What do we mean by 'Incarnational Methodology?'

WMF “Position Papers” do not necessarily represent the opinions of the entire WMF community, but seek to articulate alternative positions on issues of mission and spirituality. The starting points for these papers are the WMF identity statements and WMF’s commitment to living out these principles in daily life and ministry.

By Rob O’Callaghan, former WMF staff member

“And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” So John 1:14 describes the Incarnation of the Son of God (and also provides WMF with its name). The Incarnation tells us of Jesus Christ, whom we call both God and human. In this unique person, conceived by the Holy Spirit, the life of God has intersected with our lives. Here was God among us.

Word Made Flesh’s philosophy of ministry commits us to an “incarnational methodology.” But in what sense can we speak of the Incarnation as a methodology for ministry? How are we to imitate God becoming human? It would be wrong to think of a Christian worker as the equivalent of the divine Word coming from the Father to dwell among humans. We are not God; we are not the Word; we are not Christ. Yes, Christ is with us; the Spirit of God dwells among us; but does that say anything “incarnational” about our mission?

The Incarnation demonstrates God’s great commitment to all of humanity, to live among us and to die on our behalf. But Jesus’ very humanity means that God, ironically, has shown us by His own example how to be human. Our faith in Jesus includes a calling to be Christ-like, “to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6). This implies, among other things, a similar commitment to be with people, to be present, available to be used by God. This incarnational methodology takes on different aspects.

Starting from the confession that Jesus is the only Son, the divine Word, we will consider the implications of the Incarnation for the mission of the church. Most broadly, this means we will look at Jesus Christ as our model of ministry and mission, bearing in mind the divine-human dynamic of Christ’s two natures.

1. Inculturation

Many missiologists have taken the Incarnation as a model of “inculturation” of the good news, in which the church is born anew within each culture in a way that fits that culture. This idea of incarnational mission arose in reaction to the extent to which 19th-century missionaries from Europe and North America came with a sense of the superiority of their own “Christianized” culture.

Many observers (and participants) of global missions came to criticize the amount of control and lack of cultural adaptation that the mission groups exercised. It was not unusual to find missionary communities, for example, completely recreating England in the middle of Africa: dividing the countryside with stone walls and teaching their converts to dress in woolens, sit at tables and eat with forks and spoons. Hymns of the indigenous churches were simply translated English hymns, preaching topics reflected the concerns of Victorian English society, and important decisions remained exclusively in the hands of the missionaries, since local converts were not considered advanced enough. Whether Swedish, German, American or British, in their own minds, Christianizing the peoples of the world could not be separated from “civilizing” (that is, Westernizing) them.

It is easy to pick on missionaries of the past, and I don’t wish to ignore their real accomplishments and their heroism in leaving their homes in order to bring Christ to the great masses of those who had never heard His name. They built schools and clinics, elevated the status of women, translated the Bible, preserved local languages by developing writing systems and developed leaders without regard to social standing. And they planted the seeds of what have become thriving indigenous churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Yet while we honor them for their accomplishments and sacrifice, we also need to be honest about their mistakes in order not to repeat them. With this in mind, many mission theorists of the last century, who have been sympathetic to creating truly indigenous churches around the world, looked for a theological basis for their appeal. For some, this basis was found in the Incarnation.

The starting point for this approach comes from Jesus’ Incarnation into a specific culture. The Word became not some featureless, generic human, but this man, Jesus, a Jewish carpenter in first century, Roman-occupied Palestine. This approach places Jesus in a specific cultural setting and reflects on Jesus’ ability to pursue His mission as a participating member of that culture, teaching and acting in ways that addressed the hopes and dreams of a specific people. As a contemporary strategy for missionaries, this approach often appeals to the Apostle Paul’s claim, “I have become all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:22). Many students of missions might remember J. Hudson Taylor adopting Chinese dress and the distinctive Manchurian hairstyle, even dying his hair black. The point is that missionaries seek to identify culturally with those they serve rather than clinging stubbornly and exclusively to their foreign culture.

There are limits to this strategic approach. After all, Jesus’ Jewishness was not primarily a matter of strategy, but derived from God’s prior covenant with Abraham and Israel. The strategic value of being Jewish was really no more than a side benefit. In the purest sense, the emphasis of the Incarnation is not on Jesus’ specific culture, but on His humanity. That is, Jesus didn’t just appear to be human, He was human and in fact, the most perfect example of what it means to be human. Yet the Son of God’s taking on humanity included taking on a culture and living and acting as a participant of that culture.

There are other limits to the inculturation model as well. Anyone working cross-culturally is always an outsider to some extent. We can approximate the cultural ways of a new culture, but we can never completely shed who we are culturally, with the values, attitudes and ways of seeing the world that have shaped us since infancy.

The Gospel itself also places limits on inculturation. Cultural relevance cannot be a capitulation to culture that removes the sharp edge of the Gospel. (This is just as true in so-called “Christian” cultures as it is in non-Christian ones.) It is wrong for us to construct cultural barriers to the Gospel, but it is just as dangerous to betray faithfulness to Christ for an easy road to salvation that causes no cultural offense, which is rightly called “cheap grace.”

Yet the attempt to bridge cultures, to step out of our foreign way of thinking and acting and to adapt to indigenous patterns, is essential to missions, just as it is essential to the building of cross-cultural friendships in general. Take the example of language. Language embodies and passes on culture like few other cultural markers. But it is above all a means of communication, and without learning the language of another, communication will be severely limited. So some sort of cultural adaptation is, in a practical sense, unavoidable. But there are also theological reasons why this should be so. Being open to those not like us, to the stranger, is the means by which the good news crosses cultures, so that the formerly estranged may be one in the body of Christ (Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret). For all our differences, all of humanity is one under God, who shows no partiality (Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11).

The New Testament gives ample evidence of the tensions involved in bridging the cultural divides between Aramaic-speaking Jews of Palestine, Hellenized Jews and Greek-speaking Gentiles of the Roman world. Yet this bridging was unavoidable and is indeed the plan of God (Eph. 2:13-18). Starting from our unique cultural heritage, we have to seek to be impartial as God is impartial, not playing cultural favorites, not demanding that Christians of other cultures practice their faith in a Western mode, but working to bridge cultures as best we can.

Jesus’ Incarnation, then, reminds us that we cannot divorce our witness from the specific cultural context within which it takes place. As David Bosch asserts, “The Christian faith never exists except as ‘translated’ into a culture” (Transforming Mission). As humans, we can never be culturally neutral or outside of any culture. Especially in cross-cultural contexts, this can never be forgotten without painful consequences. Christian witness is no place for cultural arrogance or insensitivity. One must enter a new culture with humility, seeking to translate the Gospel into a new context in a way that is faithful to its origin in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, local Christians will perform this translation process most competently. For missions, greater than figuring out how to make the Gospel “fit” a given culture (for the Gospel is in some sense foreign to every culture and brings every culture under judgment) is the effort to free the Gospel from our own cultural trappings. Even today, how well can we distinguish between commitment to Christ and American values?

2. Identification with the Poor

A commitment to be with the people takes on special significance when it comes to ministry among the poor. To what extent do we become poor in order to win the poor? WMF staff have commitments to maintaining a simple lifestyle, including a limit on how much salary we can draw. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that we require our missionaries to have health insurance, we have the option to save for retirement, and, above all, we have a fairly secure safety net as citizens of an extremely affluent society. Whether or not our simplicity of lifestyle can be called “poor,” we do not share the condition of the truly destitute. We are not forced to draw upon the same resources for bare survival that they are. We need to be humble in this area. Most of us lead very privileged lives, and as such we have only a limited capacity for trusting God in truly desperate conditions.

Yet it is God’s grace and the hospitality of the poor that allows us to live among them, wealthy though we are. Our relative wealth is not a justification for seeking ease and pleasure. We have found that as we seek to live faithful lives in relationships with the poor, they will teach us how to live with fewer things and less convenience, and to pursue this strange “downward mobility” happily, discovering that true life and joy are not found in consumerism (Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus).

Witness that seeks to be incarnational must be aware of the dynamics of money. Cultural status and financial standing influence our relationships more than we typically realize. For us who are non-poor, to genuinely embrace the poor and embody good news to the poor is always a challenge. We realize our limits and realize what an act of grace it is that God uses us at all. The poor of the world that I have known are often more generous, more hospitable and more community-centered than I have ever been, or even am comfortable being. How are we supposed to serve them? It often seems like we are the ones being served.

To serve the poor in the way of the Incarnation means being willing to embrace poverty. It might mean eating things that we would normally throw out as unfit. It might mean coming into contact with filth. It might mean jeopardizing our social standing. The reward is to be with the poor, to enjoy blessed fellowship with the poor, which cannot happen if our fear keeps us away.

It requires faith to believe that the rewards are worth the sacrifice. Consider the rich young man whom Jesus asked to sell his possessions, give them to the poor and follow Him (Matt. 19:16-22). If the young man had obeyed, it would be easy to accuse him of throwing his life away, of wasting so much potential. The only way such a move would be sensible would be if Jesus was right – that this man would indeed have great riches in heaven. This man lacked such faith; only in hindsight do we see that he chose poorly, that his riches have now been lost when they could have been eternal.

Do we have such faith today? Can we be content with Christ alone? The encouragement that we have as we serve among the poor is the profound joy we meet within our friends who live in such miserable conditions. The poor in Christ are perhaps the happiest people on earth. Dare we call their condition blessed?

3. Mission in the Way of Christ

In Jesus, we see the deepest and purest self-revelation of God. If we want to know what God is like, we see it in this man, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). And He was among us, there to touch and to converse with, true flesh and blood that ate, drank, walked and slept – and bled and died. In Jesus, we also find our own destiny to be remade in His image and to reveal what God is like through Christ’s presence in us.

“Because of the cross, Jesus offers us, here and now, His own sonship; His own spirit; His own mission to the world. The love which He incarnated, by which we are saved, is to become the love which fills us beyond capacity and flows out to heal the world: so that the Word may become flesh once more, and dwell (not just among us, but) within us; having beheld His glory, we must then reveal His glory, glory as of the beloved children of the Father, full of grace and truth” (N.T. Wright, Following Jesus).

Gandhi was once asked by his friend E. Stanley Jones, the great evangelist and missionary to India, what Christians should do “to make Christianity more naturalized in India, not a foreign thing, identified with a foreign government, but a part of the national life.” Gandhi responded:

“I would suggest four things: First, that all you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, that you practice your religion without adulterating it, or toning it down. Third, that you emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, that you study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good in them, to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.”

What Jones found most remarkable was that to be “naturalized” or to have the Gospel enter a culture without being foreign, the most important thing is to be “more Christian” (E. Stanley Jones, A Song of Ascents). When we speak of an incarnational methodology, we are speaking of being more Christian, of being more like Christ who became one of us, who blessed the marginalized but exposed the hypocrites, who lifted up the downhearted, who lived and ate and walked among us, who was obedient unto death.

From Jesus, it becomes clear that the practice of being with the poor is applicable to all of His disciples. We remember the marginal, the oppressed, the excluded, not only because they are one among the many sociological groups that make up humanity, but because God in Christ made it a priority to bring good news to the poor and deliverance to the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). Through the poor, our sins against one another are most clearly revealed. And when sin is revealed, God calls us to receive correction, confess our sin, and turn and receive His mercy and follow Him on the way of righteousness.

What we mean by “incarnational mission,” then, is a commitment to be with people, to embody the good news we preach, and through the Spirit to mediate the presence of Christ wherever He is needed. As the body of Christ, we are the continuation of His ministry; we are His presence on earth. We are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. If we are to be faithful to this calling, we don’t run from the world’s great need, we run to it. We must be willing to lay down our lives and take up the life of God in Christ. Not only has God touched humanity; in Jesus, God was touched by humanity, and by us He was condemned to death. Yet in the Resurrection He triumphed over our judgment on Him and offered in return His forgiveness and grace. We have wounded God, but His love endures. Because of this, Christianity has in various times and places celebrated suffering and persecution; for in losing like this, in being condemned, the saints of past and present have found true life. Their testimony has been, not resentment, but hope and peace. To be incarnational, then, is not just a strategic choice we make simply because we see it as an effective option. It is a calling to follow Jesus with crosses in hand (Matt. 16:24; 1 Pet. 2:21).

The Incarnation demonstrates God’s commitment to humanity. He has not abandoned us to destruction but reaches out in compassion to find a way to save us. As Jesus’ disciples, we take up this same commitment to the salvation and welfare of the peoples of the world.

Ashley Barker and John Hayes, current mission leaders among the poor, reflect:

“Today, perhaps, more than ever, the world needs Christians who allow themselves to not just be seen and heard, but touched and handled. We live in an age of information, of mass messages, and an era with an uncanny ability to multiply words. Yet an increasing number of the world’s people live lives without real change and without Christ. The world doesn’t need more words, not even more of the ‘right’ words; the world needs more words made flesh. It is a simple truth, yet in the end it is people who change people. The world needs more people living good news incarnationally in a way they can be seen, heard and handled by the most demanding and doubting Thomases” (Sub-Merge: Living Deep in a Shallow World).

Jesus shows us who the Father is, what God is like. Our lived witness shows what Jesus is like. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” He told His disciples (John 20:21). Jesus sends us forth, and as we go, we draw on His life, the life of the Incarnation. We don’t claim to have arrived, but we press on to become conformed to Christ and thus to be “imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1).

Rob, Twyla and Toby O’Callaghan served in field staff positions with WMF in Bangkok, Thailand. They currently live in Atlanta, GA, where Rob is pursuing a master’s in theology at Candler School of Theology. They have three children, Toby, Nevan and Ada.