Saturday, July 28, 2012

Missions, the Missional, and Incarnational Ministry

J. Todd Billings provides some important corrections to the popular teaching of “incarnation ministry” – “Being Jesus to those around us.” Billings summarizes two different distortions associated with this teaching. According to the first distortion – Billings associates this one with the liberal church:

  • Jesus provided the model for how to immerse oneself in another culture, but the specific content of his life and teaching and his death and resurrection, were beside the point…The point is to identify with another culture rather than to testify to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus…The slogan in these circles is to “live the Good News rather than preach the Good News.  (Christianity Today, July/August 2012, 60)
Truly, many forget that “the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16) and not our example. Instead, it is Christ who saves through our believing a particular message. It is a message that works powerfully through the Spirit:

  • And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. (1 Thes. 2:13)
It is the Spirit through the Word of the Gospel that saves and not us:

  • For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God…And this is the word that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:23, 25)
Consequently, Paul committed his beloved Ephesian elders, not to a charismatic leader, but to the Word”

  • "Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:32)
Billings then sounds a second alarm regarding the incarnational ministry. He warns that this teaching places too much emphasis on us and not enough on Christ, the only true incarnation:

  • It is not our “incarnation,” then, but the Holy Spirit who makes Christ present in us and beyond us. The Spirit makes our witness effective. Yet because they take the Incarnation as their “model” of ministry, these evangelicals often assume that they – rather than the Holy Spirit – make Christ present in the world…The burden of incarnation – the revelation – is on the shoulders of the individuals. Such a theology often leads to burnout…We forget that we are not equipped to represent Christ to the world without being united, as a community, to Christ through the Spirit. (60)
Incarnational ministry places too much of a burden upon us to perform. Therefore, Billings opines that:

  • We are not sent into the world to perform another incarnation, but as disciples who bear witness to Christ and his reign by the Spirit. (61)
Therefore, missions is not about us; it’s about Christ and our testimony about Him. It’s not about our adequacy (2 Cor. 3:5) or perfected life, but about His. We will never have the perfect life, the irrefutable arguments or even an adequate love. Instead, we have this incredible treasure in our earthen corruptible lives (2 Cor. 4:7), through which our very obvious flaws call attention to the real power and love beyond us. Once we forget this, we will tend to place our focus upon self and not where it should be – on Him and our union with Him!

However, Billings associates this second flaw with the evangelical church – those who take the Bible seriously. Although placing too much upon our backs, instead of Christ’s, is a very common failing, I would think that it is even more common in the liberal church. This severely culturally-compromised church – it doesn’t rely fully on the Bible – is even more susceptible to the culture’s emphasis on believing in oneself and the “you-can-do-it” mentality. Therefore, it lacks the Biblical teaching and wisdom against self-trust and its bosom buddy – self-righteousness. Consequently, the bereft liberal church is left with little more than their own efforts to “do better; try harder.”

This is a very minor criticism in light of Billings’ fine and important correctives. After all, we are guilty as charged.



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