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A Model for Discernment:  Should we actively support (or partner with) this para-church or community organization?

When Jesus prays for us directly in John 17:21, He asks the Father that we as believers would be one just as the Father is one.  Jesus asks the Father that we, the broader body of Christ, live in complete unity to let the world know that the Father has sent Jesus – to see God`s glory! Clearly it is in God’s interest that we partner with other Christians and work together.   

John Wesley, in his sermon on the catholic spirit, cites 2 Kings 10:15, ‘if your heart is as my heart then give me your hand’.  Thomas Oden explains that Wesley’s major thesis on the catholic spirit is that ‘being of one heart, even though not of one opinion, reaches beyond human antipathies and cultural differences’. People who are shaped and formed with divergent modes of thinking can still be united.  Wesley recognizes that ‘how we think’ is formed by our circumstances and cultural experiences.

While Wesley was unquestionably committed to the essentials of classical Christianity, ‘he resisted the notion that they could be captured in a single unalterable linguistic form’.1 [1Oden, Thomas, John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity (Zondervan, 1994), p. 92]   He urged followers to operate within the dictates of our own conscience.  When seeking truth, confessional statements are limited. So Wesley raised questions that ask whether one has become ‘personally accountable to the core of Christian teaching.’2 [2 Ibid, p. 94]  If believers are opening their hearts to the transforming work of God and open to that self-examination, then Wesley would say, ‘extend to me your hand’.  In light of this Wesleyan ethos, we seek to live in that unity with Christian partners.

We also seek to be discerning in developing relationships that help us optimize partnerships for God’s glory.  But, Scripture and experience also tell us that sometimes there is real wisdom in not partnering.  In Acts 15:35-40 we see an example of such wisdom when two key leaders who had been working closely together, developed different visions about how to best move forward.  Rather than feel they must stay together in the same locale, they saw that for the sake of the gospel, it would be better for them to not work so closely together.  There is no implication of anything wrong in this realization. In fact, both ministries seemed to be optimized apart from each other.

Wise discernment often depends on asking the right questions.  The following questions are intended to be a tool for churches and church leaders as they consider partnerships with para-church organizations and other Christian groups.

Confessional Compatibility
•    Is there anything within the organization’s doctrine or statement of faith that conflicts or contradicts historical orthodoxy?
•    Is there anything about their beliefs and emphases that contradicts our Free Methodist Articles of Religion and our collective convictions about the Christian life (The Christian Life in the Manual)?  Would an outsider think that our church believes or emphasizes things we do not if their first or only contact with us was through this group? *

Discerning the Spirit
•    Does the mood &/or ethos of the organization complement ours?
•    Is there anything about this group/person that raises flags in those in your church known for having the gift of discernment?
•    Are there any concerns morally, ethically, financially, legally that plague the organization?
•    Even if there are concerns that are flagged, what elements/truths might be benefit your ministry – or at least need to be incorporated, even if you do not develop a formal relationship with them?
•    Would I be comfortable with my church or my personal identity being associated publicly with this ministry?  I.e. How would I feel about a caption with the two names together on the front page of a local paper?
•    Is there a good chance that this group/person is so different from us that divergent visions/priorities may well raise questions and debates that will take everyone’s attention away from central Gospel priorities?
•     Is the leadership of my church prayerfully on board with this association?
•     Who has endorsed this organization or ministry publicly in their marketing materials?  
•    Is there anything that makes me feel uncomfortable in working with this organization or association?

Seeking the wisdom of others (Prov 15:22)
•    Have I consulted with my peers in my network, accountability partner, LISTSERV or NLT to thoroughly reference the association or organization?
•    Who can I contact personally to further reference this ministry?

Objectives and outcome of partnership
•    What are the parameters, benchmarks or guidelines,  we need to put in place for this association to best function
•    What long term benefit will this bring to our local church vision?
•    What long term benefit will this bring to the spiritual maturity/discipleship/sanctification of our church?

[*] If a group with which a church partners has strong emphases that are clearly far from the central beliefs/concerns of Free Methodism or of Christ-following churches as a whole, what may that falsely tell people about who we are?