T-16 Collaboration

  • Overview
  • Background
  • Introduction
  • Collaboration and an “Intercultural Connection Zone”
  • Collaboration, Creativity, and Integrational Action
  • Collaboration and “Ecumenism”

Tutorial #16 – Collaboration

Summary: This tutorial introduces a range of ways that Christians collaborate across traditional boundaries of theology and denominations – some of these modes being very unfriendly to current and future cultural realities, and others healthier and more plausible.


It seems like when North American church leaders talk about “collaboration,” it’s usually describing some sort of multi-denominational theological dialogue, or ministry partnership that displays “unity.”  And though Jesus spoke about His followers being one in Him, I’m not so sure that the diverse range of “ecumenical gatherings” I’ve observed have much to do with a holistic sense of unity. Each type has something positive, but isn’t unity supposed to be something more than just adopting the same creed? Or doing some activity together? While each approach has something worthwhile to offer, I find myself disappointed. It isn’t enough. It isn’t fulfilling enough. It isn’t soul-satisfying.

But what would be satisfying? And how do we get there from the midst of an American church culture that – at least in evangelical circles – seems bent against collaboration?

In this tutorial, I will address:

  • What I think needs to happen for creating a corporate culture of collaboration, an “intercultural connection zone,” if you will. (It requires embracing of differences in order to promote collective discernment and interpretation of what God is doing in our midst, and integration around that.)
  • Conventional forms of collaboration in recent church history, and how each one ties in with a specific kind of paradigm.
  • Why I think these formats fall short of what I see as the goal of holistic, intercultural collaboration for Kingdom construction.


One of the few blogs I have the time and inclination to follow is Reclaiming the Mission, from Dr. David Fitch – missional church pastor and professor at Northern Seminary in Chicago. A recent post addressed why “Reconciling conflict is ground zero for the inbreaking of the Kingdom.” His thesis is that conflict among us is where the Kingdom of God could break through – if we will work through the situation by persevering with the people involved, rather than shut down or manage the conflict.

But what usually happens in American evangelical churches is that people look to the pastors/leaders as the authorities who are responsible to shut down conflict, or – if it is not to be submerged, then at least the CEO/leader must determine who is right and who is wrong and manage the situation accordingly. Thus, when we shut down conflict, we block what God is wanting to do in our midst through the exposure to the light of deeper levels of sin and brokenness, and through leading the congregation into discernment of direction regarding new issues they’ve not dealt with before.

Dr. Fitch’s post was very helpful in sparking me to finish this tutorial on collaboration, as the kind of Kingdom break-through he talks about requires the kind of collaboration that integrates groups of people around the right things for the right reasons and in righteous processes. I developed the various sections of this tutorial from comments I put on his blog post, plus extensive notes from my years of reflection on the issues of collaboration – both within a congregation and among congregations or denominations or movements.


Yesterday I read Dr. Fitch’s post on why “Reconciling conflict is ground zero for the inbreaking of the Kingdom.” Then it took me a full day to reflect and figure out if I’d even seen these principles at work over my past almost 40 years in evangelicalism. And I have. Sadly, I’ve only witnessed them in one church, an extended cluster of friends who’ve stuck with each other for over 10 years through some very difficult conflicts, and one decentralized ministry network.

Well, actually, I should not say “sadly,” but “gladly.” I’m thankful that I’ve witnessed even this much. I suspect most American evangelicals have never ever seen this as either a point or a pattern in their church life. Most of what I’ve learned about Kingdom collaboration has been from the negative perspective where churches were dominated by authoritarian control, avoidance, and the “theology of nice.” That gave me a checklist for what went wrong, and the opposite of that looks pretty much like what Dr. Fitch stated in the positive. He mentions three main aspects that set parameters on this kind of approach where Conflict = Kingdom Breakthrough:

  • Mutual submission to Jesus as Lord.
  • Don’t manage conflict.
  • Observe and ask what God is doing in the situation.

At first, I labeled his process as “counter-intuitive.” But later, I decided that maybe this isn’t actually counter-INTUITIVE, it’s just counter-COGNITIVE. Living into and living out this sort of approach to conflict-as-constructive requires us to let our emotions be what they are instead of avoiding them and trying to be only “objective.” (That translates to trying to be fully anti-emotional, because God is rational and so we should only be rational as well. But that is not how we are designed. So, wouldn’t that kind of hyper-rational objectivity actually constitute a form of brokenness itself, which could preclude healing? Perhaps we don’t grow the Kingdom because we don’t really allow disciples to grow as whole people created in God’s image: mind, imagination, emotions, spirit, will.

But in the positive situations I’ve experienced, all three of these parameters Dr. Fitch lists were at play. So, I have a couple thoughts and examples to expand on the “so what’s” behind the “what” of Kingdom-constructive conflict. And to be clear, I’m addressing larger issues of conflict — not those that arise primarily out of “sin in the camp” and involve some kind of church discipline process, important as the Matthew 18 process is to personal restoration and congregation protection. Instead, I’m looking at those situations which emerge from God-ordained human differences – gender, generation, personality, learning styles, cultural backgrounds. Conflicts based on these innate differences inevitably expose underlying issues of prejudice/preference, sin, and brokenness, and hopefully they lead to a similar communal discernment and growth process, as does church discipline.

Collaboration and an “Intercultural Connection Zone”

In a multiple-paradigm world, “culture clash” is going to be a natural, everyday occurrence. It is in fact the framework that will spark us to move from multiple-culture coexistence, to multicultural connection (appreciate and respect the distinctives and differences of the “social other”), to – hopefully — intercultural collaboration (actively composite those distinctives in ways that strengthen the community as a system). Skills required for creating this kind of intercultural connection zone include perseverance and discernment.

Collaboration requires persevering with people in the midst of conflict and other kinds of ambiguous situations, such as visioning for the future, and working toward communal discernment of appropriate resolutions.

This aspect of collaboration involves many tasks. It means setting aside personal opinions, desires, and demands. It also means withholding judgments, gathering information, considering possibilities, assessing what we feel (not just think) about things, expressing our findings and opinions and feelings, and listening carefully as others express their findings and opinions and feelings. When we do these kinds of collaborative things that do not negate self or promote only “leaders,” but seek to composite all of our perspectives for the greater good, then we are working together to bring order out of the chaos, direction out of confusion, and healing out of brokenness.

More specifically, discernment calls forth an understanding of all “players” in the situation, in order to make the wisest decisions and set the most comprehensive directions for constructive Kingdom action/impact.

This is, in great part, where our paradigm and theology come into play. For instance, in my narrative approach to interpreting life according to Scripture, any given storyline always has at least God and people as actors on the “main stage,” and forces of good (angels) and evil (demons) in the periphery. (For more about that configuration, see the tutorial on Theodicy.) But what does discernment of our storyline and the next steps in the “plot” look like when only God is in the spotlight on stage, dictating everything for everyone else? Or only humans are in the spotlight, rationalizing their situation and solutions? Or only church leaders are in the spotlight, and congregation members are in the shadows? Our theological assumptions (and gaps in our theology) inevitably determine how we look at issues of conflict resolution and collaboration.

So, I’d suggest that if we intentionally work toward an intercultural process which embraces everyday culture clashes as a tool for the Kingdom breaking through among us, then we consistently ask questions about who is involved, not just what is involved. As a result, we will be far better equipped already to handle it when sin-based or issue-based conflicts arise that requires discerning good from evil. We won’t have to “empower” leaders to fix the situation, because our whole system will be set up for constructive engagement and reconciliation.

And, as Dr. Fitch suggests in his post, there may be a ceiling on the size of group or congregation that this will work with. Smaller is likely better, but I don’t have a specific size limit in mind at this time. But in fact, the church where I’ve seen these various principles of intercultural collaboration in action was a small church plant – Church of the Covenant – with a core group of about 20 people. It had the kind of creative and constructive integrative approach that I just sketched. If you’re interested in reading a relatively brief “case study” profile on this church, check out the section on “The Whole and the Holes” in this post on recovery from spiritual abuse and moving toward hope. It addresses what I call “spiritual osteoporosis,” and how God uses other people to fill in our gaps with “spiritual spackle.”

Collaboration, Creativity, and Integrational Action

True human creativity does not create something out of nothing – it synthesizes multiple options out of pre-existing conditions and substances. So, if we try to manage the conflict and resolve it quickly because it makes us uncomfortable, in effect we dismantle the framework for creative, intercultural “Kingdom construction.” We dismiss the very differences in personality, gifts, cultures, etc., that actually could help us move forward in new wineskin ways. That means we squelch the possibility for creative solutions and new directions, and literally quench the Holy Spirit and the providential work the Triune God was attempting to do in our midst.

There is much to-do these days about trying to be creative in ministry and mission. But I do not know a single seminary and almost no discipleship or leadership training programs that give practical how-to’s of the creative process, especially in creative collaboration with a team. Thankfully, I have seen that in action, and seen creativity flourish. The missional ministry where I have witnessed consistently using mutual submission, perseverance, and “what’s God up to here?” is also the most supple and viable and productive I have seen. Ever. It is the Matryoshka Haus network. I have participated in many of its projects over nearly a decade, archived its progress, and written again about its most recent incarnational Kingdom enterprise project, Sweet Notions. This post also gives an overview of past history for Matryoshka Haus, starting with official beginnings in 2003, so you can see the larger picture of where Sweet Notions fits in the stream of process and projects.

Part of this decentralized network’s “secret” for catalyzing multiple kinds of projects (art exhibition, social enterprises, businesses, discipleship internships, etc.) is the intentional pairing of catalyzers with questioners, creative point persons with project managers, synthesizers with sustainers (as in the Ephesians 4 “APEST” model of sustainable missional work). In my experiences, interactions demonstrate mutual respect, and appreciating the contributions of each individual for the sake of the composited whole. No one’s questions or concerns are immediately ruled out of order, even if they crop up at what seems an inconvenient time. Participants show themselves willing both to speak and to listen, and the level of real dialog improves the clarity and quality of the planning, implementing, and evaluating.

They don’t listen just to each other, but to the Spirit. Regardless of theological background, there is an emphasis on being Spirit-led, especially as in missional endeavors, there is no formula. (At least, no formula that works!) So, times of prayer and asking “What’s God doing here?” punctuate the group process – whether the team is considering a new project, evaluating an existing project, or visioning into the long-term perspective. (As I think about it, maybe this makes for a great working description of “Christian unity,” and that becomes very important to any discussion of “ecumenism,” what just happens to be next up.)

All of this is why I say that Matryoshka Haus has a holistic, integrative paradigm. Its discussions highlight complementary giftings. Its teams integrate people with different personal focal points: informational, pastoral, creative, administrative, and paradoxical. Its paradigm is paradoxical enough to be holistic. (Sidenote: I am convinced that paradoxical thinking is at the core of communal discernment. Paradox holds two planes of information or two perspectives together simultaneously to interpret how they are interconnected. Paradox BOTH looks at the concrete world of what is seen AND asks beyond the seen into what the abstract meaning of these things could be. It looks at BOTH individuals AND their community, and seeks to interpret the significance of the roles they play in each other’s existence.)

In short, instead of letting differences lead to an endpoint of conflict, Matryoshka Haus trusts in diversity as a tool to move toward collaboration. And through the efforts of project participants both inside and outside their teams, the Kingdom breaks through.

Collaboration and “Ecumenism”

Experiences at Church of the Covenant and Matryoshka Haus have deeply shaped my understanding of a biblical meaning for “unity” and a God-honoring approach to collaboration. I have also learned much from co-sojourneying with a group of friends from vastly different theological backgrounds, holding on despite conflict and confusion and relational hurts. And roller-coaster rides are sure to happen when disciples from fundamentalist, conservative, liberal, progressive, Charismatic, and Pentecostal backgrounds all “covenant” together to stick with one another despite doubts. But isn’t that the meaning of all sharing the same goal of becoming more like Jesus Christ, although being on different trajectories as disciples because each of us begins from a different theological starting point? Truly, that is where the old adage that “you get closer to each other as you get closer to Christ” makes sense to me.

So, I’ve had constructive engagement at the relational, ministry, and congregational levels. What happens in even larger forums, though? How does this approach to collaboration pan out in what has traditionally been called “ecumenical” arenas? That is something I am still searching for. I don’t think I’ve really ever seen it in person yet outside these smaller-scale settings that I’ve already mentioned.

But I do have some hope that eventually it could develop. Glimpses of what could be came to me almost 30 years ago when I spent time pouring over reports and personal stories of persecuted Christians under Communist regimes in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. I saw how the minority and marginalized status of Christians in these countries often worked to draw them together in truly focusing on the commonalities instead of letting theological differences divide them. In the mid-1990s, I came across a provocative book that challenged me profoundly through its historical account of diverse Christians who forged a deep sense of unity in the most unlikely of places:

Grey is the Color of Hope by Irina Ratushinskaya (Vintage, 1989). This autobiography addresses significant issues of cooperation and collaboration across the differences among Christians that usually divides them. It is the engrossing account of a Russian Orthodox believer who was imprisoned in the 1980s for writing poetry that was deemed “anti-Soviet.” The book covers her trial and four years of her sentence in a “strict regime” prison labor camp. In it, Ratushinskaya shows how to live out your Christianity in some of the most extreme of negative conditions anywhere – the Soviet Gulag – and even find joy.

She traces how a small group of women political prisoners maintained a sense of human dignity in the midst of dehumanizing conditions and treatment. Ratushinskaya also shows how those among the group who were Christians (Orthodox, Baptist, Pentecostal, etc.) clung to the one essential all held in common – a personal and meaningful relationship with Christ – and didn’t let theological differences mar their fellowship. It explores their group process for how to address those in authority who persecuted them. It also shares how they found common ground with those women who were not Christians, and how they dealt with fellow prisoners who betrayed them. This is my favorite non-fiction book, and I have read it at least 10 times in the 16 years since I providentially stumbled across it at a used bookstore.

So – I know that this kind of unity among believers is possible, even where there is no uniformity in the ethnic backgrounds, theological faith and practices, or generation of members in a group. But what about where circumstances do not force such closeness? Most of the conventional approaches to ecumenism or collaborative Christian endeavors make me nervous.

I find the issue of collaboration across paradigms to be one of the most difficult I’ve wrestled with because I believe it’s an essential issue for a sustainable future of missional movements. At this point in my reflections on collaboration in large-scale settings, I’ve identified five different approaches. Each one integrates around a different priority, because each arises out of a different paradigm, and each seems to draw in leaders from a particular generation and perhaps within a particular theological range.

Nominal Unity. This is collaboration based on those involved having the name of being Christian, and at least the common denominator of acceptance of a basic set of Christian beliefs. It tends to focus on dialogue about issues in the Church and the world, and there may be some level of cooperative activity. Typically, nominal organizations integrate around creeds and find unity in doctrinal similarity. They tend to draw in the older and more established mainline denominations that maintain a residual orthodoxy of confessed beliefs, although activities may contradict them. As a collection of what are mostly hierarchical denominations like the National and World Council of Churches and the affiliates of the Christian “Leadership Foundation” founded in the 1950s, Nominal Unity appeals to the Builder and older Boomer generation leaders who are primarily linear in their thinking processes.

Functional Unity. This is collaboration based on occasional working together by diverse Christian groups as a pragmatic show of unity. It tends to focus on service projects in the community, and there may be some additional networking or discussions across denominational lines. Pragmatic organizations tend to draw in Boomer leaders who are evangelicals and see local community activities as an external or missional seeker-sensitive activity, and sometimes leaders of mainline denominations who get involved based on a traditional commitment to community service. At the national level, there may be larger-scale events (like the National Prayer Breakfast) or activities (like political support movements) that represent essentially the same underlying paradigm that supports a Functional Unity mindset, though they may come from different theological bases.

Experimental/Experiential Unity. This is collaboration based on journeying together, often in reaction to a strong sense of not fitting in with traditional church paradigms and programs, or of being overtly marginalized by their specific faith tradition. It tends to focus on dialogue about deconstructing conventional church doctrines, strategies, and structures. There may also be a significant amount of time spent living out a new kind of Christianity or ministry model as an experiment, since conventional views and approaches do not satisfy. Experiential Unity tends to draw in Busters/GenXers and younger who are hypermodern – functioning in a highly skeptical epistemology. I see much of the “emerging” church movement of the middle 1990s onward as expressing this approach, and definitely the Emergent Village membership, and probably its apparent successor – “Big Tent Christianity.”

Integrational Unity. This is a collaboration based on an informal covenant to persevere with disciples in one’s neighborhood or region, regardless of whatever factors of diversity might otherwise divide them. It tends to focus on pursuing the same goal of Christlikeness and service, regardless of having different trajectories based on different starting places. This makes it a more intercultural approach that actively seeks to understand the positive features in the cultural or theological differences of another person, and seek for how those differences complement or fill in gaps in one’s personal perspective. Integrational Unity tends to draw in disciples of any generation who have a more holistic paradigm and/or missional-relational approach, and Millennial generation leaders. This shows up in churches, ministries, businesses, non-profits, and other kinds of social enterprises that use a “triple or quadruple bottom line” to their endeavors.

Mystical Unity. This is the automatic and invisible unity created for all who share a position of being “in Christ” and being sealed by the Holy Spirit – regardless of their era, culture, gender, generation, etc. It is the ultimate form of true unity, and it cannot be broken. This reality is the base from which all biblically authentic expressions of unity should flow …

The end results of any of these approaches to collaboration and unity may look similar on the surface, but what I would suggest differentiates them is at the deep level of epistemology. I am looking at how the underlying epistemology creates the most comprehensive approach in terms of three key areas of (1) personal morality, (2) social ethics, and (3) ecological ethics where all the parts are interconnected in a dynamic/paradoxical tension instead of simply more or less co-existing, or leaving out one of the major parts, or emphasizing one or more parts way out of proportion with the system as a whole.

In my observations and interpretations, Integration Unity does the best at holding all three key areas of faith and practice in tension and having a strongly developed theology, theory, and practice in place. Meanwhile, each form of collaboration holds particular vulnerabilities due to its epistemology:

  • Integrational Unity seems to hold an appeal to those who simply do not fit into a typical theological system or category – conservative, liberal, fundamental, progressive, Charismatic, Pentecostal, evangelical, Anglican, Orthodox, Catholic – but have some overlap with theological planks of each and with the full theological perspective of none. The underlying epistemology may prove itself most vulnerable to take an inherent integration mindframe too far and veer off toward universalism because its adherents engage in multicultural and intercultural relationships, and also strongly value perseverance with people of other cultural and faith background.
  • Experimental Unity seems to hold an appeal to theological progressives among evangelicals, and conservatives with a social conscience, and liberals. The underlying epistemology of hyper-skepticism and deconstruction can lead to “splitting”/dualistic thinking. This may prove itself most vulnerable to adopting a stance of moral relativism because it downplays issues of personal sin while it (over)focuses on social structures of evil and positively pursues social justice and eco-stewardship.
  • Functional Unity seems to hold an appeal to those who are theological conservatives among evangelicals, and perhaps liberals. It may prove itself most vulnerable to a lack of a strong social conscience and/or ecological commitment. Mere occasional cooperative acts of community service or eco-stewardship do not necessarily signify a deep-level value that leads to a lifestyle of such service; they could be just pragmatic activities to get Christian publicity in the community.
  • Nominal Unity seems to hold an appeal to liberals and progressives, to some conservatives, and to fewer evangelicals. It may prove itself most vulnerable to being stuck in a dialogue stage rather than in moving into practice.

I know that what I share here barely scratches the surface, but I do think it is important to start outlining these approaches as a baseline for later studies. (For instance, each paradigm has a typical approach to issues of organizational change, social transformation processes, and theodicy.) At least getting a start on the paradigms and approaches is especially important as the first three models still function widely in North America, and the fourth one is growing in significance. However, I’ve watched local representatives of these models as carefully as possible for 20 years here in Marin County, California (and other ecumenical endeavors where I’ve lived before). It seems to me that most formal efforts at “unity” have failed here, although some informal networks have sustained connection despite diversity and have moved toward “integrational unity.” Thankfully, the fifth approach – Mystical Unity – does not depend on us for maintaining our position of being seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, yet it does give us a base and basis for our practices of unity and collaboration here on earth in both church and community.