Joe Fox: “It wasn’t… personal.”

Kathleen Kelly: “What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s ‘personal’ to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway?

Joe Fox: “Uh, nothing.”

Kathleen Kelly: “Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”
 – You’ve Got Mail, 1998, Warner Bros. Pictures

Joe represented the corporate chain mega-bookstore Fox Books. Kathleen represented the appropriately titled “Shop Around the Corner.” Though they shared a common passion for books, their divergent style, contrasting convictions, and shared market brought them toe-to-toe in a battle for business of David vs. Goliath proportions.

For Joe, the venture was purely business, but for Kathleen, whose mission was to carry on her mother’s vision, this was personal.

Ministry IS Personal

In ministry, especially college ministry, we also face the challenge of sharing a common passion for ministering to college students in a context that is highly competitive on all fronts, not just with respect to religion. The elephant in the room is often the reality that we seem to be competing with each other.

Given Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17, how do we reconcile this? In our experience, “unity” often feels like a $10 Groupon. If enough people buy it at a cheap enough price, then we all get to try yoga or take a friend out for FroYo.

Is this the type of unity that leads us to “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13)? Certainly not. For Christians, unity is not something that can be bargained or negotiated. It is a fundamental reality of those who are in Christ (John 17:22-23).  It is up to us whether it is nurtured or neglected (Eph. 4:25).

Christ – The Uniting Factor

Every church and para-church ministry’s identity and strategy for mission comes from our common identity in Christ, relation as his body, and participation in God’s mission in the world. How then, and to what end, do we nurture this missional unity?

It seems that we often seek the answer to this question merely in organizational forms and events: a city-wide service project, a campus-wide worship service, a weekly prayer council, etc., but these are only part of what constitutes missional unity. For missional unity to be established, it must be personal.

At the core of our identity in Christ is our new relationship to each other as members of the body of Christ. All other assignments and categorizations are subservient to this one. When we seek to nurture missional unity through partnership and collaboration, we must ground strategy and tactics in personal relationship. Missional unity is personal. Organizations don’t partner; people do.

Nurturing Missional Unity

In You’ve Got Mail, Joe saw his actions as a-personal, merely steps toward accomplishing the vision. Kathleen, on the other hand, saw the chasm in their relationship and the personal implications for all those involved.

Nurturing missional unity is a process that involves strategy, tactics, events, and meetings, but all of these things fail if the process is not initially and ultimately personal. The only advice my pastor from college ever gave me when it came to building partnerships was “Build trust. It’s all about trust.” This wasn’t merely a partnership platitude. For nearly two decades and across five countries, he’s seen it work.

Nurturing missional unity is serious business. It takes persistence, careful planning, smart thinking, and resources, but all these things fail if relational trust is not developed. As Kathleen Kelly said, “Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”