Diplomatic Savvy for the Sake of the Unreached
"I have to let them know," Abdallah tells his wife. "I have committed my life to the Jesus of the Bible. I will send a letter to that radio station to share this exciting news. I believe God has shown us He wants our entire family to be submitted to His Son, Jesus Christ."
That very day, Abdallah sent off a simple note to the radio station. For several months he had been active in a correspondence course through the radio program, learning of Jesus and His sacrificial death on the cross. The faceless voices that taught him about the hope of new life in Christ over this radio station were the only followers of Jesus he had any personal knowledge of. Though wanting to be cautious, he felt driven to ask that these fellow- followers of Jesus somehow help him walk the path of eternal life.
The governing authorities of Abdallah's North African country would not be pleased to know he had made a decision to submit himself to the Jesus of the Bible. In fact, conversion to anything but Islam is forbidden in this politically Islamic police state.
The very next week, Abdallah was taken aback when he was greeted at his door by a follower of Jesus who delivered an exciting holy booka harmony of the gospels in his native tongue, telling the marvellous story of the life of Jesus.
After several more days, Abdallah was again greeted at his simple home by the same brother in Christ. This time they talked at some length about how best to grow in this newfound commitment to Christ. Abdallah was exhilarated when this brother invited him to a house church that met just two miles from his home! Abdallah was convinced that, through this series of visits to his home, the Kingdom of God had, indeed, visited him. Within several weeks of his decision to yield himself to Christ, he had met a group of like-minded believers who could disciple him as he walked with Christ.
While not an account of an actual person's pilgrimage to Christ, Abdallah's story does illustrate a functioning reality in a growing number of mission fields today. The literature delivered to him and the visitor at his door and the invitation to a house church are together just one example of a tangible result born out of a partnership agreement between--amongst others--the broadcast evangelism agency, a missionary publishing agency and church-planting mission agencies who have coordinated their efforts in some very specific ways. Over the last ten years, similar partnership agreements have begun to flower in regions as diverse as North Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, India and Sub-Saharan Africa. They have served to dramatically enhance the effectiveness of each agency's work individually--and thus the cause of God's Kingdom in each region.
To the unreached, the various pieces of any given partnership agreement contribute to create a unified and persuasive demonstration of Christ's redemptive work.
While certainly not the first to advocate a working harmony in the body of Christ, the key catalyst behind this recent surge in strategic partnership has been Interdev's founder and president, Phill Butler. However, Butler makes no claim to have brought anything that is particularly profound to the Christian mission community. He saw what many others saw. "All Christian leaders have talked about how they lament the fact that Christians do not work together," he says. If he has exercised any stroke of brilliance, it has been his ability to enter in and work (through the partnership facilitating agency, Interdev) to change the status quo with partnerships. At least to date, these agreements have been quite effective and very durable.
Yet it would be inaccurate to assume that Interdev has taken agencies that were hostile to one another and made them warm and amiable. Instead, they have worked with organizations that have been, generally speaking, friendly and mutually supportive. Interdev has served as the third party intermediary, working to take their independent--and frequently overlapping efforts and create a strategic, integrated presentation of the Gospel that advances the cause of Christ more than any of their efforts could have done independently.
Dr. Ralph Winter, founder and general director of the U.S. Center for World Mission, recognizes the challenge of creating these partnerships: "Painstakingly and with incredible diplomacy he has been able to very patiently pull together what is now 45-55 strategic partnerships." This painstaking process is understood better when it is recognized that Interdev does not work to create general agreements between two or three players in any given field. Rather, Butler advocates unanimous, very specific agreements amongst all agencies working in any given region.
To get a grasp of the complexity of pulling together just a single partnership, Butler describes the various components: "If you go to the Central Asia consultation, you will see nearly 200 people there representing 125 different agencies and local churches from all over the world. Every single partnership usually contains everything from Scripture translation, Scripture production, scripture distribution, literature production for evangelism and discipleship, audio and visual media--such as cassettes, the Jesus Film and other forms of non-print media--and more traditional things, such as face-to face evangelism, the whole tentmaker movement and the relief and development people."
While Butler certainly believes that the unity fostered through these partnerships is Biblical and God-glorifying, his primary motivation is not an idyllic theological tenet of how the Body of Christ needs to be one. In fact, Interdev's success is due in part to their willingness to affirm the individuality and autonomy of each participating agency. Butler's approach is really pragmatism driven by a passion for the unevangelized. He explains that with the birth of Interdev's first partnership in 1985, "there was a model where risk could be reduced and effectiveness could be increased. Credibility could be enhanced and more people would come to Christ--all at a reduced expenditure by any individual agency. The church would be established and church-planting movements would be born in a shorter period of time than with the old, independent approaches."
That inaugural 1985 partnership was born from a meeting of 14 workers from some 10 mission agencies working in limited-access North African countries. With Butler as a catalyst and a guide, they came up with a list of things they wanted to see done but simply could not do effectively unless they worked together. After creating this list, they set out to determine the most important thing to address--no small task when you're working off a list of 24 items.
Recognizing how difficult yet essential it is to narrow down which tasks are most critical for the immediate, Butler says, "Frankly, most Christian organizations do not even ask the question--much less, get a bunch of organizations in the same room at the same time [to ask the question]."
For the Agencies participation in a partnership does not entail loss of identity or autonomy. Rather, the individual agencies cooperate on any number of specific tasks or projects that they could not have done, or at least done well, on their own.
But that group in Malaga, Spain narrowed down the most important thingon which they were going to coordinate their efforts. While certainly difficult, the limiting of that first agreement to a single item gave the partners an opportunity to develop trust for later agreements that would take a deeper commitment to the partnership.
"Whether it's 14 people or 100 people, everybody has got to know that if we get this thing done, this is something God wants done in north Africa; [or] this is something God wants done in Kazakstan. This is not a private agenda."
And with tenacity and principled devotion to both frontline evangelism and cooperation in the body of Christ, Phill Butler has led the Interdev staff of some 40 facilitators worldwide in the creation of 54 of these partnerships, with an additional 79 in various stages of development. All are field-based, with nearly 500 participating mission agencies from over 40 countries. Indicative of the rapidly expanding worldwide mission-sending force, nearly 30 percent of these agencies are from nations based in the emerging, two-thirds world.
Youthful adventures in the Mexican state of Baja California near his La Mesa, California home gave Butler early and affectionate exposure to other languages and nations. As a youth, he remembers "travel and involvement cross-culturally outside my own home area was the norm."
While a believer from the age of 12, it was in college that Butler gained a deeper passion for mission and an understanding of what faith in Christ entailed. He was pursuing a business degree at Bob Jones University in South Carolina when he began working at a campus-based radio station. Located nearby was the largest troop carrier base in the world. Phill began covering troop movements and military issues both around South Carolina and around the globe. "Before I was out of the university, I was covering Berlin airlifts and a number of other things," he recalls.
Upon graduation, he was forced to choose between his degreed training--business--and his growing passion for journalism. He did not find the decision particularly difficult. "Journalism is like a staff infection," he says, "It gets in your blood and its like a disease to get rid of."
The journalism path took him to an L.A. radio station where he quickly began to integrate his profession with his passion for "frontline evangelism." He started a small consulting firm that served mission agencies like TransWorld Radio and Far East Broadcasting.
A more ambitious venture--and one that would foreshadow much of his work in the succeeding three decades--was taken in 1966 as he took a management position at a Seattle-based broadcasting company. His creative energies were directed towards KBIQ--a seemingly inconsequential station, without any Christian programming. Butler remembers it as "very innocuous. It had produced no revenue and it had no audience."
Over the next 2 1/2 to 3 years, Butler ushered the station from not even being listed in the ratings, to number four in certain parts of the day. Commercially, it was quite a success, as advertising revenue dramatically increased--and the programming remained largely secular. Butler describes the musical format as simply "adult, good music." The significant twist was the short Christian messages sprinkled between songs and the coordinated effort he orchestrated with the services of other ministries. For example, counseling services were offered, literature distributed to interested parties and personal follow-up was given those who had made decisions for Christ. It wasn't KBIQ personnel that did all this follow-up, but partnering ministries who came together in an agreement. Technically, it is called vertical integration--where there is a functional harmony between different media of communication. In practice it has significant parallels with the partnership illustrated by Abdallah's story--and many of Interdev's partnerships today.
From his earlier days in radio broadcasting, Phill Butler has been an active agent in bringing diverse ministries around the table to create strategic cooperation.
The harvest that was reaped in the KBIQ experiment was, according to Butler, unprecedented. "We saw more people actually make decisions for Christ in that 2 1/2 year period than any other Christian radio station I have ever personally been exposed to in the U.S. in the last 30 years," Butler says. He describes the innovative format as "secular programming with Christian intention." And the North American evangelicals, he recalls, reacted with hostility, incensed by the notion of creating programming that would use "profane" music in its efforts to reach beyond what Butler recognized as an isolated, Christian ghetto.
Butler was discouraged by the response of the Christian community, but recognized the dramatic impact that such a coordinated effort could have in other spheres of Christian work. He set out to address a perpetual problem in his area of greatest interest, the mission world: Lack of adequate staffing. The mission agencies he had contact with "would always cry about not having enough people," he remembers.
It was the late 60's and the Peace Corps was in its heyday, recruiting great numbers of people for volunteer service. Seeing the way they used advertising for recruitment spurred him in the organization he founded in 1967I--nterCristo. Like his work with Interdev today, Butler didn't view his ideas as anything revolutionary. With InterCristo, Butler created a clearing house "a very simple idea" that would generate inquiries by promoting the cause of world mission in the mass media. InterCristo, he explains, would "get all the mission agencies to cooperate in developing a data pool of opportunities from around the world." They would then "match the two and send reports to both parties."
The challenge was trying to make the simple vision happen. InterCristo overcame a number of obstacles to coordinate their efforts with InterVarsity (IV) at several regional conferences akin to URBANA. With IV convinced of the value, the decision was made to integrate InterCristo into Urbana '70 (held in Dec. 1969).
Butler recalls that the impact of InterCristo's cooperative input to Urbana was "huge." Crowds that surrounded the agencies who had listed specific opportunities gave testimony to the kind of profound implications of this "information system." Butler's concurrent and successful career in media eventually led him to a position at ABC. Yet the burgeoning InterCristo demanded a greater portion of his attention. Shortly after Urbana 1970, Butler made the decision to move out of broadcast journalism and dedicate himself full-time to InterCristo.
Butler served with InterCristo until '79 when, with it well established, he had freedom to move on. He was wanting to address matters less related to gaining personnel for world mission and more immediately involved in the "strategic, frontline evangelism stuff." With his history in media, it was logical that many of Butler's early partnership-related projects were in communications consulting, guiding ministries who were using mass communication for evangelism.
It was 1986 when Butler and Interdev moved more decisively away from the narrower focus of communications consulting and towards the Strategic Evangelism Partnership business--working at the field level to create very specific, functional partnerships amongst each facet of the body of Christ.
He recalls the question he asked the Interdev staff during this transition: "If we could take these assets we have and use them most effectively for the Kingdom, leverage for maximum return, seeing the largest number of people come to Christ in shortest period of time, what should we do?"
This returns us to Malaga, Spain and the formation of the first partnership agreement. It was actually designed to be a pilot project that would be written up and discussed in mission schools and seminaries across the country.
Several years later, when they had hoped to have two case studies, Interdev was the facilitator for the sustenance of six active partnerships. Interdev, and someone of Butler's stature, provided what Tim Lewis, a special assistant to the director of a number of mission agencies and former field participant in an Interdev partnership, calls the "crucial neutral dimension: It was a crucial function because we needed somebody to impel us to cooperate, and it was neutral, because they didn't have their own agenda." Interdev's neutrality has been essential for creating the dimension of trust so fundamental for partnership development.
The tremendous growth of Interdev's role in partnership development over the last ten years has led Ralph Winter to describe Butler in flattering terms. "He's like the John R. Mott of our era," Winter says. "John R. Mott was the one man who believed in cooperation, who ran around and established 22 regional National Christian Councils which are the historical equivalent to strategic partnerships today."
While certainly honored to be compared to a figure like John R. Mott, Butler sees some significant differences in the partnerships Interdev has been developing.
Clarifying the distinction, he points out that Mott did not work at the field level with each of these individual regional councils. He did not "help them work out the actual functional evangelism strategies where they saw people coming to Christ." Mott was not involved with the details central to Interdev's work, like "the different roles the parties could play and how they could share success. It was never done. The innovation here is we have developed this model and concurrently, by the way, a training program (we train 100 to 150 people a year on how to launch and sustain these partnerships). We believe it is replicable. This is not a black box any more. We do know how to do this. If you do certain things, the likelihood of success is extremely high. If you ignore these principles, the likelihood of failure is equally high."
In many ways, Butler has brought to the fore the immense value of the art of diplomacy in Christian ministry, so infrequently or ill-employed in the Christian community. The partnerships that Interdev has founded in some of the most daunting mission fields on the planet are rare if not unthinkable on the North American continent today. "The only place, at the moment, unfortunately where different segments of the body of Christ are meeting face-to-face is at the field level in these partnerships," he says.
Certainly, the growth of these partnerships has much more to do with sacrifice and long-suffering than affection for any buzzword of the day. "Partnership is complicated. Partnership always means compromise. Partnership is risky," notes Lewis. And as partnership has become so prevalent, we are cautioned lest it become a bit too easy to hide behind a veneer of a new form of political correctness--underestimating the deep struggles, candid conversation and, yes, conflict behind many of these agreements.
Partnership, Lewis says, means that no single player is going to get the credit. "It requires less focus on your personal kingdom and more focus on God's Kingdom," he continues, "and a willingness to let others take credit for work you may have done." These notions are much easier talked about than practiced, especially when combating the old, but still often idealized notion of a lone missionary heroically taking the Gospel prize to the patiently-waiting heathen.
It was actually the business community that offered Butler a wealth of models of cooperation that have served as case studies for what could be done in the mission community. In the late 1980's, as the Communist world began to crumble, access was gained to vast populations previously isolated from access.
The blaze of interest and action in the region was certainly not limited to the body of Christ. Butler observes that the "whole world of business internationally began to pivot around the concept of strategic alliances, global alliances and partnerships. So commercial models were rapidly emerging while we were doing both a Biblical and functional framework on the missions side."
Many have recognized that the Interdev model is more than just small improvements in work that is already being done well. The profound challenges that face the mission community, Lewis believes, make partnership the necessary model for the future. "I think partnership and its cohort networking are really a model into the 21st century for mission. I am seeing more and more that this is the direction in which we need to move if we're going to get the work done," he says.
Butler's hope is to see Strategic Evangelism Partnerships become what Microsoft Windows has become to the world of personal computers: a norm, a standard for communication and productivity. "We would like an industry standard to be developed so that people assume that some kind of strategic partnership is the way to go."