April 13, 2024

The incarnational model is how we often describe our decision to live among the people to whom we are sent. We learn to speak their language. We immerse ourselves in their culture, eating their foods and building deep friendships within that people group. The term “incarnational ministry” may also refer to adopting a living standard (e.g., the type and size of our house, the transportation we use, the clothes we wear) that does not create social barriers to the common people.

But is “incarnational” the best word to describe our strategy of immersing ourselves in the culture of the people? Is the incarnation of Christ the model we should follow as we engage the unreached people of this world?

Please note that I am not talking primarily about whether Jesus’ incarnation is a model for the mission of the church. That is a related and important discussion. A number of years ago, John Starke of the Gospel Coalition argued that incarnational was not an appropriate adjective to describe the church’s mission in the world.1The Incarnation is About A Person, Not a Mission Ed Stetzer responded in a series of articles in Christianity Today. He argued that the word “incarnational” was a good word to describe what the church is doing in the world.2See Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Both positions have their merits. However, in this article I am asking whether the word “incarnational” is the best way to describe what we do as cross-cultural missionaries.

A few years ago, in this blog, my colleague Gary Ridley discussed a familiar mission passage in John 20:21. Jesus told his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” He concluded that here Jesus is not talking about his incarnation, but rather about his relationship to his sender. I agree. What the disciples are to emulate is not his incarnation, but his dependence on, relationship with and commitment to the glory of the One who sent him.

The incarnation is unique

Nevertheless, as Dr. Ridley says, ‘the term “incarnational missions” is here to stay’. In his blog post, my colleague did not argue against the importance of what is called the “incarnational” model. Dr. Ridley just wishes that we would use other words to describe it. He also would like us to point to other passages (such as 1 Cor 9:19-23 and Phil 2:5-8) to support the value we place on identifying with the people whom we have come to serve.

Jesus’ incarnation is unique and unrepeatable. Furthermore, Jesus grew up in the Jewish culture and learned the language of his people as a child, which does not parallel our experience as cross-cultural workers. As much as we seek to fit in, we continue to be outsiders, whereas Jesus was a cultural insider to his primary audience.

Our immersion is not “once and for all”

But my biggest problem with the term “incarnational” to describe cross-cultural missionaries is that it seems to put too much emphasis on the initial arrival of the missionary. The incarnation of the Son of God refers to the conception and birth of Jesus, his taking on of human flesh at a particular time in history. Our immersion into the life and culture of the people happens gradually over time as we learn the language and culture.

Jesus never ceases to be incarnate, whereas most cross-cultural missionaries do return often to their home countries. Over the course of a missionary career, many missionaries end up living in multiple countries, and learning multiple languages and integrating into multiple cultures.3My wife and I are living in Ukraine, after spending ten years in the Philippines, and then ten years in Russia. Most missionaries eventually choose to retire in the country of their birth.

Not entirely appropriate

Hence, I believe the term “incarnational” is not entirely appropriate to describe what we do as missionaries. I am not alone. Ridley quotes Eckhard Schnabel, who says,

I submit that the use of the term ‘incarnational’ is not very helpful to describe the task of authentic Christian missionary work. The event of Jesus coming into the world is unique, unrepeatable and incomparable, making it preferable to use other terminology to express the attitudes and behavior that Paul describes in 1 Cor 9:19-23. … In Phil 2:5-11 it is not the incarnation of Jesus that is presented as a model for Christian behavior but rather Jesus’ consistent humility. The terms ‘contextualization’ or ‘inculturation’ certainly are more helpful.4Eckhard Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, Vol. 2, p. 1574-75.

Eckhard Schnabel

Other models?

Jesus is clearly a model for us as a servant leader and faithful messenger. But his primary calling was not as a cross-cultural missionary (Matt 15:24). 5This is not to say that Jesus did not work among Gentiles. The entire section from Matt 15:21-39 seems to have been spent in Gentile territory.

Who else could we use as a model of this identification with another people group? We have often looked to Paul as our ideal cross-cultural missionary. Definitely Paul has much to teach us about bringing the Gospel to Greeks and Romans. He demonstrated flexibility in his manner of living, while retaining the essence of the Gospel message. For additional thoughts, see another blog post by Gary Ridley on Paul’s contextualization.

But recently, I read Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7, and I saw Moses in a new light.

Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.

Acts 7:22

This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.

Acts 7:37-38

Moses’ cultural adjustments

Moses made a huge cultural adjustment when he left Pharaoh’s palace and fled to Midian to live among shepherds. He quickly made his home with Reuel (also called Jethro) and his family. Moses married one of his daughters, and learned to care for his sheep (see Ex 2:21, 3:1). He still identified himself as a foreigner (Ex 2:22). But it seems that he took on the simple life of the people who had adopted him.

By no means was that the last time Moses made a major adjustment to a new group of people. Forty years later, God called him from the quiet backwater of the Midian desert. He was sent back to Pharaoh’s courts, now as the leader of an emancipation movement. Then Moses ended up leading a huge migration of former slaves across that wilderness over the next 40 years. Yes, he was related to these people by birth, but he hardly could have said that he was returning to a familiar culture and lifestyle.

With the people

Stephen notes that Moses was “in the assembly in the wilderness” (Acts 7:37).6The Greek word for “assembly” is actually ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) which is normally translated “church” in the New Testament. Here the word means “assembly.” Moses was the divinely-appointed leader of the nation, but he was still part of the assembly. He was not living apart from them, giving directions to the people through servants. Moses did not have a palace or castle to protect him from the hardships of wilderness life and travel. He did not have a security detail. There were no bureaucratic barriers to prevent being inundated with constant requests for help from his subjects.

No, Moses was “with our ancestors.” He identified with them. Moses lived alongside of them, experiencing the deprivations and hardships of wilderness life for 40 long years. He personally heard the grumbling and complaining. When they disapproved of his leadership, he was in danger of stoning. He daily served them as judge. At least initially, “they stood around him from morning to evening” (Exodus 18:13).

So, we could say that Moses adopted an incarnational approach in his leadership.7(recognizing that this would be anachronistic terminology) But being “with the people” does not sum up Moses’ ministry model.

With God

Stephen’s speech highlights another relationship that characterized Moses’ life. Moses was also “with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai.” He “received living words to pass on” to the people (Acts 7:38). The angel is clearly a reference to God’s manifestation of himself to Moses (see Exodus 3:2, 4). Moses had the distinct privilege of being in God’s presence for extended periods of time (Ex 34:28). He saw God’s glory (Ex 33:18-19). God knew him by name (Ex 33:17). His face shone with the glory of God as a result of being in the presence of Yahweh (Ex 34:29-35).

Note that Moses was both with the people and with Yahweh during Israel’s journey through the wilderness. He did not just meet with the Lord at Mount Sinai and then go to the people to communicate what he had heard. He continued to meet with the Lord face-to-face while he was with God’s people (Exodus 33:7-11). So, he was uniquely positioned and empowered to be God’s messenger throughout the 40-year period that he lived among the Israelites. He received living words from Yahweh and passed them on to God’s people in the wilderness.

These dual relationships of being with the people and being with the Lord seem to capture the heart and stance of the cross-cultural missionary. We need to know the people and live among them as one of them, to the extent that we can as “acceptable outsiders”.8See Joan Pitman’s explanation of the acceptable outsider. We also need to know our God, spending time in communion with him, hearing his voice and allowing his presence to transform us into the image of his Son.

Jesus, our model

In this dual relationship with our God and with those we are called to serve, we have no finer model that Jesus himself. Jesus was with his disciples. He lived with them, showing them the life of the kingdom while modeling the ministry of the kingdom. He guided them in their first attempts to emulate him. Furthermore, he promises to be with disciples “to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

Jesus was also with the Father at the same time. He spent extended times of prayer with the Father (Luke 5:15-16, 6:12-13, 9:28-29). He continually sensed that the Father was with him and was directing his actions and his words (John 8:28-29). As John says,

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

John 1:18

He heard from the Father while he was living with people. Therefore, he had a special ability to give words of life to the people.

Connected like Jesus

So, we come back to John 20:21. As the Father sent Jesus, Jesus sends us. But what is the point of the comparison? I do not believe that Jesus is talking about his incarnation. It is not that Jesus came down from heaven to live among men, and so we are called to leave our comfortable culture to live among people of another culture. Instead, Jesus is asking us to relate to him in the way that he related to the Father. This is an ongoing connection and dependence on the One who has sent us, just as Jesus continuously relied on his Father for direction. The metaphor of John 15, the vine and the branches, comes to mind here.

But the comparison goes further. The Father sent Jesus to those who did not know his Father as he did. In the same way, Jesus is sending us to those who do not know him in the way we know him. Furthermore, Jesus explained the Father and his Father’s kingdom to all whose lives he touched. In the same way, we are to make Jesus and his kingdom known to those we meet. Jesus entwined his life with that of his disciples. In the same way, we are called to connect deeply with those to whom we have been sent.

From this perspective, John 20:21 is not just for cross-cultural missionaries. All disciples of Jesus are called to these dual relationships – with God and with the people to whom they are called to be salt and light (Matt 5:13-16). Nevertheless, cross-cultural workers find much that is especially challenging and deeply encouraging in this dual-relationship model.

Living with God

We need to make sure we cultivate a close relationship with our Lord, and that this relationship continues to guide, empower and transform our life and ministry. We need make sure we hear from God, not only in our initial call but continually while living with the people to whom they have been sent. This can be particularly challenging if we have been relying on our home church, small group or family in our home country to help us stay connected to God. When we are living among those who do not know Jesus, it is imperative that our personal connection with our Lord remains vital and life-giving.

But it is also deeply encouraging to know that this close relationship with the Lord is possible and is expected while we live among those who do know God. Jesus is with us, and expects us to know this and experience this, just as he was experiencing his Father’s companionship.

Living with the people

We also need to stay connected to the people among whom we live. This has become particularly challenging in the pandemic. Social distancing, quarantines and reliance on digital communication can tempt us to only connect with people back home or those who already follow Jesus. Much ministry can be done through digital means, but there is no substitute for learning the language and culture of the people while we live among them and experience the hardships (and joys) they experience. We are called to demonstrate the life of Jesus in this world, while bringing the message of Jesus.

Our visibility as Jesus’ followers is dependent on us being with the people, living among them. As I said in a previous post, our trustworthiness as messengers is demonstrated by our willingness to engage in deep friendships with people of different cultures. Together with them, we walk the Jesus Road, exploring what it means to be a follower of Jesus in that cultural context.

Now, I understand that “with-God-and-with-the-people” or “dual-relationship” are not great adjectives to describe our ministry model as cross-cultural missionaries. Do any of you have a better suggestion for how we could label this model?

1 thought on “Are missionaries called to be incarnational?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back To Top