Incarnational ministry means suffering.* Jesus entered the world, and as it had been since the fall, it was a suffering world. One cannot describe discipleship, even as an activity that takes Jesus as its example, without giving primacy to His suffering. Nor can one underestimate the power of that suffering in making disciples, even of sinners like us!
That He left the wealth and supremacy of Heaven is intrinsic to His coming and voluntarily giving Himself. We go because He came. We leave the status and security of home.
He was obedient to the call of His Father to go to earth. Then, too, He was obedient to the Father, learning and pursuing an obedience that led to death.
1. What did He enter and what do we enter? It is a lot to go, but it is not enough. For many of us missionary-folk, we are significantly finished when we have arrived, set up shop and learned to survive with some level of self-sufficiency in a different place, a foreign place, another culture. It is commendable that we go, but making disciples is also significantly incarnational.
Incarnational includes being there, learning other ways, identifying the value in another culture (or at least, their “right-to-thrive”) or appreciating other-cultural practices, and changing in some or many ways to assimilate local practices. The point is not to correct host-culture practices nor to be able to “do” everything the way it is done there, but to understand enough so that you can be understood, and to respect enough with integrity so that you can be respected in return. Going as a learner and figuring things out is important.
2. Incarnation is slowly understanding why people do what they do. Most people do not, themselves, understand why they do what they do: “It’s commonsense,” they say. That commonsense, that cultural code is aDNA that is almost never unlocked, either by locals or by people (missionaries, immigrants, expats) who come to live “there.” There are ways to look into that cultural core, skills that can be developed that can help us see the invisible, that is, catch glimpses of what is normally invisible.
The problem is that “cultural core” is intrinsically invisible. However, even that invisibility is a good thing to know about and acknowledge as we enter someone else’s life and community; we slow down and test our conclusions as we engage others.
3. Jesus entered the brokenness. This does not mean he walked around on the trash heap, plucking near lifeless people from the rubbish. It is not the trash heap or the “common sense” of the people who survive there that He comprehended and lived with wisely. People say Jesus spoke powerfully, verbally, about the functions of earth, its socio-politico-economic systems, and the psycho-social make up of humans. But the power of His incarnation is that, as well as becoming human and entering human systems and knowledge frameworks, He became a co-sufferer.
The whole earth-system was suffering, and He did not merely observe that, use the information and survive—or merely make a contribution to alleviate some of the suffering. All this would be well and good. And we too, as we go (because He came) might be able to join in to cultures by being there, acquiring knowledge, joining practices, and finding ways to ease the pains of daily life (socio-politico-economic-psycho-etc). He became not only one who ALSO suffered, but one who suffered FOR. This is at the root of our gospel.
4. “Incarnational ministry” includes:
- be there
- acquire local knowledge
- participate rightly and sincerely in local practices
- gain some local, deep-core “commonsense”
- including, among doing many other things, weeping and rejoicing with others
- contribute wisely to ease the pains of daily life
- suffer yourself in the ways folks suffer in that place
- risk and suffer so that they can acquire “the gospel.”
5. Add the element that makes incarnational ministry “Jesus-enough”
- participate in the suffering of others at a core level
To do this requires great willingness to give up yourself, your day, your plan, your rights, your goods, your comforts, your self-identification as “I-am-not-them.” To participate in the suffering of others is to feel as if you yourself are suffering so that you weep and are disconcerted. It is not giving up hope, but it is discovering pain and weakness because there is little difference between others and yourself. Similarly, one can empathize with joy. But with suffering that is “core level,” a lot is set aside: Inconvenience seems more like necessity.
Jesus willingly and with joy obeyed His commission as the Son on earth. The identification, the chaos, the stress of the world-system, the shame intrinsic to humanity, to social interaction, to sin-limited communication—all these were His by voluntary association. He did not stand at a distance, at any distance. The entrance of death, for example of Lazarus’ death, was a holy disgust and affront, but He also wept and went to be with Mary and Martha. What death was to them (Have you personally experienced this?) its intrusion, uncontrollable theft and personal, temporal implications, it was to Him, more so. This was the brother they knew. He “discipled” them to His holy Father.
6. Jesus incarnational ministry, not for us only but also for the whole world
Our own raw sin, faultiness and dysfunction come to the surface in incarnational ministry. What? Not the missionaries? Yes, and we really will not need to get too close to those in the cultures in which we are “incarnated” for them to be able to see all the mess. We will be well-known as genuine participants in the fallen world, unless somehow, wrongly, we see our sinfulness as different from theirs. Will we also be known by them by our desperate dependence on Christ, boasting in Him?
We will not be able to say of ourselves, “I am the resurrection and the life.” But incarnational ministry means that we are positioned WITH those who are suffering (i.e., everyone), ultimately from their own rebellion against God, so that we can say: “Yes, WE understand. The invitation to God is for all of us. There is a Redeemer who lives, intercedes, and restores life. It is not impossible to live on Earth until we live in Heaven if we call on Him.”
7. The extent of Jesus and our incarnational ministries and their implications.
The extent of Jesus’ obedience in his incarnation shows us his mind. While we cannot imitate the extent of his incarnation and the extent of his obedience, we can “have this mind” (Phil. 2).
For Jesus, incarnational ministry to the full extent meant redemption by his blood for us and the world. For us, incarnational ministry in its fullest reaches, at its greatest costs to us will include death to our willful pride and selfish ambition, and counting others– their core “commonsense” understandings, experiences, and histories, their interests, their daily lives, families and relationships– as more significant than ourselves. And the outcome of “this mind” in us, which was in Christ, will mean life for many and many nations.
* A NOTE about JOY:
This article limits its view of incarnational ministry to an emphasis on suffering, in order to help readers count the cost, the demand, and see the power of their suffering and weakness, in the Spirit, in discipleship.
Where is joy, you might ask. Is the joy of the Lord not our strength? Do we not come with good news which leads to joy? Do we not also make some effort to enter into others’ joy, as, for example, Jesus did at the wedding feast of Cana? Of course. It is commonsense everywhere to rejoice with those who rejoice.
But while the Son of God became human, He did not purposefully come to enter our joy but to have us enter His, even as He entered his Father’s joy (Heb. 12:2). Yet, if He came into the world for the purpose of alleviating our suffering, why are we still called to suffer? The answer to this may be that our suffering does not take away the joy Jesus has brought us, anymore than Jesus’ suffering took away His joy. Ajith Fernando’ argues that joy and suffering can walk in tandem. For further insight see The Call To Joy and Pain (Crossway, 2007) where Fernando exegetes Colossians 1:24-29.
The world seems to be won to joy in Christ by human weakness,
which is greatly revealed in our suffering.