OMF workers practise incarnational ministry in many ways, such as learning the languages of the people whom we are seeking to reach.
By Scott Hurd, National Director
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1: 14, NIV)
One of our values in OMF is expressed as, “We practise incarnational ministry.” But what does that actually mean?
The “Incarnation,” from a theological point of view, is the doctrine that the second person of the Trinity personally entered into creation in the person of Jesus Christ, who is completely both God and man. Apart from the theological definition, “incarnation” can mean the embodiment of a particular quality or idea.
In OMF, our understanding of incarnational ministry comes directly from our founder, James Hudson Taylor, who understood the necessity of healthy contextualization of the gospel message for it to be shared effectively with the unreached. Taylor’s well-known quote, “Let us in everything not sinful, become like the Chinese, that by all means we may save some,” expresses, in very tangible terms, Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23, which reads:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
On the surface, this may sound like the best way to reach people with the gospel might be to compromise the message as much as necessary for it to be easily palatable. Or, possibly, we could incorporate elements of the local culture directly into the gospel narrative to make it seem less foreign. Identifying and acknowledging aspects of the local culture that are well aligned with the gospel is a very helpful way to demonstrate that the message is both contemporary and relevant to our listeners. But altering the message or attempting to incorporate existing cultural elements in such a way as to compromise the integrity of the gospel is at odds with what both Paul and Taylor are advocating. The heart of what they are expressing is the need to demonstrate through word and action the wonderful truth that – although revolutionary and transformative – the gospel message is completely relevant for all peoples and cultures.
Christianity is not a “western religion” (as it is sometimes described), but rather is our individual and collective response to the wondrous reality that God has reached out to all nations and peoples in the person of Jesus Christ.
We practise incarnational ministry in OMF in many ways. One of the most significant of these is our requirement for missionary workers to learn the (sometimes many!) languages of the people whom we are seeking to reach. If people are truly to understand the personal relevance of God’s salvation message for them, the best way for them to be able to do so is to hear and receive that message in their own “heart language.”
Another profoundly important element of incarnational ministry is the practice of living, serving, and working closely alongside the people with whom we wish to share. This comes from the genuine desire to build authentic personal relationships with people, and these relationships are forged and refined through “doing life” together. Jesus met people right where they were – so much so, in fact, that the religious leaders of the day criticized him:
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9: 10-13, NIV).
The notion of “doing life together” means going where other people are and learning and embracing other, unfamiliar cultural practices very different from our own (provided doing so does not compromise our gospel witness) in order to build relationships with those we’re seeking to reach. Jesus made it clear that His focus was on reaching those who needed to hear of God’s love for them, not on those who had already heard and understood this message. This perspective directly influences OMF’s focus on (and value of) “Reaching the Unreached.”
In the mid-1990s, Beth and I decided to pursue a work assignment in Japan, in a time and place where there were almost no other foreigners around. That experience has deeply shaped our understanding (and that of our children) of what it means to live alongside, work among, and come to know and love others who think and see things very differently from us. Not everyone will have the opportunity to live, work or serve in a vastly different, cross-cultural setting. But understanding the nature and significance of the incarnation and the notion of incarnational ministry will help us all be much more effective in sharing the hope we have in Jesus with those around us, wherever that might be.
As Christians, we long for the time when multitudes from every nation, tribe, people and language stand before the throne giving praise and glory to God. The Great Commission calls each of us to share the good news of salvation we have received with everyone who will listen, and OMF has been called specifically to focus on the unreached among East Asia’s people. We do so willingly (in obedience to God), joyfully (in response to God’s gift of salvation to us), and incarnationally (as we seek to build relationships and share our message of hope with people around the world wherever they are).