by Joe Davis, Director of Ministry Operations, Alabama Rural Ministry
Language is powerful. When it comes to being on mission with Christ, the way we talk about people not only reveals what we think about them—it can actually change the way we see them and relate to them. In other words, our language is formative and not just descriptive.
As disciples of Jesus, we must be paying attention to the way we talk about mission if we want to love the way Jesus did. If we’re not careful, our language can lead us to see and relate to ourselves and those we serve in harmful ways that don’t respect our common dignity as God’s image bearers and fellow stewards of creation (see Genesis 1:27-30).
We need a way of talking about mission—a mission grammar—that helps us align our language with God’s purpose for our service.
The key to this mission grammar lies with an often overlooked part of speech: the lowly preposition. The prepositions we use in our language about mission reveal how we think about ourselves and others, and can be either very helpful or very harmful as we serve. Let’s look at three prepositions to see how language can shape our mission:
- Mission TO: When we go out to repair a family’s home, are we doing mission “to” them? We sure hope not. The language of “mission to” reveals a paternalistic attitude and makes people into objects. If mission is something we do to others, we put ourselves in the place of savior—a place which belongs only to Jesus. It implies that we have nothing to learn or receive from the experience. What’s worse: “mission to” means that those we serve have no role to play. Their story is not heard, and their voice is ignored. Great work may be accomplished, but no relationship is required, no transformation occurs, and no love is shared. The language of “mission to” can be very problematic for disciples of Jesus.
- Mission FOR: If “mission to” others causes problems, what about mission for others? The language of “mission for” is better than “mission to,” but its only appropriate in certain situations. When we say “mission for” others, we’re saying that those we serve are unable to do something for themselves. Sometimes this is true, especially in crisis situations. However, “mission for” becomes problematic in non-crisis situations. More often than not, those we serve have more to give to than we think at first (many times in ways different than what we had in mind). It takes time and a real relationship to know what’s best (aka “mission with”), but too often we don’t take the time to prayerfully discern in relationship with those we serve. “Mission for” others can be a loving response to those with emergency needs, but, outside the context of relationship, it can also be a harmful response that carries the same paternalistic attitude as “mission to.”
- Mission WITH: What’s the ideal way to talk about and practice mission as disciples of Jesus? We think the language of “mission with” says it best. “Mission with” reveals an attitude of equality and mutuality towards those we serve. It acknowledges how we all have something to give and receive, which affirms the dignity and agency of everyone involved. It’s a partnership. Instead of only doing things “to” or “for” others, we also practice being with others as we serve. “Mission with” is, therefore, built on a relationship of humility and trust—a friendship—that must be intentionally cultivated over time. When our mission is “mission with,” we share together in the blessing of God’s love, and discover joy, wholeness, and delight in our fellowship with God and each other.
At Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM), we talk about our mission as “mission with” families and children in rural Alabama. Of course, we also try our best to practice this kind of mission. We don’t always hit the mark, but we’re striving to be intentional about the ways we put “mission with” into practice as we extend the love of Christ with our home repair and kids ministry friends. Our goal is to partner with those we serve in meaningful ways that affirm our dignity as God’s image bearers and fellow stewards of creation.
How are you practicing “mission with?” What do you see as its benefits? How can we keep ourselves from falling into a practice of “mission to” or prematurely taking a “mission for” approach? We’d love to hear your thoughts on social media (links below) or by emailing us at info [at] arm-al.org.