Contend Earnestly: Incarnational Ministry and the Unique, Incarnate Christ: Part I

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Incarnational Ministry and the Unique, Incarnate Christ: Part I

I was sent this by a friend of mine, Mike Gunn. Mike is the director of Acts 29 International and also still preaches at Harambee and is one of our pastors/elders. The opening is his introduction to the piece and the actual article was written by J. Todd Billings for Modern Reformation. Enjoy.

I have used the word "Incarnation" quite a bit these past 5-10 years. My main intent in using it is to flush out verses such as John 20:31 in which Jesus says, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so I am sending you!" It is to express the need to cross cultures, and barriers to reach others for the gospel much like Paul seems to claim in 1 Corinthians 9 when he says, "I am all things to all men in order to win a few." Obviously we are called to be "In the world...but not of it" (See John 17), but what does that mean, and can we truly "Be" Jesus to others like we hear so often? Is that possible? Yes, we are to love like He loved, and give like He gave, but is "Like" a good word? Do we love "Like" He did? Do we give "Like" He did? What does it mean to be "Incarnational?" Below is an interesting article from The Modern Reformation written by J. Todd Billings (March/April 2009). Read closely Incarnational Ministry and think hard, it just may challenge your thinking! Ouch!

Mike Gunn

Incarnational Ministry and the Unique, Incarnate Christ
By J. Todd Billings

The term "incarnational ministry," like "missional" or "Emergent Church," is used in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes "incarnational ministry" means ministry that crosses cultural barriers to be an embodied presence to people in need. At other times, it's used to talk about culturally relevant analogies for the gospel. In still other contexts, "incarnational ministry" has become shorthand for affirming that intellectual assent to faith is not enough-faith needs to become embodied and "incarnate" in acts of love and service, as in the earthly ministry of Jesus. It is understandable if you find these different uses of the phrase puzzling. For in its common evangelical usage, "incarnational ministry" often has surprisingly little to do with the unique Incarnation of the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. For instance, surely Muslim, Jewish and other religious practitioners would affirm that faith should be made manifest in concrete, physical acts of love and service. But these persons would not affirm the Incarnation of the eternal Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

This leads us to a question underlying the coupling of the term "incarnational" with "ministry." What is the relationship between the one Incarnation, and the activity and ministry of the church? Should our ministries be guided by analogies between the Incarnation and our own Christian lives?

As Timothy Cowin-one missional blogger-suggests, the Incarnation is important for ministry because it teaches that "Jesus came to physically be with us" to show the Father's love to tax collectors and sinners, seeking not to retreat from culture but to "penetrate" it. The Incarnation applies to us because "the missional church sees its mission as the same as the Lord's." Stated differently, for Cowin, the Incarnation is about engaging in a set of inclusive and loving activities (like in the ministry of Jesus), since the mission of Jesus Christ is the same as our own.
Although Cowin makes some legitimate points about the church's calling to be in but not of the world, approaches like this one risk missing a profound truth of the gospel that the Incarnation is utterly unique. Whereas it may sound empowering for us to have the "same" mission as Jesus in the Incarnation, there is a subtle but profound danger in this incarnational analogy. It is God alone who saves, and God alone saves through the Word that takes on flesh in Jesus Christ. The Incarnation is not a pattern of activities that we copy. The Incarnation is unique-it is not simply a truth that Jesus lived a self-sacrificial life, but that the eternal Word became incarnate in this man Jesus who lived such a life. The Incarnation is a reality without which the ministry of Jesus, his death, and his resurrection would have no significance for our salvation. As such, the Incarnation is a central, constitutive truth of the gospel.

Yet, there is something right about those who seek to recover the doctrine of the Incarnation and its implications for our lives and ministries; there is something right about the sense that we should not enter into ministry in a prideful way that looks down upon others rather than serves others; there is something right about the calling to cross-cultural barriers for the sake of the gospel. In order to explore this further, I will examine how the incarnational analogy has functioned in evangelical missiological circles. After this analysis, I will point to one area in which I think analogies can be made from the Incarnation that do not compromise its uniqueness or centrality; finally, the article ends by drawing upon the wisdom of the Heidelberg Catechism in articulating the ways in which we participate in Christ and his mission, and the ways in which our mission remains distinct from that of Jesus Christ himself.

A common example of the use of "incarnational ministry" in missiological circles comes from a widely used textbook, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers.

In Ministering Cross-Culturally, Lingenfelter argues that the Incarnation has profound consequences for cross-cultural ministry. Jesus came into the world as a "learner," needing to learn about Jewish language and culture. Like a careful anthropologist, he studied the culture of his people for thirty years before he began his ministry. Key to the rationale for this position is the Christ-hymn in Philippians 2. In Lingenfelter's rendering, although Jesus Christ was "in very nature God," he identified with humanity and human culture, taking "the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (Phil. 2:6-7). In fact, Jesus not only completely identified with humanity but with Jewish culture in particular. Thus, Lingenfelter sees the Incarnation as the model for incarnational ministry, for Jesus was "a 200 percent person": "he was 100 percent God and 100 percent Jew."

Lingenfelter goes on to make a direct analogy with our own ministry: we should seek to become 150 percent persons, becoming less like persons of our own culture and more like persons of the culture to whom we seek to minister (thus 75 percent of each culture).

Lingenfelter has legitimate and pressing missiological concerns that underlie his use of the incarnational analogy. He has seen the tendency of Western missionaries to retreat to their safe missionary compounds, rather than approaching the receiving culture with humility and respect. He has seen how this action-of distance, rather than humble engagement-distorts the message that Christian missionaries try to communicate. Thus, the Incarnation seems like an attractive analogy to inspire missionaries to acquire a posture of learning and cultural engagement.

Copyright © 2010 White Horse Inn

(the conclusion to this paper will come tomorrow along with the end notes)


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