Circles of friends with a shared vision are the birthing rooms for Kingdom collaboration. But sometimes circles of friends can become closed networks. Closed networks have an upside and a downside.
Think of a small group in your church which has been together for many years. The upside can be found in the depth of the relationships that have been nurtured and the shared commitment that has developed.
Yet closed networks can also become impermeable to outside people and outside ideas. Circles of friends can warp into ethnic bubbles or denominational bubbles or even just plain Christian bubbles — bubbles that protect those on the inside from people and ideas that seem different.
In John 20:21 Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
It seems from the Gospel story that when the Father sent the Son he did anything but keep him in a Trinitarian bubble. In fact, the Father sent his Son to camp out with his enemies, even those that were outside the social and religious bubbles of their own society.
The incarnation is all about the proposition with. The Gospels call Jesus “Immanuel” or God with us. But sometimes we are tempted to think that we, unlike Jesus, have been sent on a mission to or for those outside our bubbles.
Ministry is done to others when we invite them into our bubbles on the condition that they first become like us. Often ministry to those on the outside is motivated by attitudes of superiority and judgment and fueled by fear.
Doing ministry for others can be the first step out of our bubbles. Ministry for others responds to their real physical and spiritual needs. But over the long run ministry for can simply make others dependent on us. Ministry for often fails to empower people to develop their own gifts or to contribute their own distinctive perspectives and opinions.
Both ministry to and ministry for are examples of closed networks. The people inside the circle are the doers and the givers. The people outside the circle are just the receivers. Ministry to and for retains power for those inside the bubble. Ministry with involves giving up power and control.
Ministry to or for can remain distant and impersonal. But one there is nothing impersonal about ministry with. Ministry with is always rooted in concrete places and involves people who we know by name. It is costly precisely because it calls for us to form flesh and blood relationships with people who may not be like us and with whom we might not otherwise have chosen to associate.
Do you and I as Christians live in a bubble? Why do we find ministry with so challenging? Why might ministry with be transformative both for ourselves and others in a way ministry to or for is not?