Dimensions of incarnational missiology

Some time ago I read the late Ross Langmead’s The Word Made Flesh. I really enjoyed reading it. Here is a summary of the three dimensions of incarnational missiology that he mentioned.

(1) Following Jesus. “This vision of incarnational mission emphasises costly discipleship which involves a whole-of-life response in Christopraxis. It pursues holistic mission . . . It sees mission as being patterned on the life and teaching of Jesus, including solidarity with the poor, a life of vulnerable love, and a socio-religious challenge to the status quo which is likely to lead to suffering (the way of the cross).”

(2) Participation in Christ. This emphasises the “continuing presence and initiative of the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit, without which discipleship is impossible. . . . If mission as following Jesus emphasises the cost, mission as participating in Christ (or conforming to Christ) emphasises grace. Eastern Orthodoxy expresses the transformation which occurs as Christians live in Christ in terms of being drawn into the likeness to God or deified (theosis).

(3) Joining God’s incarnating mission. This dimension, as Langmead understood it, sees “God continually reaching out to the universe and becoming embodied in many ways in it, particularly in the life of humanity . . . The incarnating dynamic of God, therefore, is seen to begin in creation. It is also seen definitively in God’s redemptive self-emptying in Jesus Christ. It moves toward eschatological consummation, when the creator will fully indwell creation. God’s mission of enfleshment, meanwhile, is revealed to be the basis for inculturation . . . In considering this emphasis we [note] . . . that it would be a narrow view of incarnation if it referred only to God’s ‘turn to the world’ and it neglected the challenge to culture represented in the cross and Jesus’ prophetic teaching. Overall, this third dimension provides the basic view of reality in which the incarnation is a natural expression of God’s outgoing and incarnating nature.”

Source: Ross Langmead, The Word Made Flesh: Towards an Incarnational Missiology (Lanham: University Press of America, 2002), 270–1.

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Incarnational faith and mission through multicultural exchange

I am reading an article written by Professor Douglas Sweeney at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, called “Modern Evangelicalism and global Christianity Identity,” in After Imperialism, edited by Richard R. Cook and David W. Pao (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 1–22.

I find something very interesting about the evangelical missionary movement and how some missionaries repudiated imperialistic methods. I am glad that Sweeney is happy to critique the mistakes of some evangelical missionary endeavours, and highlight the good work of people like Hudson Taylor. Here are two quotes.

Western culture often suffused their presentations of the faith. And Western military and economic force too often guaranteed that those they went to serve would bear the weight of all their baggage. As a host of history writers has made clear in recent years, modern evangelical missionaries have often been seen as agents of imperial expansion on the part of Western powers. And, as Brian Stanley has shown, this view has nowhere been more prevalent than in the land of China, where the Opium Wars were only the most egregious sign of aggression on the part of Western “Christians”. (page 14)

This is not the whole story, though, as Andrew Porter explains. Many missionaries repudiated imperialistic methods, as did many local Christians who contextualized their faith more fully than foreigners ever could. In China, a county that has a long history of Christianity and high-level Christian efforts to indigenize the faith, Hudson Taylor and his nineteenth-century China Inland Mission favoured “faith mission” strategies for raising their support, clearly distancing their ministries from Western money and might so they could embrace indigenous cultural forms authentically. (p. 15)

Two things are noteworthy here. Hudson Taylor and co-workers distanced themselves from Western money and might. In other words, their mission work depended on God, rather then the resources and power of the British Empire. Second, such practice enabled them to embrace indigenous cultural forms authentically. This is vital. Embracing indigenous cultural forms is very much a biblical missional practice. Sweeney’s remarks here are helpful.

Further, as Andrew Walls insists, Christianity has always been an incarnational faith, spread through limited, cultural forms: “no one ever meets universal Christianity in itself; we only ever meet Christianity in a local form, and that means a historically, culturally conditioned form.” Wall continues, “We need not fear this; when God became man, he became historically, culturally conditioned man, in a particular time and place. What he became, we need not fear to be.” (pp. 15–16)

Gambian church historian Lamin Sanneh has applied this incarnational theme insightfully in a spate of recent writings. As a convert from Islam, Sanneh is well positioned to see the beautiful cultural diversity intrinsic to Christianity and the cultural malleability of an incarnational faith… Christianity, then, “is not … a religion of cultural uniformity.” And its pluralism “is not just a matter of regrettable doctrinal splits and ecclesiastical fragmentation.” Rather, the Christian faith is meant to spread and grow through multicultural exchange, witness, dialogue, and partnership in ministry. The Christian church is built by God as faithful, humble witness put flesh on His grace, mercy and love—without exhibiting favoritism (Jas 2:1–13). (p. 16)

I really like this: “the Christian faith is meant to spread and grow through multicultural exchange, witness, dialogue, and partnership in ministry.”