the people in for questioning. Some of these people actually landed in jail.
Price said 16 people from eight ministries in his SEP met together for three days and came up with a variety of practical agreements that are slowly changing the face of follow-up in that language group.
The SEP agencies are now sharing between themselves information about people who want personal contact. They hope in this way to avoid the problems that come when two or three different groups knock on the same door.
Training materials on effective personal contact and follow-up were identified at the meeting and are now being used on a wider basis, especially by tentmakers in the area.
Now, every week, one radio ministry in the group that has no personal follow-up staff of its own passes on the names and addresses of inquirers ready for contact to another ministry that does have follow-up staff.
A tentmaker in the area is thrilled. I think 80 percent of all my contacts are referred to me from the radio and Bible correspondence people, he said.
Another Partnership has tried to enhance coordination among and between its radio ministries. For instance, the group hired a professional research organization to help them determine what frequencies they ought to use and what times they ought to broadcast.
By sharing information, the stations also discovered that they were producing a variety of evangelistic programs, but nothing for the scattered, struggling believers in their area. That awareness pushed one of the agencies to produce a worship program.
Our hope, said one of the producers, is to help these scattered, isolated believers realize that they are not alone; to help them sense that they are part of a larger community that loves Christ.
Trust is the Key
We dont have people sign agreements, said Marcus. Instead, the relationships are built around a common objective of building Christs Church.
Marcus said that though the approach may sound loose and to some extent naive, the thing that holds us together is our commitment to Christ and, increasingly (our commitment) to each other. He said that times of prayer, fellowship, and communion have been critical to building trust and Its that trust of each other that allows us to move ahead on the practical work.
Price confessed, When we arrived (at our first SEP meeting on follow-up), many of us had never even met each other before! There was such an amazing range of liturgical and theological traditions in the room, I think some of us wondered, Can all of these guys really be believers?
Yet by the end of the meeting, these Christian leaders, men who had glanced across the room at each other with fearfulness when they first began, were embracing each other with tears. More than one confessed, Honestly, I never thought it could happen. Im amazed at the progress Gods given us here.
In April this year, the North African SEP, a group of 26 mission leaders from 18 agencies, met for four days in the third-floor room of an evangelical church in southern Spain.
As one of the leaders put it, This may have been an historic meeting. At least, youve got to admit, the idea of 18 agencies talking about how they could work together for the building of the church in an area of 65 million unreached people is pretty unique!
Not All Roses
This whole approach goes against the practice of modern missions and evangelism, said Marcus. Divisions in the Body of Christ and a highly individualistic approach to strategy have ruled our functional strategies for a long, long time.
But even beyond the evangelical and Western traditions of individualism, As evangelicals we fear cooperation. Some of those fears are legitimate. Others are not. But certainly Satan uses these divisions to lower our credibility and reduce the power and effectiveness of our witness.
For SEPs to be truly effective, he said, nationals must take part in the planning process. But expatriates find it hard to really listen to nationals and to incorporate them into the planning process.
In most of the SEPs, participating agencies make a voluntary contribution toward the costs of coordinating their efforts. Wes Phillips, one of the people in Seattle who helps oversee the SEP strategy worldwide, said participating agencies financial contributions to the SEP are more symbolic than practical.
We raise the bulk of the direct, costs needed for the coordination work, he said, but of course, the partner agencies make major contributions in other ways. They make major commitments in terms of staff time, travel costs, and other items. It costs something to work together rather than to just go your own way.
And the Long Haul?
Information flowing out of the growing SEP experience is being fed into other, related efforts. Links are being developed with the Lausanne movement, the World by 2000 initiative among international missionary broadcasters, and the Radio In Church Planting Evangelism (RICE) program.
Sharing what weve learned isnt an option; its mandatory, Phillips says. We cant talk about cooperation in the field and not seek to actively share what were learningboth the good and the bad.
Phillips acknowledges that the jury will be out for some time to come. Weve found that a typical SEP takes three to four years to develop. Then, we think, it will probably take another three to four years to begin to see the real fruit of such cooperation. In short, you have to be in this for the long haul.
Recently, in a university city in one of the Islamic countries where an SEP is in operation, eight new believers were baptized. Some say it may be the largest group of people ever baptized at one time in that country. It is certainly the largest group baptized in recent years.
Martin Berger, one of the tentmakers who was present for the baptism, said, This is another step in what has been, in some cases, a six-year process. Some of these people started listening to radio messages six years ago. A number were involved in Bible correspondence courses.
We were put in touch with a number of them several years ago and have just carried on patient work with them.
Berger said a number of mature national believers helped disciple the young Christians. These national believers, who now live outside the country, kept coming in, meeting with (the new believers) and ourselves.
God has blessed, he said, but without coordination, this never would have happened . . . at least not this way.
One question still remains. A leader in one of the North African agencies put it this way: We know the principles of these SEPs are sound from a biblical, communications, and resource-allocation standpoint. But whe-ther we can stay together and make it work over the long-term, that is yet to be seen.
If you would like further information about Strategic Evangelism Partnerships, write to the SEP office: P.O. Box 45777, Seattle, WA 98145.
An SEP Meeting from the Perspective of an Insider
I went into these meetings pretty sceptical. The perspective of many field missionaries is that consultations held off-the-field by people not on the field usually don't accomplish very much. Perhaps there is a trickle-down effect but it may take years for that to happen.
But one of the things that distinguished these meetings is that most of the people were fairly close to the scene of action. Although there had been for some years an attempt once a year to gather the top people of the various agencies, most of these consultations involved middle-level people.
Another key factor is that a special team came in as an outside agent, without its own agenda, but functioning as a facilitator. They consistently asked the question, How can you get to your goals better by working together? In the area of printing equipment, for example: can you reduce duplication?
Another factor in the surprising success was that for most of the agencies the key people had almost grown up together, and had been talking together ever since a special meeting in 1974, so we could really talk about agendas, programs, finances, personnel, etc. with candor impossible with no background. A general political atmosphere in the whole area that is hostile also brings people together.
Media was the central subject, since all the missions rely heavily on both radio and mail. But such discussions then led to questions about how best to follow through, and people sat down to critique one another's programs.
A Central clearing house was established for new ideas and approaches which the various agencies develop. The most basic question of all is the unresolved, and profound question of what will be the nature of the emerging church, and, thus, what is the goal we are all shooting for.