Collaboration Paradox

I recently attended a two-day conference on Collaboration and Community Transformation with some new friends from Second Stories.  I was surprised by a number of comments I heard on the topic of whether Christians ought to collaborate with people of other faith backgrounds in their attempts to pursue positive social transformation:

“If we’re talking about community transformation, every worldview should be at the table.”

“We must work with followers of Jesus and with leaders of good will.”

“Jesus got in trouble for inclusivity, not exclusivity.”

The consensus view regarding this historically vexing issue could be summarized in a statement offered by a keynote speaker at the conference: “All truth is God’s truth.” Meaning, when it comes to issues such as reducing hunger, poverty, violence, racism, or social inequality – that is, as we seek shalom in our neighborhoods and nations – there is no need for theological litmus tests or religious bouncers to expel the doctrinally impure.  Since “all truth is God’s truth,” Christians can and should work with Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists – even other Christians! – for the common good of our cities and neighborhoods.

Now, this was not a radical group of people, which may help explain why I was surprised by the consensus in the room on this issue.  These were experienced senior leaders from a wide range of mainstream foreign and domestic ministries and missions agencies – many of which were evangelical.  For a variety of reasons, evangelicals have a long history of being unwilling, unable, or uninterested in collaborating with people of other faith backgrounds in pursuit of peace and justice in our world. However, these leaders had come to the conclusion that faithfulness to Christ and to the gospel compelled them to collaborate with other “people of good will” while “seeking the welfare of the city”, neighborhood, or nation to which they were sent by God (Jeremiah 29:7, ESV).

None of these leaders denied the need to proclaim the gospel or that following Jesus was just one of many paths to God.  No one argued that religious differences were unimportant or that collaboration was easy.  They acknowledged that building broad-based partnerships for the common good commits one to the “ongoing and unavoidable tension” of figuring out how to collaborate with others who have deeply held religious and social perspectives that may differ than one’s own. It requires great patience, humility, strength, and wisdom. Nevertheless, these leaders agreed that despite the challenges and tensions inherent to such partnerships, there is no avoiding that “it’s our call” as followers of Jesus and ambassadors of his Kingdom to be involved in such partnerships with others.

As a sociologist and a Christian, I was impressed by this shared vision for collaboration.  However, these leaders also recognized a dark truth about the current state of the Christian world.  After quoting Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich’s oft-cited observation, “If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story,” one of the conference organizers acknowledged the distressing fact that “The current story is that God’s people don’t work together.”

Thus the Collaboration Paradox: A growing number of Christians are gaining a vision for collaboration with the nonreligious and people of other faiths, but Christians themselves have not demonstrated the ability to work together across racial, denominational, or organizational lines!  Jesus prayed to the Father that those who believed in him would “be one as we are one” in order that the world would know that he was sent by God (see John 17): but the very people who are called by God to embody the spirit of unity and reconciliation in the world – and thereby bear witness to the message and person of Christ – are themselves divided by the things which divide the world.

All of which raises some serious questions.  How can Christians learn to collaborate with others when we can barely work with one another?  What changes in Christian theopraxis are necessary to empower individuals, congregations, and organizations for the exciting and challenging work of collaboration?  Is it in fact true that Christians of all types ought to be in the business of seekingshalom in our neighborhoods and building broad-based partnerships for the common good?

What do you think?