May 14, 2015
It's All in the Preposition
By Charles A. Davis, author of Making Disciples Across Cultures
Manuel (not his real name) led a small Hispanic congregation at the invitation of an English-speaking church on the north side of Chicago. Before accepting the position in Chicago, Manuel had pastored an urban church in Caracas, Venezuela. A seminary graduate, Manuel was particularly gifted in evangelism, reaching young people at a heart level.
We visited Manuel and the Hispanic congregation a couple years after he began. I asked him how things were going, and he began to share some of his frustrations. “Charlie,” he said, “I am beginning to realize that although the church wants us here, we always receive the leftovers. We get the leftover budget, the leftover space, the leftover time, the leftover staff.” Manuel was frustrated that he was not considered an equal in ministry.
Manuel and his congregation were the unwitting victims of a preposition: the very small word to. If a church notices that there are a growing number of people from a distinct people group in their neighborhood, sooner or later someone will suggest that the church begin a ministry to that people group. “Let’s start a ministry to Hispanics!” “Let’s start a ministry to Somalis!” “Let’s start a ministry to the homeless!” It sounds lofty, generous, loving and above all mission minded. Who can argue? What do we have that they need? What can we do for them? Unfortunately, over time, the pesky preposition to does its pernicious work of making the people in question feel like they are somehow lower than the others, that they are always on the receiving end, that they are getting the leftovers.
Now imagine right at the beginning someone says, “Let’s start a ministry with Hispanics” or “with Somalis” or “with the homeless.” Everything changes. One small preposition and nothing is the same. Now, instead of Hispanics being the object of ministry, they are a resource for ministry. Instead of only being on the receiving end, they are full partners in giving as well as receiving. Instead of getting the leftover time, space and money, they are contributing time, space and money. Instead of being objects of ministry, they are propagators of ministry.
And best of all, the gifts and strengths of each culture flow together with the other for mutual benefit. Every culture has elements that reflect the image of God, and every culture has elements that reflect fallen human nature. Western cultural individualism is gradually eating the heart out of some North American churches, and we have much to learn from our Hispanic friends about the nature and nurture of relationships within the body. Materialism has penetrated deeply into the fabric of North American culture; what might we have to learn from our homeless brothers and sisters if we started a ministry with them?
The pinnacle of creation is not human beings, even though they are incredibly complex and an amazing evidence of God’s creative power. No, the pinnacle of God’s creative activity is the global body of Christ, when all parts will be working perfectly, each contributing what it does best, working together with all of the other parts to bring honor and glory and praise to God, to spread his kingdom, and to accomplish his will. We have the opportunity to begin now, as we work with one another.
We just need to put the preposition to in the trash bin!
Charles A. Davis (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is the author of Making Disciples Across Cultures and the former executive international director of TEAM (The Evangelical Alliance Mission). He has over four decades of crosscultural experience in global disciplemaking and missional church planting. He was previously president of the Evangelical Seminary of Caracas, and he is a member of the Global Leadership Council of the Mission Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance.