The Forgotten Ways: Ch. 5

The Missional-Incarnational Impulse

The ideas that Hirsch presents in this chapter have been widely debated among those interested in the “missional” conversation.  Missional is a notoriously cliché as well as ambiguous word, and incarnational has seen its share of misuse and critique in recent years.  For my part, these words, properly defined, evoke some of the most important theological concepts the church can take from Scripture.  I like the way that Hirsch places them together, because the hyphen represents the theological coherence beween the two ideas, yet he must nuance them in order to clarify the difference that makes them less than synonymous. This exercise brings us one step further from ambiguity and misuse.

This is important not only for practical reasons related to movements, but because so much of the theology of mission and incarnation is focused and concentrated in this impulse.  The missional-incarnational impulse is, in effect, the practical outworking of the mission of God (the missio Dei) and the Incarnation.  It is thus rooted in the very way that God has redeemed the world, and in how God revealed himself to us. (128)

Essentially, this is the theological way of talking about contextualization.  As I’ve said before, the missional church movement is fundamentally about applying missiology to Western contexts.  While the failure to contextualize, says Hirsch, “is easier to spot in the middle of Africa, we do the same thing all across the now highly tribalized West” (137).  The theological pillars of missio Dei and incarnation impel us to do mission in a contextualized manner.

“God’s sending” climaxes in the Word dwelling among us, making the line between missio and incarnation very thin.  Yet, Hirsch makes a heuristically helpful distinction.  Missional he conceptualizes as the outward impulse that has in view the gospel’s impact upon the broader culture; incarnational is about identification, relationship, and availability that results in “a deeply personal feel” and “credibility” (137).  Thus, he characterizes the missional impulse as “outward seeding and spreading” and the incarnational impulse as “embedding and deepening.”  This corresponds roughly to the difference between contextualizing the message and contextualizing the church.  They are very tightly intertwined—inseparable, in fact—but they are different issues missiologically. Hirsch states it like this:

Whereas the missional impulse means that we will always take people groups seriously as distinct cultural systems, the incarnational impulse will require that we always take seriously the specific culture of a group of people—seriously enough to develop a community of faith that is both true to the gospel and relevant to the culture it is seeking to evangelize.  This is what is meant by contextualizing the gospel and the church. (140)

The major problem with the chapter is the one that usually arises when it comes to contextualization: accommodation.  Cultural identification and participation can lead to a failure to critique the culture as the gospel requires.  This tendency is visible in Hirsch’s proposal when it comes to criticizing non-missional-incarnational approaches.

When we frontload mission with a certain culturally bound model of the church, we cannot avoid simply imposing a prefabricated notion of church on a given community.  Subsequently, the church always remains somewhat alien within the broader community.  Far more powerful is the approach that indicates we must seek to develop genuine Jesus communities in the midst of a people, communities that seek to become an actual functioning part of the existing culture and life of that people group.  A genuinely missional form of church will seek to understand from the inside the issues that a people group faces: what excites them, what turns them off, what God means for them, and where they seek redemption.  It will seek to observe and understand the social rhythms as well as relational networks of the people group it is trying to reach.  It seeks to appreciate where and how they meet, what such gatherings look and feel like, and then it will try and articulate the gospel and the faith community into these groups in such a way as to be a genuine part of the culture, not something artificial and alien to it. (140)

I have no objection to the general sentiment.  But not allowing for the church to be even “somewhat alien” is problematic.  The Incarnation does lead to the cross, after all.  No amount of contextualization can obviate church’s status as “aliens and strangers” (1 Pet).  It is possible the Hirsch means nothing more than “artificial” when he says “alien,” as the last sentence quote above suggests.  Yet, what other word should we use to describe the mis-fit of kingdom communities in the midst of untransformed cultures.  It will not do to pit being a “functioning” and “genuine part of the culture” against being “resident aliens” in that culture (see Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens).

Part of the problem is that the missional-incarnational approach is defined reactively—by what it is not.  The “impulse” is not just to live out of the missio Dei and the Incarnation but also not to live out of the institutional, attractional Christendom approach to church.  Thus, Hirsch says:

Attractional church demands that in order to hear the gospel, people come to us, on our turf, and in our cultural zone.  In effect, they must become one of us if they want to follow Christ.  I can’t emphasize how deeply alienating this is for most non-Christian people who are generally happy to explore Jesus but don’t particularly want to be “churched” in the process. (142; emphasis added)

In our rush not to aliente, though, there arises the tendency to accommodate when we should not.  That said, I am for leaving behind the church’s cultural obtuseness and its tendency to alienate the culture for the wrong reasons.

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