Avoiding Babel: 5 Tips for Spiritually Healthy Collaborations
By Jess Mason
Does Christian collaboration move us towards God’s ideal of healthy urban life? If we're working together to accomplish a justice-oriented goal, does that mean we’re honoring God’s will and reflecting Christ’s love together? It depends. We may just be building another Tower of Babel.
For Christian leaders, collaboration minus discernment can add up to idolatry.
Babel as Cautionary Tale
The story of the Tower of Babel is the classic Biblical warning against ill-conceived collaborations. A group of people with a common language work together to build a city with a high tower. This endeavor displeases God, who then confuses their language to hinder their cooperation. Why?
While scholars diverge on the exact sin in the Tower of Babel story, the people appeared to be taking collaborative action without openness or obedience to God. Christian leaders have a part to play in the Church avoiding Babel in Boston.
5 Disciplines for Avoiding a Babel Scenario
1. Beware empowerment for empowerment’s sake.
You have to hand it to the people building Babel—at least they weren’t at war with each other. They were in complete harmony, with plans for a shared urban prosperity. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what Boston Christian leaders are working for?
The problem is that humans alone can't fully envision ultimate urban prosperity.
The people of Babel thought they should build a tower to reach God (Babel means "gate of God"). How could they have predicted God’s solution to the distance between God and humankind? They couldn’t know about the coming of Jesus, the cross, or the indwelling Holy Spirit. But God knew.
I attended the third Woven Consultation on Christian Women in Leadership in June. There the Woven team warned us, the would-be ministry collaborators, against shared empowerment for empowerment’s sake.
Setting a tone of spiritual openness for the day, wise leaders warned us against judging the success of the day merely by the creation of action steps. Instead, the Woven team offered us permission NOT to take action if that’s how the Spirit was leading. Alicia Fenton-Greenaway, the founder of Esther Generation, further shared that real progress for Christians means that real progress for Christians means being comfortable with not knowing the outcome of what the Spirit is accomplishing, yet still committing to the process of advancing the work of the Spirit in our souls, groups, or communities.
If we want the highest vision of human thriving for Boston, we'll want to listen together for God’s guidance on what is needed next.
2. Beware action from anger or fear — favor action inspired by love.
What was the motive for building Babel? Partly, the people didn't want to "be scattered over the earth.” The people may have feared a second flood and wanted to fortify themselves against God’s judgment. Or they may have been putting down roots in rebellion against God's command to multiply and fill the earth.
Whether from fear or anger, the people decided together that Babel was their vision of human thriving.
Anger is powerful—it can energize us away from the status quo. But anger alone isn’t a wise guide to strategic action and can lead to counterproductive reactions. We need Christ’s love—for us and for others—to sustain us through the bumpy journey towards lasting change.
Similarly, fear can be useful—to make us aware of risks. But we need Jesus’ love to balance risk with appropriate courage.
Anger and fear can make us, for example, condemn human trafficking. But Christ’s love and guidance are what sustains the exploitation aftercare program Amirah House through their years of steady trauma care and strategic advocacy to bring about systemic change.
3. Beware obsession with branding.
“Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves.”
In today's culture, churches and Christian organizations create their brand to be clear with the public about what they stand for. But God has not laid on those teams the responsibility to control how prominent their brand becomes, and at what pace.
I ran a non-profit organization for five years under a tremendous weight of needing to build brand recognition. I can attest to how merciless—and distracting—that burden can be.
We don’t need to be anxious to "make a name" for our ministry. As we’re clear about what we stand for and diligent in what God has led us to do, we can trust God to grow our group’s reputation as far as His purposes require.
4. Beware celebrating new skills and accomplishments without celebrating growth in Christian character.
The people building Babel were innovators. They developed the technology for bricks, an advancement over stone construction. They had design thinkers with big visions, who could oversee the building of the largest edifice ever conceived.
God didn’t deny their skill or potential—in fact, God declared that nothing would be impossible for them once they set their mind to it.
But nowhere in this story do the people mention developing in character or wisdom. They wanted to grow in size, in prominence, in technology, but not in human maturity or godliness.
My friend Smita Donthamsetty worked for 20 years in Christian microfinance around the world. Her training materials are translated and contextualized into the local cultures of Peru, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, India, Togo, Mali, and other countries.
A key factor to the success of her trainings was balancing skill training and character development. Those who participated in her micro-savings groups learned about financial accountability and discipleship simultaneously. They discussed their broken relationship with God and others, and their new hope through Christ, as they explored treating money differently.
Smita admits that progress in those groups happens more slowly than organizations just teaching financial tools. But the balanced groups continue to this day to self-replicate and sustainably transform lives and communities through Christ-centered stewardship and microfinance.
As Christian leaders, we need to affirm that every shared endeavor is an opportunity for spiritual deepening. Foster and celebrate both the spiritual—as well as the concrete—impacts of your work together in the city.
5. Beware brainstorming and decision-making with no discernment practices.
Even when our teams are made entirely of Christians, our brainstorming and decision-making don’t automatically represent God’s priorities. Perfunctory opening prayers to “cover” the process are not enough.
How quickly our hearts can forget, as we develop momentum and build partner agreement, what it means to be a Christian leader. God isn’t calling us to merely guide others in soldiering on for Jesus, reaching out to God in occasional moments of uncertainty or need. Christian leadership nudges others to walk with Jesus continually.
One of the jobs of a Christian leader in a group setting is to create opportunities to listen to the Spirit. Then we can all, as God gives grace, take part in what the Spirit is accomplishing in the city. For example:
prepare a tone-setting devotional to address your group's human need for a transition into a sacred space
normalize pausing for prayer, especially when anyone senses the group might be forcing a false clarity before its time.
foster active stillness—that inner state of self-control that allows us to deliberately listen and honor God instead of just riding group momentum.
model a group culture of surrender to the Spirit, submitting any assumptions or plans to His greater wisdom.
My supervisor, Stacie, will shamelessly call on Jesus in the middle of a team meeting. In mid-thought, eyes open, she’ll say something like: “So team, here are ten things we could accomplish in the coming month... (Sigh) Dear Jesus. We need your help! Guide us, help us get out of your way, help us hear what’s important to you. We love you, Amen.”
She makes it normal for us to do that. So she makes it natural for our team to need Jesus—and to include Jesus—in everything.
Shared cooperation with the Spirit is at the very heart of building God’s Kingdom on earth. In nonprofit work, we learn ways to gather input from stakeholders. As Christians, God is forever our First Stakeholder.
As a Ministry Innovation Strategist at EGC, Jess enjoys contributing to EGC's effectiveness in serving the Church in Boston. A former licensed minister, Jess is a spiritual director and Christian Formation Chair at her church. She loves to see God’s goodness revealed to and through Christians.