Christian, think "incarnationally"
Two all-too-familiar dangers
We live in a confusing and broken world. And Christians often struggle to know how to best engage and reach their cultural context. We know we have to make disciples, preach the gospel, and reflect the grace and truth of Jesus in our world. But there are dangers.
Danger 1: We care so much about being relevant, the gospel is distorted.
Some Christians see the need to engage culture but care so much about being relevant and received, they sacrifice being faithful. This may look like a seeker-sensitive congregation that goes a little “too hard” with worship performance; or a believer that never talks about sin; or never using the bible in their outreach because people don’t like it. There are churches and Christians that want to engage their culture but they sacrifice too much in order to be relevant. Those who engage them often believe wrong things about the gospel because it is so distorted.
Danger 2: We care so little about being relevant, the gospel is hidden.
A Christian can become so “disconnected” from their culture, that people never actually hear or understand the gospel message. This might look like a church that is too committed to their own traditions, although they are confusing for their current context; or a Christian that uses big church-y words and never tries to understand the person they are talking to. There are churches and Christians that want to be biblically sound but refuse to consider how their tools and approaches could be more faithful. Because of this, those in their community never really understand the gospel (if they hear it at all).
The answer: adopting an incarnational vision
Making the gospel “at home” in your culture
Zane Pratt once described this as the process of “making the gospel and the church as much ‘at home’ as possible in a given cultural context.” It means you are trying to articulate and display the gospel as clearly and effectively as possible for those around you. This is simply what missionaries do. You get to know what your culture is like and then ask how you can speak the gospel clearly to the people you are trying to reach. It means seeing the beauty in allowing the gospel and the church to be expressed in ways that take into account the language, values, celebrations, rhythms, idols, pains, and passions of your culture.
Sacrificing comforts, but refusing to sacrifice faithfulness
To have an incarnational vision means that you must be willing to sacrifice anything secondary for the sake of having the gospel be clearly and winsomely picture and proclaimed in your world. This means that we need to be willing to be uncomfortable. We all have ways we worship, speak, and live that are comfortable for us. But are we willing to lay down our comforts for the sake of reaching others with the gospel?
With that said, we don’t want to fall into the danger of sacrificing too much. Many churches give up on teaching or practicing things the bible is clear on because they view everything through the lens of “being attractive” to the world around them. We cannot do this. In doing so, we make the gospel more hidden because, although people are more eager to hear our message, the message they will hear will not be accurate. Incarnational thinking guards us from both dangers because it looks to “incarnate the gospel” into our culture without sacrificing clarity or faithfulness.
Incarnational thinking guards us from both dangers because it looks to “incarnate the gospel” into our culture without sacrificing clarity or faithfulness.
Two case studies: Jesus and Paul
Jesus was incarnational in his ministry
Jesus is the ultimate example of this principle. Jesus was a missionary. And by humbling himself, taking on the likeness of humanity, and becoming a servant, he showed us the heart of God to make himself known and understood (Phil. 2). The mere act of becoming a man was an act of contextualization. But he did so in a way that never compromised his divinity, holiness, or effectiveness. Even further, Jesus became a 1st-century Jewish man. He wore the same clothes, spoke the same language, and interacted in relevant ways to the culture he incarnated into. Used illustrations they were familiar with. Jesus was thoroughly incarnational.
Paul was incarnational in his ministry
Paul was also a powerful example of this idea. He would “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:12). He acted like a Jew when around Jews, and like a Gentile around Gentiles (1 Cor. 9:19-23). In Acts 17, Paul preached two different ways to two different audiences. He would reason in the synagogues with Jews from the OT and he would reason in the marketplace with Pagans, illustrating truth from their idols and poets. Paul would contextualize his message and methods in light of his context. Paul was thoroughly incarnational.
What Tandoori Chicken can teach us
I love Indian food. I love the methods and flavors. When I was in Malaysia, I had the best Indian food of my life. One dish I particularly love is Tandoori Chicken, a dish of chicken marinated in yogurt and spices, then roasted in a clay oven. It cooks all day till the chicken is soft and tender (and bright red). However, it’s very spicy. I love spice but many Americans struggle with the heavy spice levels of Indian cuisine. One might argue that Tandoori Chicken is the best way to eat chicken but if a culture is not used to it, they will never be able to eat the chicken. In fact, many Indian restaurants in America lessen the spiciness to accommodate our sensitive palates.
I would argue that the gospel is like chicken. There are many ways to prepare chicken so that it is “more palatable” to a given cultural context. The goal is to provide chicken to our context and it is good to prepare it in a way that is most attractive and delicious to those we are trying to feed. One danger is to be so obsessed with a particular preparation of chicken that no one eats it. Another danger is to be so obsessed with attractiveness that we swap out chicken for beef because the culture doesn’t want chicken. Both are wrong and unfaithful. Incarnational thinking is saying, “It needs to be chicken but we can tweak the spices so that it is easier to eat.”
The gospel is like chicken. There are many ways to prepare chicken so that it is “more palatable” to a given cultural context. The goal is to provide chicken to our context and it is good to prepare it in a way that is most attractive and delicious to those we are trying to feed.
I believe this way of thinking can help you and your church be more faithful in your context. Clarity is what we want. And the gospel can be presented in a way that is clear for your people. But it may mean sacrificing our comforts and preferences. And that’s okay. As long as we don’t sacrifice what we shouldn’t sacrifice.