Article 2020-06 Incarnational Ministry
Chapter 62: Incarnational Ministry
In a way we looked at ‘incarnational ministry’ before, when we looked at the ministries of Joseph and Daniel, but we do it once more, looking at Jesus, because of its importance. It is vital to ‘incarnate’ the gospel message in every culture. Every people-group must know that God speaks their language and we must help our disciples to express Christ in their own cultural context.
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death … For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way (Hebr. 2:14,15,17)
Never was there a better example of becoming a cross-cultural missionary, than when our Lord left Heaven and came to earth. He crossed the biggest barrier ever, leaving Heaven’s glory to come to our sinful, dark world. He left His power behind to become a powerless child. He grew up among the Jews, dressed, ate and worshiped like them: a Jew among Jews. He was not a foreigner among His target population.
The heavenly Missionary found it no waste of time to be silent for thirty years before He spoke publicly. By that time He had learned the language, the history, the culture and the ways of worship in Israel. He was acquainted with everything that concerned the Jews of His age. He was literally born into the society He was meant to minister to.
It cannot be different for us. If we want to reach people where they are, we have to become so much like them that they will no longer consider us as foreigners. We have to be ‘born into their culture’. When they perceive us as foreigners they will also perceive our message and our God as foreign. Kingdom ambassadors represent their King as their new culture’s fellow-citizens, not as foreigners. They speak in God’s name, which should not be done in a foreign language. What God is really God, when He cannot speak the language of the people He wants to share His message with?
Similarly, when a Christian becomes a missionary, he has to be born again a second time, in a cultural way. We need ‘born-again-born-again’ missionaries. Maybe we should rather call them ‘incarnated missionaries’ or ministers with an incarnational ministry!
When Christ assumed human flesh, He was incarnated. He was born, not only in human flesh, but also in a certain cultural context. When He was born He became a Jew, who grew up in first century Galilee. He became a Jew in every respect: in behavior, worship, profession and consumer of goods. Everyone around considered Him a Jew and not a foreigner, on the contrary. In everything He was like them, except that He never sinned in His life. Because He was so much like them, He could represent God the Father to them, without the latter being perceived as a foreigner. Had Jesus been regarded as foreign or strange, His message would have been viewed as foreign and strange too.
Similarly, we only gain a serious hearing when we take time to ‘become indigenous’ in the culture of the people we try to reach. Whoever tries to be missionary without knowing the language well and differs in cultural behavior, will be seen as a foreigner by the population he tries to preach the gospel to. Messages that are intended to change hearts and demand life-changing decisions should not be delivered by foreigners. People will only repent and turn from their sins once they feel safe to do so. The missionary can increase that safety by ‘becoming one of them’ – like Jesus did, in the most natural way.
Jesus and His apostles helped the Jews to become His followers within their own Jewish context. Therefore it is important that we help the converts we make, to become disciples of Christ within their own cultural context. That does not mean that pagan characteristics may be smuggled into or retained with their Christian way of expressing themselves. On the contrary, new Christians must learn how to apply biblical Christianity in a way that stands above local culture. They were 1st century Jewish believers, but subject to Christ’s teaching. We may be 21st century Asian believers – but still be subject to His teaching. The Bible’s teaching always has to stand above local culture, but will never impose 1st century Jewish/Christian – or any other – culture on contemporary local culture.
Discussion & dialogue
- Discuss how biblical Christianity can be expressed in your target-people group’s culture, without maintaining pagan elements that lead to syncretism
- Explain how themes 4 and 10 feature in this chapter in the life and ministry of Jesus