Part of the joy of stepping into a different culture from time to time is that being there brings (at least for me) a heightened awareness of the details of cultural expression, particularly of language. Every day we are each of us immersed in words: words consumed and words expended, words wasted and words withheld. Ordinarily, we have no need to consider the minute significance, sound, or effect that our words have unless something goes awry, or we fear something going awry, or we happen to be a gaggle of poets (or whatever the word would be for a collection of poets) going awry. But when everything around strikes us as inscrutably foreign, especially the language in play, we can instinctively begin to catalogue and analyze the flow of words that pass us by. Though exhausting, the experience can be fun and even thought provoking at times. Which, I suppose, is why I am writing this little reflection.
One of the subtleties of language that has stuck out and resonated with me a lot in the last week has had to do with the prepositions to use when describing my missionary calling in Argentina. (Fair warning: things could get pretty nerdy here for a bit.) I have often reflected and remarked that the proper use of prepositions is, if not the soul, at least the imp of theological reflection. To give a proper example, we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. Similarly, we pray to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. I could go on. But it is not simply theological reflection that is reflected in the proper selection and use of prepositions; in fact, the whole scope of the Christian life and of our service before God in love not only informs but is also influenced by our use of prepositions.
The prepositions in question upon my arrival here are simple and well known: “to” and “with”. They appear innocent enough, but there is more mischief here than meets the eye. I arrived just over a week ago here in Buenos Aires, and after some rest and adjustment, I began sitting down with the leaders of the congregation here in the borough of Hurlingham. One of the things that we had to discuss right out of the gate was whether I had come on a mission to the church in Argentina, or whether I had come for a mission with the church in Argentina.
For decades, churches in what we could call the “Global South” have received missionaries from places like Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, or Australia who out of great love for the people of these churches and for the Gospel have made these churches the mission field, the goal of their labors and pains in the harvest fields of the Lord. Their mission was to these churches. But if that is where the ministry ends, if that is all that the paradigm entails, then these churches have been not only blessed but also impoverished by the efforts of these missionaries. What so many churches around the world have lacked, as part of the whole Body of Christ, is a sense of sharing in the call not only to be disciples but to make disciples, not only to be the mission but to be the missionaries themselves.
The effects of this way of thinking about and being the church have been disastrous. First, this kind of thinking tended to create a dependency of these churches on the mother churches in distant lands: with respect either to money, or to leadership training, or to gumption. Second, it has often led these churches to view themselves as second-class citizens in the City of God, blessed perhaps with fewer advantages but freed from other responsibilities. This in turn meant third, and most importantly, that these churches often lost sight of the Great Commission that Christ gave to his church (Matthew 28:18-20). He did not just give this commission to missionaries, nor to churches in the “West” (as we have traditionally called it): he gave the Great Commission to his entire Church, which means to every Christian congregation, which means to every Christian as well.
The congregation at which, in which, and with which I am serving here in Argentina was right to ask me that question: am I on a mission to them or with them? And I did not have to reflect very long to agree wholeheartedly that, while I may be on a mission to Argentina and Buenos Aires when considered as a whole, I am on a mission with the Church: with the churches of North America, and with the churches of South America as well. And I have to admit, I would not have it any other way.
At the end of the day (or until the End of the Age, however you want to measure it), I am on a mission with this church in the shady borough of Hurlingham, Buenos Aires precisely because, on a fundamental level, this mission is neither mine nor theirs: it belongs, as they and you and I all do, to Christ himself. And for this reason, I am rather keen on seeing how he, the One from whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things, continues to unfold his plan for his mission among us all.