June 12, 2009

Meaty Mission and Ministry

I was recently asked what I mean when I use the phrase “incarnational ministry.” Excellent question! Before I moved to Mthatha, I had heard that phrase a lot but never quite understood what it meant. Now it is the foundation of my ideas about mission.

Incarnate means to make flesh. (The -carn part of the word is from the Latin word for meat, hence the title of this post and the word carnival, to say goodbye to meat.) The Incarnation is when God became flesh and choose to live as a human. That’s why Jesus had the name Emmanuel - God is with us.

I consider my mission and ministry in Itipini to be incarnational because I have made a decision to share a particular existence with this group of people. As Jesus came from heaven to earth so I chose to come from North America to Mthatha and live in a place that was completely different to what I knew. (That’s about as far as the Jesus/Jesse analogy goes.)

Incarnational ministry also takes time. Jesus spent 30 years on earth before launching his public ministry. Maybe he was using that time to figure out how things worked and how best to calibrate his message. I’ve spent two years here and am still in the dark about so much.

Incarnational ministry is foundational to my thinking about mission because it is the necessary first step to everything that follows. You learn best about a place when you are incarnate there. You build relationships with people when you share a common existence. Such efforts towards reconciliation as you can manage are premised on this knowledge and these relationships. Nothing I have accomplished here could have happened if I had stayed in North America. That’s obvious, of course, but points to the importance of incarnational being and doing.

There are dangers, of course, not the least of which is that you is expose yourself to potential danger and harm. Choosing to be incarnate requires a certain willingness to take on a measure of vulnerability. Jesus did wind up on a cross after all, which definitely wouldn’t have happened if he had stayed in heaven. But if he had stayed in heaven, he also wouldn’t have been able to rise from the dead and rescue the world from sin and death. Life is full of trade-offs. If I had stayed in North America, I wouldn’t have ended up with countless gastrointestinal illnesses. But I also wouldn’t have had a transcendent and life-changing experience. On balance, I’d say I got the better half of the bargain.

Mission, as I’ve noted often, doesn’t just happen overseas. It happens wherever there are people yearning for right relationship with God and with each other. As we consider our mission opportunities, whether it is down the street or across the globe, the first question is the same: “how can we choose to be incarnate among these our brothers and sisters in Christ?” That is the foundation of rich and enriching mission.