The Prepositions Of Mission
By Joel Van Dyke • Street Psalms/Urban Training Collaborative • Sarasota, Florida
One of the most profound lessons I have learned working with high-risk young people is that I must give serious attention to the prepositions of mission. Prepositions are small words that connect thoughts or ideas. Prepositions are relational connectors that show relationship between things such as “The ball is over my head.”
When considering our work in missions, we must learn how to pay close attention to the prepositions we use.
There are really three main mission prepositions. The first one is “TO.” Ministries using this preposition tend to locate power in very specific and small places—like the pulpit. They often deal with those they want to reach paternalistically—meaning they hoard power and position themselves in a place of superiority over those they feel called to reach.
An example of this was a televangelist I once heard saying that he wanted to “impregnate his viewers with the Word of God.” Over and over throughout his message he yelled, “I am going to get you pregnant tonight.” His ministry was something he did “TO” people. Ministries that see “mission” as something they do “TO” others are oppressive and do harm to the name of Jesus. Many Christians are trapped in churches and deeply oppressed by ministry that is done “TO” them.
The second preposition often used in mission is “FOR.” These are ministries that do things FOR others. Contrasted to being paternalistic, these kinds of ministries often fall into the trap of being maternalistic. Many of us have grown up in families with mothers who tried to do far more FOR us than was healthy. In youth ministry, we tend to do far too many things FOR young people—things they should be doing for themselves. These are the kinds of ministries where the people have to consistently seek approval of their leader / pastor for everything they do because they lack confidence to think for and act on their own.
A third preposition used in the mission of the church is “WITH.” This is the incarnational preposition—Emmanuel (God with us). When this preposition drives the mission of one’s church or short-term missions project, both the leaders and the people they seek to serve are transformed. There is a cost to using this mission preposition in ministry because doing so takes a lot more time and relational energy—and demands that leaders give up power instead of guard it. We shy away from using the preposition “WITH” because we do not have the time and do not like paying costs (like having to empty ourselves) to minister effectively to others.
A great exercise for your youth ministry team would be to sit down with these three prepositions and examine your own church, ministry, or mission project. What preposition drives or best illustrates your ministry? What can be done to practically move you to becoming a ministry that uses the preposition “with” in the way you live out your mission?
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One of the most effective transfers of prepositions that I ever saw lived out happened in the community of “Los Brasiles” from the barrio “San Francisco” in Managua, Nicaragua. Pastor Tomas Ruiz has faithfully lived and served there for more than 20 years. He started with 25-30 members, and the church stayed at this size for the first 6-7 years. Tired of so many years of hard work without much tangible fruit, he began talking with and listening to the neighborhood residents around his church. In his first meetings with residents, Pastor Tomas realized that in many occasions he and his church had offended the community by judging and condemning them. He called a community meeting and asked the neighbors for forgiveness on behalf of the church.
Then the members of the church inquired of their neighbors, “What can we do as a church to serve and bless you?” The response was a request to rid the streets of garbage and mud holes that were causing many problems and health issues. This was the first step in moving from doing the ministry “TO” others to doing the ministry “WITH” those the church wanted to reach. The clean up took three weeks to complete. The church decided to use their Sunday morning worship time to clean the neighborhood, thereby showing their solidarity with the community during the first fruits of their time as a congregation. By choosing Sunday morning, they could use the picking up of garbage as a real and genuine act of worship before God.
Seven years later that church, Faro de Luz (Lighthouse), has 250 “disciples.” They have a multi-use church building, a school with 300 students, a computer center, a gymnasium, and they recently bought land to build the community’s first baseball diamond and soccer field. They have built 22 homes for families in the community.
Because of the trust and respect that has been built, the community recently named Pastor Tomas as their legal representative before the government. The church has successfully planted several other churches in neighboring communities.
What are the prepositions of your ministry?