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Mission briefing: Comity or collaboration?

Howard Culbertson
Tuesday, April 10, 2018

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In the 1800s, several Protestant denominations entered into comity agreements with each other regarding global missionary efforts. These agreements called for each denomination to confine its ministry to specified areas in each country. In return, that denomination received exclusive rights to do ministry in those assigned areas. This included a provision that all churches in each geographical domain would belong to the denomination assigned to that area.

            Comity agreements were supposed to eliminate unnecessary duplication, reduce confusion among unbelievers, and diminish “competition” among churches. However laudable those goals may have been, the system had serious flaws, including:

  • Fostering an "empire mentality" among missionaries regarding the geographic area and people who were their denomination’s exclusive ministry domain.
  • Geographically separating denominations reduced “cross-pollination” and the helpful interaction with peers of other Christian traditions. Too often, missionaries wound up simply replicating things from their home country.
  • Eliminating choice for believers in terms of theological perspectives and worship styles due to the “mono-denominational” aspect of each geographical area. Thus, when a Baptist family moved from one city to another, they likely would have had to become, for example, Episcopalian.

            For these and other reasons, the comity system fell short of its lofty expectations. By the middle of the 20th century, it had been discarded.

                        Today, there’s something better going on than comity agreements: It’s called collaboration. To be sure, comity could be seen as a type of collaboration. However, it was basically an agreement saying, “I’ll stay out of your territory if you’ll stay out of mine.” Image

            Today, missionaries around the world collaborate on things ranging from coordinating with government officials to compassionate ministry efforts. Collaboration doesn’t involve obliterating denominational distinctive — it simply means walking alongside each other and interacting in ways supportive of the core values of each group.

            One example of modern collaboration is a recent well drilling project in Haiti. We Nazarenes got a grant from a Canadian provincial government to drill village water wells. We contributed the well locations, usually the corner of a church property. We didn’t have well-drilling equipment, but the Mennonites did. The Mennonites didn’t have the needed hand pumps, but World Vision did.

            Another example of good collaboration would be Nazarene missionary Bill Dawson organizing a consortium of medical ministries to import pharmaceutical supplies into Haiti. By buying in large quantities, those dozen or so groups greatly reduced the cost of medical supplies for everyone.

            A Scripture distribution ministry’s 25th anniversary provides another example. That organization solicited ideas on how to celebrate their anniversary. Nazarenes in Haiti proposed distributing 25,000 Creole New Testaments that believers could “earn” in a variety of ways. The proposal was accepted and, through this collaborative effort, New Testaments wound up in the hands of many believers who had never owned a copy of Scripture!

            Such scenarios in which missionaries from different organizations collaborate remind me of a floral bouquet in which different kinds of flowers each have something unique to contribute to the whole in terms of color, texture, fragrance, and so on. I believe God is pleased with our “collaboration bouquet.”