In recent decades, scores of books, manuals, and websites advocating "incarnational ministry" have encouraged Christians to move beyond ministry at a distance and to "incarnate" and immerse themselves into local cultures. Some give a step-by-step "incarnation process" for Christians crossing cultures. Some call us to become incarnate by "being Jesus" to those around us. Indeed, many of these resources display valuable insights into relational and cross-cultural ministry. But there are serious problems at the core of most approaches to "incarnational ministry"—problems with biblical, theological, and practical implications.
I encountered these problems myself as a practitioner of "incarnational ministry." At a Christian college, I was told that just as God became flesh in a particular culture 2,000 years ago, my job was to become "incarnate" in another culture. Eight months later, equipped with training in cultural anthropology, I set about learning the language and culture in Uganda. But I quickly ran into doubts about the "incarnational" method. Would the Ugandans necessarily "see Jesus" as a result of my efforts at cultural identification? Was I assuming that my own presence—rather than that of Christ—was redemptive? Is the eternal Word's act of incarnation really an appropriate model for ministry?
My questions multiplied as I continued my theological education. Biblical scholars and theologians assured me that the Bible and orthodox Christian theology taught nothing about us "becoming incarnate." Going back to my professors of missiology and ministry, I heard a quite practical response: If not the Incarnation, what is the alternative model for culture-crossing ministries? Over the past decade, I have come ...1
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