Evaluating Incarnational Ministry, Conclusion

In the past few posts, I have sought to lay out a sketch of what incarnational ministry is and have given some amount of critical evaluation to it. Incarnationalism has a misunderstanding of its key Scriptural texts, often reading into the text, or emphasizing things in the text, without a clear understanding of what the text actually teaches. Incarnationalism also overemphasizes the humanity of Jesus. The deity and humanity of Jesus cannot be pitted against eIncarnational_2ach other. Incarnationalism also de-prioritizes gospel proclamation. In its attempt to adjust to and adopt the prevailing culture of the day, and give undue weight to social concerns, it seeks to blend in without giving proper priority to the distinct nature of gospel proclamation. This brings me to the final two critiques, and then a conclusion about incarnational ministry.

Incarnational Ministry Has a Skewed View of Culture

The notion of culture is a vast subject to cover and worthy of much more ink than what is allowed here. Others have dedicated much time and effort to discuss this important topic. For many Christians, our (American) culture is viewed with a reserved cynicism. However, what is evident within the incarnationalist mindset is that there is very little if anything that is of great concern with regards to culture in today’s world.

Culture can be defined essentially as a way of life. Scripturally, perhaps the closest Greek term to the concept of our notion of culture is anastrophe,[1] along with its cognates.[2] A culture of a people involves their way of life. That way of life is based largely upon their religious viewpoint, be it atheistic, Christian, or other. The belief of a people group determines the behavior of a people group. Therefore, culture is not amoral, but has intrinsic meaning and significance.

The culture of any people group, therefore, must not be embraced uncritically, but rather analyzed carefully and Biblically. For the incarnational/missional/holistic minister, however, culture is not necessarily to be criticized, but accepted. Aniol writes, “Like transformationalists, missional authors recognize antithesis between the church and its surrounding culture, but also like transformationalists, their initial posture is one of acceptance, and even when certain aspects of culture are contrary to Scripture, their method is to adopt the form and renegotiate its meaning.”[3] He continues, “They see cultural forms in and of themselves as neutral – even good; it is only particular uses of those forms that distort them….”[4]

The problem here is that the incarnationalist mindset views culture as being neutral, when it is nothing of the sort. When Jesus ate with Pharisees and forgave prostitutes, He was not embracing their culture. When He entered into Jewish humanity, He did not embrace the culture of anti-Romanism; rather, He sought to transform people’s hearts with the truth of God, even in the midst of an oppressive government. Because culture is not neutral, a missionary cannot blindly embrace every aspect of the culture of a particular mission field, nor can a pastor on U.S. soil blindly embrace every aspect of culture in his community. Culture must be viewed critically.

Incarnational Ministry is Just Another Trend

Trends within Christianity come and go. I find it interesting that some of the great missionaries of the past such as the apostle Paul, Hudson Taylor or Jim Elliot did not speak of such things as incarnational ministry. They sought to utterly glorify God by living distinctly Christian lives and by proclaiming the gospel message to those who would hear it. While they did not shy away from serving the needs of people, their primary responsibility and focus was not on service, but on gospel proclamation.

The trendiness of incarnationalism will dissipate over time. While it is helpful to evaluate our philosophy and practice, we must not believe that “new” always equals “better.” This is not to say that something new is necessarily bad; it is to say that something new is not always for the good. Christianity is currently in a state of trendiness on many fronts, including the mission of the church. Being “incarnational” is just as trendy today as being “purpose-driven” or “seeker-sensitive” was in years gone by. Christianity has never been trendy, and therefore Christianity must be leery of various trends that seek to dominate Christianity.

Concluding Thoughts

In these posts, I have sought to describe and critique the incarnational model of ministry. Its trendiness leads to an understanding that in a future time, another subject will sweep through Christianity and become the latest rage. However, it is important to seek to understand it better in order to evaluate it from a Biblical and theological perspective. Incarnationalism does not stand up to solid theology (orthodoxy), nor does it lend itself to good Christian practice (orthopraxy). While I am thankful any time the gospel is preached by an incarnational minister, I do not believe that this philosophy of ministry holds up to the overall teaching of Scripture.

An article was written by two missionaries to Africa.[5] Joel James is the pastor of Grace Fellowship in Pretoria, South Africa. Brian Biedebach is the pastor of International Fellowship Bible Church in Lilongwe, Malawi. These two men write about what they believe are the ramifications of essentially an incarnational approach to ministry on the continent of Africa. They have been missionaries for twenty years and offer some interesting insights. They write,

Evangelical missions in Africa is changing. Or more accurately, it has changed. In the past, the bulk of the theologically conservative missionaries in Africa came to do church planting and leadership training. No longer. Today many of the new missionaries being sent are focused on social relief, with the church tacked on as a theological addendum. By all appearances there has been a mega-shift in evangelical missions away from church planting and leadership training toward social justice or social action.[6]

That statement brings to the forefront this shift that has and continues to take place within Christian missions and ministry in general. This shift is not good. They conclude their article by giving eight specific critiques of this kind of incarnational approach to missions.[7] Of particular interest, though, are their concluding thoughts. They write,

Secondarily, preachers who are committed to proclamation-focused missions need to speak out, offering the church something better than they’re getting from the social justice bloggers and the popular missional authors. It won’t be easy. Who wants to be (unfairly) branded as being against orphans or clean water? We don’t. But the price of silence is high: the church is poised to lose a generation of missionaries to secondary work such as building schools and digging wells. And if history has anything to say about the matter, we might lose the gospel too.[8]

What these men articulate is a real life case of what happens over time with this kind of faulty philosophical approach to Christian ministry. It clarifies for us that incarnationalism cannot hold its ground from a theological or Biblical perspective. Christ’s call for all Christians is to “go…and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). May we hold true to His call upon our lives as His disciples.

[1] The KJV translates this word as “conversation” while the ESV translates it mostly as “conduct.” The word means a way of life, or manner of living.

[2] Scott Aniol has written extensively regarding this subject in his doctoral dissertation entitled, The Mission of Worship: A Critique of and Response to the Philosophy of Culture, Contextualization, and Worship of the North American Missional Church Movement. In this dissertation, chapter 4 discusses “The Missional Philosophy of Culture and Contextualization” and traces the history of the word “culture” as well as its various uses today. Then in chapter 5, “Toward a New Testament Philosophy of Culture and Contextualization” he evaluates New Testament words closely linked to culture, concluding the anastrophe is what communicates the modern idea of culture most accurately.

[3] Scott Aniol, “The Mission of Worship: A Critique of and Response to the Philosophy of Culture, Contextualization, and Worship of the North American Missional Church Movement” (PhD dissertation, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2013), 116.

[4] Aniol, 117.

[5] Joel James and Brian Biedebach, “Regaining our Focus: A Response to the Social Action Trend in Evangelical Missions” in Master’s Seminary Journal, Volume 25, Number 1 (Spring 2014), 29-50.

[6] James and Biedebach, 29

[7] Ibid, 37-47. They list them as follows, 1) A Redefinition of the Gospel, 2) An Overly Realized Eschatology, 3) A Preference for Indirect Gospel Ministry over Direct Gospel Ministry, 4) The New Pragmatism, 5) Adopting the Agendas of Political Correctness, 6) Defective Hermeneutics, 7) A Misunderstanding of Jesus’ (sic) Ministry and Miracles, and 8) A Willful Blindness to How the Early Church Fulfilled Jesus’ (sic) Commission(s).

[8] Ibid, 49-50

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