The Problem with “Incarnational” Ministry

Writes Eckhard J. Schnabel in his chef-d’œuvre, Early Christian Mission, Volume 2: Paul and the Early Church (IVP, 2004), pages 1574-1575:

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 the coming of Jesus 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. The Johannine missionary commission in Jn 20:21 does not demand an ‘incarnation’ of Jesus’ disciples but rather their obedience, unconditional commitment and robust activity in the service of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is precisely John who describes the mission of Jesus as unique: Jesus is the ‘only’ Son (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:14, 18), he is preexistent (Jn 1:1, 14), his relationship to the Father is unparalleled (Jn 1:14, 18). For John, it is not the manner of Jesus’ coming into the world, the Word becoming flesh, the incarnation, that is a ‘model’ for believers; rather, it is the nature of Jesus’ relationship to the Father who sent him into the world, which is one of obedience to and dependence upon the Father. … The terms ‘contextualization’ or ‘inculturation’ certainly are more helpful.

14 thoughts on “The Problem with “Incarnational” Ministry

  1. From my reading, the language of incarnation seems to mean that the practitioner seeks to make a home amongst the group they are trying to reach. This is to be contrasted with a ‘hit and run’ approach which sees outsiders walking in to a mission field with no real connection to it.

  2. This is an interesting quote. I think I’ll agree that obedience must fuel mission from a top-down (i.e., from a Jesus as King and we as His subjects) perspective. But if we think that there is not also a bottom-up part of our mission, I fear we will come across as hammers looking for a nail to swing at in our communication to those who do not yet know Christ.

    The top-down structure of organizations must be contrasted against the frontline reality of Christ’s cultural engagement. What I think is lost here is the fact that it is hard to fully embrace the insights of organizational leaders–whether scholars, pastors, or pundits–commenting on real-life scenarios which Jesus faced in his ministry. The top-down mentality of organizational day-to-day life–writing papers, leading meetings, raising money, planning big events, etc.–tends to influence one’s view of Christ, in my experience. Organizations need calls to obedience to maintain their structure, but Christ had self-authenticating authority and incisive words in the real-life situations that came at him–situations he did not plan in organizational meetings, based on Scripture as I read it.

    What I think those who advocate incarnational mission understand that perhaps some organizational leaders do not is the difference between formal and informal authority. Jesus did not use His formal authority as Creator and Judge to force people to bend the knee. He tended to woo and win them over with love and truth in the context of the real struggles faced by those in front of Him.

    If we are to fulfill our mission, we must incarnate that truth and love, and allow our words to have that informal authority that others grant to us when they know we are concerned about them personally–and not on some mission to convert them to our side.

    Effective communication outside the friendly confines of Christian culture is what I am focused on here, and I believe we can strive for that without giving an inch on sound doctrine. But I wonder if splitting hairs on technical terms like incarnational, contextualization, etc. is where to fight the battle to be more effective. We know Jesus incarnation as the God-
    man was unique. But He also is our chief example of effective communication in frontline, messy, real life. I think we need to learn to be better followers of His frontline example in this way, and then split these hairs.

    This is sort of a side point, but one reason I think people favor incarnational approaches is because our formal Christian organizational voices may be leaving a void. Stated positively, they have a great opportunity to lead us as effective frontline examples, learning how to gain a hearing with more folks in more situations than the ones we create and plan in our organizational meetings.

    Am I on target here? I admit it is sort of a pet peeve. But I think it is part of this discussion that needs to be recognized.

  3. Page 1574: “Many missionary and church leaders describe the task of Christian missions with the term ‘incarnation.’ An ‘incarnational’ model of missionary work generally is substantiated with reference to Jn 20:21 and the description of Jesus’ ‘mission’ in the Gospel of John, and with reference to the apostle Paul and his emphasis on sacrificial service (1 Cor 9:19-22; Phil 2:7-8). John Stott defines the ‘principle of incarnation’ as identification with the people who are reached without loss of identity. As God addressed and saved human beings not from a distance, but by becoming a human being in his Son Jesus Christ, so also missionaries must overcome the distance to the people whom they want to win for faith in Jesus Christ. This is not merely and not primarily a matter of what to eat or how to dress or what gestures to use, but also and most of all a matter of how to formulate and present the message of the gospel, how to organize the life of the local congregation, and what to teach new converts about how they should behave in everyday life. As Jesus became ‘flesh,’ likewise the missionary message and its expression in new churches must be consistently ‘local.'”

  4. I have had several missions classes recently and I have been just as puzzled by the frequent use of “Incarnational” models. Missions is logically necessary if Jesus has been revealed as the Son of God with power by the resurrection. Resurrection drives missions. The incarnation is a model of humility according to Paul in Philippians. Its probably best to stay biblical here.

  5. Also, note the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology’s entry for “Missiology.” All of the concerns are social-scientific concerns: “…anthropology, communications, economics, education, history [of the targeted people], linguistics, political science [!], psychology, and sociology.” p. 780. This is not to criticize Moreau’s work. He does mention a theological foundation, but can I at least see the word “resurrection” in an article on missions?

  6. I think I understand. Hunter has recently shown that cultural engagement can happen very effectively in a top-down structure, as it can happen from the bottom-up approach as you described it. I think Schnabel’s point is more about the impetus to engage. Where does that come from? From the model of the Incarnation or rather from the Son’s obedience to the Father. “Incarnational” can be a squishy term and he is seeking to bring biblical clarity to what is so often meant by the term, and seeking biblical clarity in anything is a worthy pursuit. The Great Comission is a command, and we plant churches, evangelize, etc in obedience to the command. That, I think, is a better way to think of mission.

  7. […] “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 the coming of Jesus 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. The Johannine missionary commission in Jn 20:21 does not demand an ‘incarnation’ of Jesus’ disciples but rather their obedience, unconditional commitment and robust activity in the service of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is precisely John who describes the mission of Jesus as unique: Jesus is the ‘only’ Son (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:14, 18), he is preexistent (Jn 1:1, 14), his relationship to the Father is unparalleled (Jn 1:14, 18). For John, it is not the manner of Jesus’ coming into the world, the Word becoming flesh, the incarnation, that is a ‘model’ for believers; rather, it is the nature of Jesus’ relationship to the Father who sent him into the world, which is one of obedience to and dependence upon the Father … The terms ‘contextualization’ or ‘inculturation’ certainly are more helpful.” (pp. 1574-1575) (HT: Tony  Reinke) […]

  8. Ah, “Incarnational Ministry.” I’ve most often seen this phrase used in terms of “being the hands and feet of Jesus.” In practice, whatever they “do” is “the gospel” because they are incarnating Jesus merely by their presence. This usually looks like generic social work in the case of sincere ones. In those less sincere or thoughtful, it’s whatever they do around non-christians, especially when being nice.

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