You’re probably not very excited about English grammar. Few people are, but perhaps you should be.
There’s a part of grammar called ‘prepositions’, which includes small words like ‘to’, ‘at’ and ‘with’. Prepositions describe the relationship between two things, e.g. ‘The cat sat on the mat’.
When you use these small words as a description of your ministry, they can make a big difference. Lately I’ve been re-reading Duane Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Servanthood with a group of people going through our training. Elmer writes on the very important distinctions between ‘learning about’, ‘learning from’ and ‘learning with’. It’s a clever and profound section.
That got me thinking, what preposition do we use to describe our ministry? Is it:
- ministry to people?
- ministry with people?
- ministry for people?
- ministry at people?
- ministry by people?
Hopefully we can easily dispense with ‘ministry at people’. It makes them sound like some kind of inanimate object – almost a target. But actually it’s not far off some kinds of pre-packaged evangelism where we learn tracts off by heart and then simply repeat them to people. Maybe that sort of thing isn’t such a good idea.
Doing ‘ministry to people’ doesn’t sound a whole lot better. Again, it feels like they are the passive receivers of something we ‘experts’ deliver to them. Lucky for them (and for God) that we showed up! Where would they be without us?
Do we do ‘ministry for people’? That sounds a bit better, and could be the right thing to do in some circumstances. We certainly do ‘ministry for people’ in the sense that it is for their benefit. And we also do ‘ministry for people’ when there’s no way for them to do it – perhaps we might have skills or training that they aren’t able to access yet. But we wouldn’t want to do ‘ministry for people’ in the sense of doing ‘ministry instead of people’ – taking over from them because they don’t ‘get it right’ so we have to ‘do it for them’.
What about ‘ministry with people’? That sounds a lot more Interserve-y. We’re all about partnerships, not paternalism. If it’s not something we can do together, it’s probably not something that will continue once we have gone.
‘Ministry from people’? Now there’s a good question. At a recent training event, we sent participants off to all sorts of churches that were very different from the ones most Anglo Australians attend. While talking about it afterwards, we asked each other, “How would you grow spiritually from being part of that body?” We realised we could learn a lot by receiving ministry from people.
So, which one is it: at, to, for, with , or from? Sometimes small words can make a big difference.
Reflections from a returned Interserve Partner.
Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Servanthood (2006), Intervarsity Press. Available at Koorong and online bookstores.