Regaining a Mutuality in Ministry
By Owen Sallee, Coordinator for Global and Urban Involvement
A few weeks ago, my wife and I ate dinner at Viva Mexico, our favorite restaurant in our neighborhood. We left the restaurant feeling appreciated, refreshed, and very full of great Mexican food. The following day in the office, I enjoyed an enriching conversation with a coworker. We listened to each other’s stories and concerns, and shared mutual support and encouragement. I left the conversation feeling heard, refreshed, and valued.
As people, we appreciate mutually beneficial relationships. Certainly many of us have relationships in which we bear more or less of the weight and responsibility. However, even in the most one-sided interactions, there exists opportunity for personal growth and self-discovery.
The mission mindset
Somewhere along the line, though, far too many churches have forgotten to apply this principle to their mission work. “The lost” have much to learn and gain from our presence, we’ve assumed, but there’s not much we have to learn from “the lost.” The end result is an arrogant mission’s mindset that clearly delineates helpers and the helped, and fails to acknowledge that God might have a plan to use the other person, also created in his image, to shape the lives of those who’ve come to help.
Recently I received a mission report from a Texas church in which a teen mission participant recounted her life-changing work with a church in North Seattle:
“I just got back from a mission trip to northern part of Seattle, where I was forced to come out of my comfort zone and open my eyes, heart, and mind to what a cold, dark, unforgiving, and God-needing place the world really is.
My high school church choir, Praise Church Choir, left this past Friday on a trip to Seattle where we would be working with a church located in North Seattle. This name may not mean much to anyone here, but to me it meant everything. North Seattle is a very dark and spiritually lost place in this world. North Seattle is lost in its drugs, alcohol abuse, prostitution, and lack of a criminal justice system. And within a few minutes of walking the street, it is very apparent that this place needs Jesus Christ in their lives [sic].”
The teen missioner concluded “… I really hope that God used us being there as ministers for him and that he changed their lives.”
My fear in reading reports like this is that mission’s participants will fail to recognize the mutually shaping opportunities that exist in experiences like the Praise Church trip. Rather than a one-sided “I give and you receive because I know Jesus and you’re homeless,” mission experiences should be recognized as opportunities for all parties to become more aware of God’s work and God’s character.
Following a list of less-than-reputable attributes ascribed to the “pagan” culture surrounding the Corinthian church, Paul writes, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Scripture is quick to remind believers that those experiencing blessing or living in obedience to God do so not to their own credit, but because of God’s transforming work in their lives. “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” some have quipped, but it’s more than that. It would be wrong to assert that God’s grace cannot go with those in difficult circumstances: “Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5).
Service experiences like the Praise Church trip do have the power to change lives. God speaks in powerful ways through encounters with “the other,” even to people like John Perkins.
Dr. Perkins encountered God’s call to return to ministry in Mississippi after an encounter with people on the margins. In Let Justice Roll Down, he shares how he avoided paternalistic thinking. Shortly after accepting Christ, he was invited by two of his mentors to share the gospel with youth in a juvenile detention work camp. Encountering struggling youth in the prison ministry, Perkins recognized his own story in the lives of these boys.
Upon reflection, he writes, for reasons he could not attribute to his own merit or strength, Perkins found himself in the role of “someone who had made it.” He reports, “So if God had done all this for me, and if He loved these others no less than He did me, what did all this mean? What did it say to my plans for my ‘good’ Christian life?” This encounter led Perkins to recognize the need to address issues of poverty, powerlessness, and lack of vision in the Mississippi communities in which he had grown up. His life changed by this encounter, Perkins writes, “God was speaking to me. Calling me. I was never again satisfied in California.”
The power dynamics in Perkins’ prison ministry experience are more balanced than the exuberant student from Praise Church might believe. Obviously, Perkins contributed significantly to the moral character, social well-being, and spiritual growth of the youth to whom he ministered in the California prison. However, these youth and their stories also had a profound shaping experience on Dr. Perkins, both in his understanding of salvation and in his discernment of God’s call for what would become his life’s work. Both parties were enriched by the encounter; to define one party as “servant” and another as “served” would be short-sighted.
Missiologist Sherwood Lingenfelter writes in Ministering Cross-Culturally: “While every culture is imperfect and, in fact, a prison that holds people in bondage, each one is at the same time the integrating point of reference by which people comprehend themselves and others. We must understand that transforming a society does not mean moving people from their prison into ours but rather helping them to know Christ and be transformed personally and communally into people and communities of the Spirit.”
This understanding of ministry turns the servant/served relationship upside down. Rather than seeking only to impact “those in need,” missions participants like the teen from Praise Church must recognize that ministry encounters should in fact shape and enrich both parties. Recognizing our weaknesses and our dependence on God, ministers must not succumb to the notion that, having “arrived,” they are no longer in need of the image of God represented in the other.
As we equip students in John Perkins Center programs to serve from this place of humility, it’s important to remember that student ministers do in fact contribute something meaningful. Students serving through Perkins Center programs are contributing in significant ways as tutors, mentors, laborers, and role models. They support local ministry leaders in their work.
Significant needs are being addressed, from educational inequalities in India and White Center to the concerns of orphans and disadvantaged children in Vietnam and local shelters for women and children fleeing domestic violence. In all of these situations, though, students are directed to look for God at work in the lives of the people students have gone to serve. Amidst the challenging situations and obvious needs are important examples of faith, hope, and transformation. To miss these models would be to settle for a short-sighted view of God’s shaping work in and through all of his people.
Owen Sallee trained under World Vision's Vision Youth Initiative, and he was a youth director for Choose Life Youth Ministries in White Center for 12 years, during and following his time as an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University. He graduated from SPU in 1999, and in 2006, he completed his master’s degree in school counseling at SPU.
|Learn more about The John Perkins Center by watching the video This is the John Perkins Center on iTunesU.|