March 28, 2013

Why the Divine Incarnation of Jesus is a Bad Model for Mission

I have been involved in Christian ministry for 14 years now in a variety of cross-cultural contexts. In that time, I have read dozens of books and hundreds of papers/essays on missions and church-planting theologies and methodologies. Buzzwords come and go, methodologies come and go, and fads come and go. Trendy ideas fall out of fashion and old ideas come back into fashion. We have huddles, house groups, small groups, house church, missional groups, organic church, church without walls, simple church, and on and on and on. Even within that short list there will be arguments and counter arguments on points of difference and why one is not like the other and how they are completely different etc. etc.

Church planting always throws up all sorts of weird and wonderful issues and discussions, particularly when it comes to areas like ours amongst the urban deprived. At the moment, there seems to be a bit of a love (in certain circles) with Alan Hirsch and his material. More and more I am being asked my opinion on his material by young men and women interested in working with 20schemes. People are particularly enamoured with the phrase ‘incarnational mission’ as a model for a ‘new’ way of ‘doing’ church. The problem, as usual, is our culture’s obsession with all things ‘new’ and disdain for anything regarded as ‘traditional’ (i.e. the history of the church). The phrase has actually been around for a few years (first coined in 1838 in a book by Frederick D Maurice) although I suspect used somewhat differently than its present meaning(s).

As usual, Ed Stetzer has some great things to say in a three-part post on the issue. You can find that here. For an alternative take on the issue, John Starke has an equally good post here. For those of us who like our theology UK style, Tim Chester weighs in here. I suggest a reading of these posts to go deeper into the issues.

The problem I have is that the word has been hijacked recently in a way that sounds plausible but makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Consider these words by Hirsch:

If missional refers to our ‘sentness’ as believers/church, then incarnational shapes the way we should engage in that mission. God came into the world in an act of profound identification not only with humanity as a whole, but with a particular group of people. That He was in the neighborhood for 30 years and no-one noticed says a lot about God and how He engages the human situation. The Incarnation thus shows us that God speaks from within a particular culture, in ways that people can grasp, understand, and respond. The Incarnation gives us the primary biblical model of engagement–this is how God does it and we who follow his Way should take a similar path. Incarnational mission requires that we contextualize the Gospel in ways that honor the particular cultural and existential situations of various peoples without compromising on the mission itself. If missional means going out (being sent) into the world, then incarnational means going deep down into a culture . . .

I think people misunderstand me when they think that incarnational mission does not mean that we evangelize people but just have to identify with, and love, them. That we simply go to them and be with them. This is clearly not the case as proclamation is a vital part of incarnational mission.

Reading between the lines, I think the last paragraph was in response to some criticisms that he had gone soft on ‘gospel proclamation’. I do not know him well enough to make that comment. But I must admit to a certain unease about his use of the ‘incarnation as model’ approach outlined, albeit briefly, above. I can agree that the church is sent. Anybody with a Bible that can read Matthew 28 knows this. I agree that we have to work hard to engage and identify with our surrounding culture(s), whilst not slipping into over contextualisation/accommodationalism. This is how Stetzer defines it:

Jesus sends the church into the world to do his will, just as the Father sent the Son into the world to do his will. The church is sent in a similar way Jesus was sent, though with a different mission. Jesus was sent by the Father (incarnated) to save a people for himself, and with them all of creation (Lk. 19:10; Col. 1:20). Jesus sends the church into the world in like manner (cultural immersion, relational identification, divine purpose/agenda) to make disciples of all nations. Jesus fully incarnated, taking on flesh in order to rescue the world from sin, death and hell. Following his example and command we, obviously to a lesser degree, “incarnate,” in order to make disciples as we make his excellencies known (Mt. 28:18–29; 1 Pet. 2:9).

My issue is that I am unsure we really are being sent ‘in the same way as Jesus’. Can we really be reducing the incarnation of Christ to the role of ‘a missionary model’? Did Jesus enter into this world in order to ‘go deep’ into our culture? Did he come to hang out with us to get to know us better? Because that’s not how I am reading the Bible. The Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost (Luke 19:10)—that’s what I’m reading. Wasn’t that his primary task? Did he need to engage in a bit of cultural homework whilst he was here to get the full picture and be able to bring the gospel home in a meaningful way? I am not so certain.

I think the problem comes down to how we use the word. I think Hirsch is (rightly) concerned to offer a contrast to attractional models of church. Instead of wanting people to enter into Christian community we should be going out and engaging in our communities. I am just hesitant to boil down the glory of the incarnation to a model to follow when the Bible gives me no encouragement to do so. In John Starke's post (The Gospel Coalition, above) he quotes Eckhard J. Schnabel:

For [the Gospel of ] 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.

In the incarnation Christ condescended to come to earth in order to identify with sinful humanity, live a sinless life in full obedience to the Father, die a cruel death, absorb the full wrath of God for his elect, rise again and ascend to the right hand of the Father. As Starke says,

The distance in which God condescends to us is not something we can emulate. Rather, as Don Carson has put it, we are all just beggars showing other beggars where bread is.

So, for me, there is the once for all, unrepeatable, ‘Divine incarnation’ and then there is ‘incarnational mission’. When I think of ‘incarnational mission’ I am thinking of how I can engage with the people of Niddrie and live among them in a distinctly Christian way. My reasoning behind this does not lie in Jesus’ divine incarnation but in the fact that I have been ‘sent’ into the world to be salt and light.

So, let me be clear. I believe in incarnational, missional ministry, but not out of a hermeneutical gymnastic approach to the Bible where I have to force an application out of a doctrine that I don’t believe expects me to. Jesus is not a model to follow in his divine incarnation but a God to worship.

Still chewing this one over.