I remember what I thought. I don’t remember if I said it to him out loud. In a way I hope I didn’t, because it was overly simplistic, but still I think it was on the right track. The problem, I thought then and still think now, is that this denomination’s leaders overseas understood that they were missionaries. Its pastors at home didn’t.
Christ’s Incarnational Model
It’s a fitting topic to reflect on at Christmastime, for Christ’s visit to this earth has been the model for missions ever since He left His home to visit a very needy, very sinful, very lost world. Theologians and missionaries speak of Christ’s incarnational model. The word “incarnation” means “coming in the flesh,” as Jesus did on that first Christmas.
Christ set aside His glory when he came to earth. He entered into human experience just as fully as He could without entering into our acts of unrighteousness. He became one of us, from the moment of His conception, through His physical helplessness in His mother’s womb and through infancy, through His experience of growing up in a family, and finally through His public ministry until He “became obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8).
While He was here He embraced and enjoyed all that was good in the culture in which he lived: its economic and agricultural activities, its language and laughter, its meals and celebrations. He was at home here, in a way -- but never entirely, for He knew His mission was to speak and to demonstrate good news, and to call us to repentance. Not all that was in the culture could be affirmed, and He had come to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
It was incumbent upon him in His mission always to know who He was, what the truth was, and in what ways the beliefs and customs of the day failed to reflect the truths of God.
He was and is, of course, the model missionary.
(I hope you won’t mind if I dwell on the topic of missions for a while. I haven’t forgotten this is a worldview column -- I’ll come around to that before I close, I promise.)
The Incarnational Model In Missions
Any missionary who would follow Christ’s model must understand the full depth and meaning of the Gospel first of all. Christ certainly knew His message! But no missions preparation would be adequate without intense work on cultural awareness. A missionary must understand that his home culture -- including his home church culture -- is not what the Gospel is about. That requires that he understand his own roots well enough to be able to discern between what’s essentially Christian in it, and what is merely cultural.
That’s the starting point, before leaving home. Once arriving on the field, the missionary has to take every aspect of the host culture into account. Many features of that culture will be morally neutral or even good. The most obvious, morally neutral point of adaptation is the host culture’s language. Beyond that there are aspects of culture the missionary will want to embrace and enter into: food, clothing, celebrations, symbols, art, and more -- just because those things are good in that place.
The missionary will have an urgent need to understand the language-behind-the-language, that is, the symbols and stories that move the people; for this is where missionaries often find a living connection between the truths of the Gospel and the assumptions of the culture.
Of course there will be points of culture to which the missionary must speak correction, as God provides opportunity. The famous pioneer missionary of the modern era, William Carey, led the movement in India to end the brutal practice of sati, wherein widows were expected to burn themselves alive on their late husbands’ funeral pyres.
All of this missionary work is but a reflection of what Jesus did through His incarnation. All of it is very familiar to missionaries. It is not so familiar to most Christians in the Western world.
(I still haven’t forgotten this is a worldview column. Bear with me, please; I’m still planning to get there.)
The Incarnational Model For You and Me
Christianity is expanding mightily in all of the world except the West. I believe the reason may be that we have not recognized who we are. We think we are members of our culture, and to a degree we are; but we are also missionaries to our cultures. It’s a truism, spoken often in missions sermons, but rarely understood for all that it entails: We are at-home missionaries. It’s not just that we need to share Christ with our co-workers, family members, and friends, however. It’s that we need to be fully intentional about following the model of Christ in His incarnation -- for the Christmas message is for us who stay home, too, isn’t it?
We need to think and live incarnationally, as missionaries think and live.
Now what does that mean in practical terms? I’m afraid it’s going to take some work, but then, Christ set the example. He came to serve (Mark 10:45). He came to suffer. He came to redeem. We are here to follow his example. He made us no promise that our work would be simple -- quite the opposite, in fact -- but only that in the end Christ must, and will, succeed.
To follow Christ’s incarnational model is to begin by understanding the Gospel richly, deeply, and truly, in all of its life and fullness, and to maintain a close connection with the Father while on mission to a lost world.
As with foreign missionaries, so also for us who would think like missionaries at home: Culture is crucial. The complicating factor in this is that we can’t take an objective outsider’s view of it. We’re in it. We are it. Therefore we won’t easily be able to discern what’s true or false in it; but with concerted, intentional, Scripturally informed and culturally aware study, we can figure it out.
In the process we’ll learn more effectively to speak the language-behind-the-language, so that we can communicate the truths of Christ in a way that really connects with those to whom we are speaking.
Christianity’s growth in our part of the world is stalled, truncated, even (in many places) on a reverse course. I am quite sure that this has a lot to do with our not taking a missionary’s approach to ministry. We’re not following Christ’s incarnational model; we’re not seeing our churches as mission stations and ourselves as missionary representatives as Christ. I believe that if we could turn that around, we could turn around our decline.
And that might be a good place to close this article, except that by now you must be wondering, “When is he ever going to get around to talking about worldview?”
The Incarnational Model and Worldview
Actually, I have been all along. When I spoke of understanding the Gospel richly, fully, deeply, I could have said it in terms of gaining a true Christian view of reality, a genuine Christian worldview, for there is no true Christian worldview without a deep understanding of the Gospel, and no true deep and broad understanding of the Gospel without a Christian worldview.
When I spoke of learning the culture of the population we’re seeking to reach -- our own family members, neighbors, and friends -- I could have spoken in terms of understanding their worldview: their values, their myths (yes, there are myths in Western culture!), their morality. I could have spoken in terms of finding aspects of their worldview to affirm, and understanding aspects to correct, as William Carey did in India.
Worldview is a recently arrived word in our language. It’s a good word that encapsulates all that I’ve been trying to say here and much more besides, but in some ways it’s a dispensable word. I’m told that some Christians are tired of the term, or have suspicions about it. That’s fine. We don’t all need to speak in the same terms.
We all do need to live according to Christ’s incarnational model. We need to understand the Gospel very, very deeply. We need to understand the ways in which our culture has influenced each of us for good or for ill, in our beliefs, customs, and habits. We need to understand the differences between our own view of the world and that of the people we seek to reach for Christ. We need to learn to translate the truths of the Gospel into our culture’s language, and its language-behind-the-language. If you ask me, that means we need to learn worldview, by whatever name we choose to call it.
Additional Resources on Missions and Culture:
“Cultural Differences and the Communication of the Gospel” by Paul Hiebert
“Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” by Charles H. Kraft
“The Role of Culture in Communication” by David J. Hesselgrave
Tom Gilson is a Campus Crusade for Christ/Cru writer and strategist currently on assignment to BreakPoint. He blogs at ThinkingChristian.net.