Everything we do and are and could be would be transformed if we started using that word more frequently.
I participated in a two-day roundtable conversation last week with representatives of the Board of Church and Society, Board of Global Ministries, a bishop, and practitioners from various ministries to talk about the United Methodist initiative to do “ministry with the poor,” the key word being “with.” All the talk was about the shift in emphasis away from programs which simply provide services and assistance “to” or “for” the poor, toward ministries which work “with” the poor. There’s a massive difference.
In “to” ministries, the poor are viewed as a faceless, nameless mass of needy folks. They are “them,” not “us,” and we know what they want and need. So we put our heads together, out of a sense of guilt that “there but for the grace of God go I,” and construct a ministry “to” them. We design, plan, and implement a ministry which keeps us firmly in control, and makes us the “heroic helpers.”
But in “with” ministries, the poor are neighbors. They have names, families, and stories, which we get to know. Concerns, needs, and problems of our neighbors arise from authentic relationships. We decide what needs to be done together. And when we decide that something needs to be done, all of our neighbors have a voice and take a part in building the program. Everybody participates together in a wholistic response to the injustice.
I got a chance to hear from people who are doing “with” ministry around the country, as well as share some stories from Daraja, the refugee ministry I helped start last year.
Some of the standout examples include John Edgar, pastor of the incredibly inclusive Church For All People in Columbus, Ohio; Rudy Rasmus, pastor of the neighborhood-changing St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas; and R.G. Lyons, pastor of Community Church Without Walls in Birmingham, Alabama.
The difference between these types of churches and the traditional, “mission-minded” church is astonishing; it’s a paradigm shift which the church of the 21st century must embrace, after centuries of ministry which has been fundamentally flawed. Far too long, churches have based their concepts of mission work on an us/them divide. We have something that they need; we give and they receive; we preach and they listen.
Yet this is the way colonizers and conquerors think, not people of faith. This is the kind of thinking that leads to superiority complexes, oppression, and subjugation. When we approach anyone with an attitude that we have something that they need, we patronize them.
Not so very long ago, Christians traveled in ships with sword-carrying colonizers to “darkest” Africa. They were quite clear in their minds that Africans needed “civilization,” which included Western forms of government, attire, etiquette, and religion. Oh yes, the Africans needed the Gospel!
The results were disastrous for Africa, to say the least. The continent still reels from centuries of exploitation. And it’s partly because the missionaries struggled to grasp that they were called to do more than simply preach “to” or “against”, but to live with and alongside, to share, listen, and to learn from.
In many ways, the modern American church has retained this colonizing, subjugating mindset. We wield the Bible like a sword, and throw around our theology like hand grenades. Even our good works are now a kind of weapon to prove our morality and righteousness.
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the word “with” applies to every bit of our faith life. We must recover a sense of mutuality in everything we do, which is another way of saying that we need to learn humility.
What if, instead of thinking that evangelism is about convincing the lost/unbelievers/unchurched to accept our way of thinking about God, we conceived evangelism as a way of walking with others on their faith journey?
What if, instead of thinking about peace and justice work as a fight against the powers, we conceived this work as a struggle to reclaim the powers to their rightful place so that we may work with them for shalom?
What if, instead of preaching at our folks, we preachers preached in, amongst, and with our people, making the sermon itself a two-way conversation instead of a monologue?
What if instead of fighting our fellow Christians over divisive issues, we agreed to go to the table together, no matter what?
To extend this exercise further, what if, instead of competing with other churches for “sheep,” we came together and worked with other local congregations to further the common good in our communities?
I can’t help but remember, as Advent rapidly approaches, that Jesus is called “Emmanuel,” which means, “God with us.” In other words, the entire meaning of Christmas is that God chose to do ministry with us, not to, for, or against.
Come with. There’s no better way.