Comity or collaboration?

Mission Briefing: Ideas that Shape World missions Outreach Today

Two approaches to defusing a sense of competition on the mission field

In the 1800s, several Protestant denominations entered into comity agreements regarding global missionary efforts. These agreements called for each denomination to confine all of its ministry efforts to specified areas in each country. In return, that denomination received exclusive rights to carry on Christian 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.

The comity system was somewhat similar to the way public utilities often operate. In such cases, case, a power company providing electricity or gas to a geographic area has exclusive rights to be the supplier of electricity or gas in that area.

Comity agreements were supposed to eliminate unnecessary duplication, reduce confusion among unbelievers, diminish "competition" among churches, and ensure that all areas of a given country had somebody responsible for evangelizing it. The idea was to have "togetherness" in a sense of purpose, but with each organization having a geographic area all to itself. However laudable those goals may have been, the system had serious flaws, including:

For these and other reasons, the comity system fell short of its lofty expectations. By the middle of the twentieth 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 stay out of mine."

Today, missionaries worldwide collaborate on things ranging from dealing with government officials to compassionate ministry efforts. Collaboration doesn't involve obliterating denominational distinctives. It simply means walking alongside each other and interacting in ways supportive of each group's core values.

One example of what goes on today in terms of collaboration would be a well-drilling project in Haiti. We Nazarenes got a grant from a Canadian provincial government to drill village water wells. We provided 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, which believers could "earn" in a variety of ways. That 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 the New Testament!

Such scenarios in which missionaries from different organizations collaborate together 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."

Discussion questions

  1. What were some flaws of the comity system of exclusive ministry territories among Protestant denominations in the 1800s?
  2. How did the comity system hinder such things as theological diversity and cross-pollination among missionaries?
  3. In what important ways does collaboration among missionaries differ from the comity system?
  4. Can you think of one or more examples of successful collaboration among missionaries from different organizations?
  5. How do you evaluate the comparison of collaboration between missions organizations to a floral bouquet? In what ways is it helpful and in what ways does it fall short?


The comity system of exclusive ministry territories used by Protestant denominations in the 1800s, though well-intentioned, fell short of expectations. Its flaws fostered an "empire mentality" among missionaries, limited cross-pollination and interaction with other Christian traditions, and restricted believers' choices regarding theological perspectives and worship styles. The system aimed to reduce competition and confusion but ended up stifling diversity and innovation. Today, a more effective approach to missionary work is collaboration. Missionaries from different organizations work together, leveraging their unique strengths and resources for mutual benefit. Collaboration fosters a sense of togetherness without compromising denominational distinctions. mission. By embracing collaboration, missionaries can effectively respond to God's call to spread the gospel worldwide.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

This 500-word mini-essay on a key issue in world missions outreach is an article in the "Mission briefing" series published in Engage, a monthly online magazine produced by the Church of the Nazarene. That seris looks at issues such as redemptive analogies, contextualization, dependency, globalization, paternalism, culture shock, goers/senders, cultuer shock, and sustainability.

"Oh, how wonderful, how pleasing it is when God's people all come together as one!" -- Psalm 133:1, Easy-to-Read Version

Why Did the Comity System Fail?

In addition to the reasons suggested in the essay for the disintegration of the comity system, the following issues played a role in the system's demise:

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