For the past couple of months I have been mulling over these three words in the context of our relationship to ‘the world’. Here then are a few of my not totally formed thoughts (partly provoked by a video clip of Dr. Sam Wells that I watched). My guess is this is an extension of contemplating how to be ‘in’ the world but not ‘of’ it. The application should be into a much wider context than evangelism (and I think the primary biblical paradigm is ‘witness’ not evangelism as defined by modernism) but will use that as my means of dialogue.
In the TO the world, my approach is shaped by a view that I am over here, the world is over there and there is a gulf in between the ‘washed’ and the ‘great unwashed’. I have an obligation to do something to them, but in taking that approach I enter into a I-it relationship (Martin Buber’s usage to describe something that falls far below a true encounter). I do this to someone as we are very different, they are truly the other, and other in the sense of inferior. Evangelism is done to in order to convert, if there is a conversion then they can move over here to where I am, and then together we can act to do more ‘to’ those who need conversion. If there is no conversion then necessity means I should move on with the hope that someone else I do this to will be more responsive.
In the FOR mode, I recognise how much I have that the world does not have, therefore am moved to share what I have with them. The invitation is to come to my ground as I have something for them. This normally moves beyond a simple I-it relationship, but can prove very problematic when there is no response leading to conversion. Does the relationship continue or is it now unprofitable as there are others who I can relate to in a ‘for’ them relationship. The hope is that they will convert, join me in my ground and together we invite others across to hear what we have for them. If they do not convert I am in a bit of a dilemma as I only have so much capacity. If it was a true I-thou relationship do I drop them and use my energies with others?
In the WITH mode, I recognise that there is a commonality between us all. I do not abide in some separate piece of ground, but live, move and have my being as all others do in God. This commonality means I am seeking always to relate to anyone, regardless of how ‘other’ they are in a I-Thou relationship (Buber’s term). I see we have much in common, this commonality is not based on a specific response of faith – and Paul’s relationship with the Asiarchs is a powerful example on this (Acts 19). We are not simply coming with our projects, but with our gifts, calling and faith to discover ways of being ‘with’ people. There will be a very strong ‘with’ whenever there are those who dream of a different world, for if anyone is in Christ they do not simply dream of a different world – there is a different world.
(The above I have applied to ‘evangelism’, but it needs to be applied to so much of Christian charitable work also. It might be a great experience to go and work in an underprivileged place, and there might be many reasons why we cannot simply go and live there, but the deepest relationship is the ‘with’, not the ‘for’, and certainly not the ‘to’ relationship.)
The believer in Christ lives in two places: in Christ / heavenly dimension and geographical / horizontal relational level. (‘To the saints in Christ in Corinth’ was a typical Pauline greeting.) We have to be faithful to both settings, and both settings are lived in simultaneously. Our faith determines how we live in the second setting. We live there to humanise others, to be full of hope, to bear witness that our world view is shaped by the Transcendent one who entered into a I-Thou relationship with us. Tangible signs also accompany us: the signs that Jesus gave marking the change of time, those of supernatural healings and of the marginalised hearing the sound of good news.
To be in the world but not of it necessitates living in both spheres simultaneously, of determining to be shaped by the ‘with’ mode. A new day is always being offered; a new day should have been our habitat given the resurrection. Maybe the sound of a new day has been muted because the body of Christ has not been too quick to live out the new day in the ‘with’ mentality.