by Ken Baker
The incarnational model is built upon three foundational assumptions.
I have always struggled with wealth. Raised in a home of very moderate income, I knew the chronic tension of “making ends meet.” Yet, I never really considered myself a “have not.” Though I had never seen abject poverty, I knew it did not mean me. Even so, I matured in an environment where I always considered “wealthy” as something I was not. Then I went to Africa…
Suddenly, I was one of the “haves,” and I did not like it. As a single newcomer to the inner city of Monrovia, Liberia, I descended into the trenches where every Western missionary to the Third World battles with identity and response. This is not to imply that I was on the top of the pile. There were numerous expatriates and Africans who were far wealthier than I, but it was the stark, inescapable contrast which wore on me day after day. Gradually, I attempted to negotiate a private truce, a coping policy, but it hardly seemed adequate; the guilt was constantly knocking.
Although at times familiarity seems to mute the emotional intensity, the daily ache of economic disparity continues in West Africa. For my family, this disparity is not theoretical. We live in a remote, bush region of subsistence farmers and nomads in eastern Niger. We are the lone Westerners in the area. It is one of the poorest, most precarious corners of the world. Church-planting here is a deep privilege, but we live the vast economic contrast every hour of the day. As ambassadors of the King, how then should we live? What should our lifestyle be? This dilemma impacts our choices in a myriad of ways, such as, how much should we help the local believers as they construct a new church building? Our tithe for 14 months could fund the entire project . . . should we? If not, how much should we give as participants in this community of believers?
The relative affluence of traditional missionaries and their methods is a reality. That is, the missionary may not be “wealthy” in his/her home culture, but, cross-culturally, the difference is more apparent. While there is a broad spectrum of practice in this regard, the Western missions movement displays considerable wealth in comparison to host cultures and churches. No doubt almost every Western missionary to the developing world can attest to the awkwardness money brings.
First, there is the discomfort missionaries feel when they face living in a vastly different economic climate. Secondly, there is the natural separation that Western lifestyle introduces to a Third World context. These are the varied, contrasting habits which are universal in Western living (personal vehicle, privacy, time scheduling, indoor bathrooms and kitchens, etc.). Thirdly, there is the perception of our affluence through the eyes of our cultural hosts in the Third World.
Living in the midst of these tensions we sense the need to do more than just cope. Instead, we want to live and give the whole gospel. For believers, there is always this deeper, personal level. The poor and destitute are not a nameless block of humanity. They are suffering, hurting persons, each living an individual drama. They need love, justice, compassion and Christ, individually. We recognize these realities, but the economic contrast still hammers away daily.
Likewise, the evolution of development in the world is increasing the awareness of disparity. The rising economic tide which makes parting with our material comforts ever more difficult also creates a more enticing climate of expectation within the developing world. These factors indicate that we cannot focus upon economics alone. Rather, we need to engage our character as disciples of Christ. Here is where the real rub comes. The material aspect is not easy, but it is not the hardest part.
In recent years various ideas have surfaced while addressing the dilemma of living an affluent lifestyle in the midst of poverty. One particular perspective has gained a wide hearing within the missions community, the “incarnational lifestyle.” This approach invokes the example of our Lord Jesus who “became poor” in order to become flesh in this world. Thus, this act of identification with the poor, by eliminating the distractions of affluence, creates a climate of acceptance of the gospel otherwise blocked by Western wealth.
The incarnational approach has made several contributions to the discussion of our response to world economic disparity and missions practice. First, it points to the impact our affluence has had upon the evangelistic outreach and the growth of the Church. For the most part, we have had our head in the sand when it comes to personal and organizational awareness of the situation. Secondly, the incarnational model emphasizes the importance of personal sacrifice. The Scriptures clearly demonstrate the cost involved in mission, but this discipline has not been the primary characteristic in the history of missions. Likewise, Christ’s incarnation is a powerful, but mostly ignored, motif in Christian living. Instead, we have grown accustomed to “sanctified materialism,” especially in evangelical America.
In my opinion, there are many Western missionaries who are increasingly disillusioned with the current climate of superficial, activity-oriented mission commitments. Too often it appears that mission organizations have succumbed to a marketplace mentality, focusing upon personal fulfillment as the driver in recruitment, training, deployment, ministry and evaluation. Even so, as much as I would like to embrace the incarna-tional perspective, I believe the categorical tone of particular writers on this subject loses many in the process.
The incarnational model is built upon three foundational assumptions: (1) Identification with the poor is possible; (2) The incarnational approach is the biblically intended model for mission; and (3) Relative affluence is always an “unbridgeable” gap.
IDENTIFICATION WITH THE POOR IS POSSIBLE
The dominating theme in this argument is the insistence upon the example of Christ’s incarnation. Presented in economic terms, this model holds that our message to the world should follow exactly the pattern of Jesus’ message, to incarnate ourselves among the poor. However, when it comes to the practical applications of incarnational theory in real life, the complicating details are often avoided. Take, for example, Jonathan Bonk’s criteria, delineated in a 1989 article for Missiology: “needs must not be defined by Western standards, but by local conditions. Real renunciation [of affluence]—not just the appearance of renunciation—must be practiced” (1989, 442).
This assertion is consistent with the writer’s interpretive approach, but has he fully considered the implications in real life, year after year? Perhaps, but Bonk appears to avoid the issue four years later when he says, “Little needs to be said here concerning family and personal obstacles to simpler missionary living” (Phillips and Coote 1993, 123). On the contrary, I immediately relate it to my wife, three children and the lifestyle choices we make each day. On the field it is not theory. Much needs to be said about health concerns, MK education, social differences, etc.
Are “needs” of the locals around me truly the standard of measurement? If so, where does it stop? As a husband and father in a very poor country, what does this mean for my family? What about a bed? a toilet? mosquito netting? diapers? extra clothes? books? toothpaste? The locals do not need these; so, in order to properly apply the incarnational principle, we must not use them.
THE INCARNATIONAL APPROACH IS THE BIBLICALLY INTENDED MODEL FOR MISSION
Central to this second assumption is the idea that missionary affluence is a personal distraction which once removed would allow the message of Christ to flow freely. According to Bonk, “He [the missionary] would not only seem to want to identify, he really would identify” (Phillips and Coote 1993). Thus, identification is the goal. If we identify with the poor, true identification with all that implies, then the message of Christ will be communicated. Furthermore, this assumption implies that the more “incarnate” (economically) the greater the spiritual power. Yet, the continual emphasis on measuring spirituality and obedience through economic criteria seems to avoid the holistic approach of Jesus’ teaching. Zaccheus did not become poor, but Jesus found great delight in his new faith and the generosity it produced (Blomberg 141).
In my opinion, we must be very careful not to assume Christ’s incarnational model is possible for us. The differences are legion. Jesus could do and say what he did because he really was a part of that culture. Our Lord’s incarnation was total. We cannot duplicate that, not even remotely. He was born into a culture which was his own. To me, it seems reckless to imply that we can replicate this ultimate act of “emptying ourselves.”
I know a missionary couple in West Africa who was approached by a delegation of village elders after they had lived there several months. The elders explained that the couple was the object of ridicule from other villages because the foreigners lived in a hut like the rest of the villagers. Rather than bring more shame on the village they were asked to please build a “city” house. This creates a dilemma for those seeking to follow the incarnational model. Do the missionaries assume they know better and ignore the request because they believe that someday the people will come to understand and appreciate their identification and believe in Christ? Presuming that “we know better,” and that what we think we are communicating is actually received as such, not only projects a false confidence, but it risks compromising any love we seek to communicate. This presumption pertains to living style, dress, behavior or any form of contextualization.
Here in eastern Niger any Westerner who would choose to live like the farmers or nomads would be seen as someone who loved money! Why? Because it is assumed that he is stashing his money “back home” rather than using it here. All denials would be taken as lies, because the people here know that Westerners have money or access to it. If one would choose to renounce Western citizenship and foreign support to live here, it would not be perceived as love, but as something to suspect. Perhaps the police in his home country were chasing him and he is hiding here! Again, what we think we are communicating is often not what the people among whom we minister are receiving.
RELATIVE AFFLUENCE IS ALWAYS AN "UNBRIDGEABLE GAP"
Jeff Hahn’s statement, “Choosing to live poor can never duplicate the psychosocial dynamics of unchosen poverty” exemplifies the vast difference between “voluntary poverty” and the real thing (Hahn 2001). Harriet Hill realized this illusion as she described the unrealistic aspirations of an incarnational model; in the end, aren’t we pretending to be something we are not (1990, 199)? The incarnational theory leads us to believe that our affluence is the only barrier to communicating the true Gospel, or at least the only barrier that matters. Yet removing the issue of wealth, assuming it is really possible, eliminates only one supposed barrier . . . Many others remain. What about education, culture, expectation, worldly exposure, health, worldview, etc.? These are all integral parts of who we are; we cannot excise them from our lives, yet they are representative of the gulf which separates regions and peoples.
While it is certainly true that God has a special compassion for poor people, nowhere does he honor poverty. There is no virtue in poverty, as an economic situation. All people have dignity and worth; rich or poor, all are created in the image of God. Poverty is a consequence of the Fall, as are selfishness and greed. Idolizing poverty is no different than idolizing wealth.
The “incarnational” model is an attempt to cultivate a particular and, perhaps, artificial social image. Furthermore, this approach implies that true relationship only develops where there is equality. In other words, for there to be “connectedness” between members of two cultures there must be economic parity. However, this fixation with material status overlooks an entire spectrum of realities which impact intercultural relationships.
Likewise, we must be very careful that the pursuit of an incarnational lifestyle does not become an idol. All of us have room to grow and adapt in the face of economic disparity, but it is unwise to make identification the goal. A decade ago a pioneering church-planting effort almost imploded because of the incarnational model. By pushing it so insistently, some on the team alienated the others, giving the impression that they were the elite in missionary efforts. Interestingly, no members of the “elite” group remain on the mission field. When we place too much emphasis on the method we bypass the crucial element, the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord is a master at using imperfect people.
As Western missionaries, affluence is an integral characteristic of our heritage. As much as we would like to deny this reality, its influence is unavoidable. Even Bonk would agree that affluence encompasses much more than economics. Often to our deep chagrin, affluence also represents a “First-Worldness” which we cannot fully shed. But, by God’s grace, we can transcend the baggage of wealth . . . and if we do, it is only by grace.
The core of the affluence issue pertains to the idolatry of individualism, believing we have the right to do/have what we want—the service of self. Francis Schaeffer was right, “personal peace and affluence” define our culture. Why? Because individualism is based on the first sin, independence (people craving to be independent from God, longing to be in control). This pursuit defines Western culture, the pervasive quest to manage our environment, control our world through technology, eliminate surprises and predict every eventuality. The Y2K scare was so menacing because it exposed our great fear that we really did not have everything under control. Of course, the irony shouts from every corner of the world. We obviously do not have control but, at least in the West, we surround ourselves with every convenience to help us deny this reality.
We Western missionaries are products of this perspective, though we tend to present a sanctified version. Even so, we still create islands of comfort and security where we can feel safe and make our cross-cultural lives more manageable, such as our transplanted Western homes and family/social life. In turn, we resist anything that threatens our controlled, managed existence, especially the uncertainty of cross-cultural relationships. Everyone brings to any given context a varied combination of numerous factors—age, sex, marital status, education, nationality, family heritage, gifting, experience, skills, church background (to name a few)—which influence one’s perspective and choices. But, in spite of this spectrum, we all face the need to move away from self and towards Christ.
As disciples, no matter what our setting or calling, we must constantly and deliberately move beyond the edge of our comfort zones by actively pursuing contexts (particularly relationships) which stretch us to respond in dependence upon God. It is at this point where we begin to rethink and reorient our lifestyle choices, because we are forced out of comfort, out of our independence and control.
As missionaries I believe that we can sometimes view our movement toward cross-cultural ministry as the ultimate jump over the comfort boundary; then, having made this leap, we are justified in recreating a new security zone. Our home constituencies see us as way over the edge; but, in reality, we know that we have only carved out a new hideaway. The Lord knows where we all are in the pilgrimage; but, if we are not continually and daily, moving to the “edge,” then we are stagnating.
Having identified our “baggage” we recognize our need for personal transformation in order to face the challenge of living in the midst of economic disparity. The incarnational model supposes that the biblical mandate for disciples is to comply with the challenge given to the “rich young ruler,” to divest of all possessions and follow Christ. This may well be the calling for a select few, but to make it universal is to go beyond the inference of Scripture. In my personal experience and exposure, I have found that only single Western missionaries are really capable of enduring a full “incarnational” motif, as often is the case with Peace Corps volunteers. Even for them, though, it is rarely to the degree that Bonk proposes, and only for the short term. For couples and families the model is essentially impossible for the long-term commitment. Instead, the New Testament directs us toward a relational lifestyle characterized by personal self-sacrifice.
As ambassadors of the King we are called to sacrifice ourselves through the role of a bondslave to Christ. Why then do we recoil from the costliness of that life (cf. 1 Thess. 2:8)? Giving of ourselves to people usually means committing our time when it is not convenient, sharing our material blessings, accepting lesser roles than our education and ambition could demand, considering other’s interests more important than our own, involving our families in people ministry, learning to communicate in another’s language and giving up personal agendas and careers for the sake of the King.
The parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrates this dynamic. In defining ministry to our “neighbor” Jesus described a man who gave self-sacrificially for a needy individual, one who was of another heritage and culture. He gave up his time, money, privacy, fear and plans in order to demonstrate loving compassion, particularly to someone with whom there was traditional animosity.
A genuine give-and-take relationship diffuses fear. The whole body of choices that we bring to a relationship builds toward or away from trust. The way we conduct every aspect of our lives, beginning with love and acceptance, defines our personal and ministry character, regardless of our economic environment.
Through this article I have sought to encourage a balanced perspective toward the challenge Western missionaries face living in the midst of poverty. Being more than just economics, our affluence creates many obstacles toward truly effective cross-cultural ministry. We cannot deny these realities, nor can we shed them. We have a choice: remain in our protective comfort zones or give ourselves to a renewed passion for people, rich or poor. I believe the way forward in the dilemma of relative affluence is through giving of ourselves in cross-cultural relationships. This does not solve the complexities, but it creates a living network of resources for navigating through them. Self-sacrifice for the King is not a strategy, rather, it is who we seek to become. By faith, we can transcend the bonds of affluence, not through pursuing a new model or approach, but by listening to the voice of our Shepherd.
A pastor friend once told of a life-long desire to visit Scotland, the land of his ancestors. Having read and imagined the Scottish countryside throughout his lifetime, he finally had the opportunity to make that journey. One day after driving back roads through the Scottish glens he stopped for some tea. Engaging a local man in conversation he expressed a disconcerting feeling, “Where are the shepherds and sheepdogs I’ve heard about?” Amused at the stereotype, the Scot said, “We don’t need shepherds; we have fences.” Let us take care that we do not abandon our Shepherd for fences.
Blomberg, Craig L. 1999. Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Bonk, Jonathan. 1985. “Affluence: The Achilles Heel of Mission,” EMQ 21 ( October): 382–390.
___. 1989. “Doing Mission out of Affluence: Reflections on Recruiting ‘End of Procession’ Churches (I Cor. 4: 1–13).” Missiology 17 (October): 427–452.
___. 1991. Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
___. 1993. “Mission and the Problem of Affluence.” Toward Twenty-First Century is Christian Mission. Edited by James M. Phillips and Robert T. Coote. Grand Rapids: Erdmans: 295–309.
Hahn, Jeff. 2001. Personal e-mail message. 2 January.
Hill, Harriet. 1990. “Incarnational Ministry: A Critical Examination.” EMQ 26 (April): 196–201.
Ken Baker and his wife have been church-planters in West Africa with SIM since 1981, serving in bush and urban contexts in Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire and Niger.
TOWARD COMMON SENSE MISSIOLOGY
A Response by Jonathan Bonk
I am grateful for the opportunity to read and respond to Ken Baker’s
search for balance on the complex issue of missions and affluence. His reflections on the challenges posed to relatively wealthy Christians who make their living by being religious in contexts of dire poverty and destitution echo my own. I heartily agree with what my brother has said, since I believe that he helps us move toward a missiology that is at once common sense and congruent with our Scriptures. Briefly:
1. Identification with the poor is always context-specific. It is not a theory. Like our Lord’s, our identification with others is simply active engagement as Christian neighbors and servants right where we live and minister.
2. We are in dire need of a theology of the righteous rich (Job 31:16-23), and for an ecclesiology of “we” that keeps uppermost the interdependence of the members of the Body, rather than the more prevalent “we-and-them” model that stresses independence, self-sufficiency and contractual partnerships.
3. The role of “righteous rich” as understood by the local community must inform the missionary’s behavior. How do the poor among whom one lives distinguish between the unrighteous and the righteous rich? Affluent missionaries will need to learn to fulfill the obligations associated with the righteous rich as understood by his poor neighbors and colleagues.
4. It is nevertheless also true that at times what the Bible calls us to be and do falls short of human expectations. Jesus is our example here. He refused to fulfill the false expectations associated in the Jewish mind with the role of messiah, instead choosing the way of weakness, vulnerability and the cross. We can only be grateful that he did not exercise his legitimate rights as he hung on the cross, and that he did not surrender to pressure to fulfill popular expectations of what a messiah should look like and how a messiah should behave.
5. Finally, Mr. Baker’s article points to the importance of practicing a missiology of the neighbor. This simply means deliberately allowing a poor person to use us to fulfill their personal dreams and meet their personal needs. Is it not remarkable that we know more about the interruptions in Jesus’ busy schedule than we know about anything else he said or did? Jesus, whose task it was to save the world, was constantly interrupted by a steady stream of persons whose agendas were intensely personal. He stopped what he was doing to pay attention to ordinary, very needy persons—blind, leprous, sick, accused, marginalized—taking their personal agendas seriously enough to interrupt what he was doing, to do what they wanted him to do. Missionaries today can do no less, even if the people who come to them simply want a better, more secure way of life with more hopeful opportunities for themselves and their children. If this is how God worked to save the world, it is still how he works through his servants to disciple the nations. The only a priori agenda to which a missionary is bound is to love God with all his/her heart, and his/her neighbor as himself.
Gratefully, Jonathan J. Bonk
Director Overseas Ministries
Study Center and Editor, International Bulletin of Missionary Research
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