I’ve always had a nagging suspicion of ‘incarnational mission’ – the use of the incarnation as a for mission. Yesterday I was leading a Northern Training Institute seminar day and our discussions helped clarify my unease.
The Problems with Incarnational Ministry
1. We can’t do it
Incarnation is the act of divinity becoming human. We can (and I think should) live among the people we are trying to reach just as Jesus came and dwelt among us. But incarnation is a precise theological term that means refers to a divine being taking on humanity. I can’t do that!
2. We’re not commended to do it
Much of what is commended in the name of incarnational ministry is good. Much of it is commended in the New Testament. But it is not commended in the New Testament with reference to the incarnation. We are sent in to the world as Jesus is sent in the world (John 17, 20). But we are not told to imitate the incarnation. (Perhaps because we can’t!?)
3. It doesn’t help
Incarnation offers no guidelines for involvement ministry.
The Dangers of Incarnational Ministry
If much of what is commended in the name of incarnational ministry is good then why worry?
1. Incarnation as a for mission offers no boundaries. Should I become transgender to be incarnational among transgender people? Indeed people readily play games with how like they culture they can become. Missional kudos is measured in terms of identification with the (sub-)culture. ‘I have a tattoo.’ ‘I smoke pot.’
2. Incarnational mission creates a ‘be’ rather than ‘tell’ approach to mission. The rhetoric is often of ‘ simply being with people without an agenda’ (an agenda like calling them to repentance!?).
3. Incarnational mission equates culture with ‘artefacts’. The focus becomes on what you wear or do. ‘Should I get a tattoo?’ ‘Should I wear a shell suit?’ ‘Should I go clubbing?’ But culture is more than artefacts. It is worldviews and values. And these are where the real gospel encounters take place.
4. Christians are not only called to adapt to culture, but also to transform culture.
The Alternative to Incarnational Ministry
The locus classicus of missional contextualization is 1 Corinthians 9 where Paul says: ‘I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.’ (22) What are the categories he uses here?
1. How can I serve these people?
‘Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.’ (1 Corinthians 9:19) Elsewhere Paul says: ‘For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.‘ (2 Corinthians 4:5) When in Philippians 2 Paul does appear to appeal to the incarnation the focus is actually on Jesus becoming a servant – a service exemplified in the cross (5-8). So the guiding question is: How must I change to serve these people?
2. How can I win these people?
Paul makes himself a slave to everyone ‘to win as many as possible’ (19) His identification has an agenda – winning people for Christ. In verse 23 he says: ‘I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.’ Here the guiding question is: How must I change for the sake of the gospel? How can I change so that the people I am reaching will find the gospel understandable, credible and attractive? How should I become like them to win these people for Christ?’
Perhaps the over-arching principle is love. There are many stories of missionaries doing poor contextualization (wandering around Africa wearing pith helmets), but whose genuine and evident love won the hearts of those to whom they went. That doesn’t mean contextualization is irrelevant. Good contextualization is an act of love and service to those we are trying to win. But if I am a cool, ‘incarnational’, trendy, urban missionary dude but have not love then I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I know all the latest theories of contextualisation and can give lectures on them, but have not love then I am nothing.