Archives For Missiology

Translational Living

Mark Beuving —  October 19, 2015 — Leave a comment

Theologians and missiologists often use an important but difficult-to-understand concept: “incarnational living.” Using terms like “incarnational” sometimes makes important concepts like these unnecessarily difficult, so I want to reframe this concept using terminology that will hopefully be a bit more familiar.

“Incarnational” refers to the “incarnation,” the act in which Jesus took on flesh. (You can think of carne asada, grilled meat, and make the connection that Jesus wrapped himself in meat—a gross visual, but pretty literal). With the birth of Jesus, God was becoming man, the Divine Being was embodying himself—taking the form of humanity—and thereby revealing himself to us in a new way. This is the significant even the author of Hebrews praises at the beginning of his letter:

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our father by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb. 1:1–2).

There is something unique about God speaking not in words, but in the human (and yet still divine) person of his Son! And in this miraculous event we have a powerful model of what it looks like to speak to our world about Jesus. So now, in an effort to make sense of what this would look like, let me switch from “incarnation” language to “translation” language. (And in doing so, I’m adapting some thoughts I gleaned from missiologist Andrew Walls.)

When Jesus lived amongst humanity, his very life was an act of translation. He was Immanuel, God with us, the very presence of God in human form. To look at Jesus is to realize, “This is what God is like.” We can use many words to convey what God would be like in human terms, or we can simply look at Jesus. Jesus was God’s greatest act of translation.

Hebrew BibleIn translating the Bible from the Hebrew and Greek in which it was originally written, translators have to ask which words in the new language (let’s just say English) fit with the words in the original language. And this is extremely difficult. For example, Greek has 3 words for “love,” and English has only one word to carry the meaning of all three words. Plus “love” in English is pretty slippery, covering everything from our “love” for breakfast food to our “love” for God. So translation carries all kinds of dangers and possibilities: We can express truth about God in new and exciting ways, but we also run the risk of mis-expressing something about God.

When God translated himself into human form (in Jesus), the translation was perfect. We look at Jesus and see God precisely as God would look were he to live as a human being in the first-century Greco/Roman/Jewish world (which is precisely what was happening).

So God translated himself in Jesus. But Christianity is a faith that requires constant translation. (This, by the way, is entirely unique. For Muslims, reading the Qur’an in a language other than Arabic is not truly reading the Qur’an. Sometime after Jesus, at least some branches of Judaism decided that a non-Hebrew Torah was not truly a Torah. But the Christian faith has had translation at its heart from the very beginning because the entire faith is grounded in God’s act of translation through Jesus.) That means that we must always be translating Jesus into our own context and for our own neighbors.

Suburban StreetYou and I are, in essence, walking translations of what God has done in Jesus. We stand in the midst of our neighborhoods and workplaces and friend-groups as an embodied statement: “This is what Jesus is like.” And just like translating the Bible, this is an extremely difficult task. It requires continuously deepening knowledge of who God is, thorough familiarity with our culture—including its interests, thought forms, and means of expression—and a commitment to “being Jesus” in a deep sense in every situation.

It has been said that you and I are likely the only Bible our neighbors will ever read. And that’s true, but not in a resigned, I-guess-that-will-have-to-do, sense. It’s actually true by God’s design that our neighbors will learn about him through the translation of our lives. You and I are acts of translation. We are God-made-flesh (not exactly like Jesus, but much like him) in the specific culture, setting, and relationships of our moment and our day.

The point is, be a good translation. Be a living, breathing example of what it looks like to be Jesus in your location in the 21st century. Call it incarnational living, call it translational living, call it whatever. God has something to say to the people he has placed around you, and he wants to say it through the details of your life.

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the seriesThe Post-Consumer Church

In many American churches, consumerism is being used as a vehicle for the gospel. With lessons gleaned from the entertainment industry and the world of marketing, these churches present the gospel using forms of communication familiar to every American. Many people hear the gospel through this type of church. It’s effective. But should they being doing this? And what do we mean when we say it’s effective?

[For any theology/missiology nerds reading this, what I’m seeking to address here is an issue that involves contextualization and syncretism. If you care to explore that connection, view this footnote: [1]]

So let’s consider the consumerist model of doing church. Consumerism is all about creating products that will appeal to consumers. In the church, this can look like anything from performance-oriented bands to entertaining sermons to polished programs. I can sense many of you preparing to throw stones at other churches at this point, so before you do that, consider: all of our churches do this to some extent. I have yet to encounter a church in North America that avoids all elements of the consumerist model. I want to be clear that the enemy is not entertainment, programs, or “being relevant.”

It’s easy to be superficial in our dismissal of consumerism in churches: “Their worship is so showing…they’re so ‘seeker sensitive’…people are only going to that church because the children’s ministry is a huge production…” But the problem is actually far deeper than all that.

It’s not wrong for people to be entertained. It’s not wrong for pastors to carefully craft their sermons so their congregation will be entertained so they will stay engaged so they will take another step on their spiritual journey. Skill, professionalism, excellence—these are not the problem.

The problem with consumerist models of doing church is the way this approach shapes us. And it does shape us—deeply.

Visit the mall regularly and you will be shaped. You won’t notice the shaping, of course. You think you’re going to the mall to complete your errands, or perhaps just to enjoy the atmosphere. But you’re being trained to view life in a certain way. You’re imbibing an embodied vision of “the good life.” You are “listening” to powerful “sermons” about the way your life could be if you’d only shop here, if you’d only adopt this lifestyle, if you’d just give this product a try.

Why are so many people going to quickly purchase the new iPhone 6s when it releases? (Or the Android equivalent.) No one is actually eager to buy it for the two or three things it can do slightly better than the previous version. People are going to quickly adopt the newest iPhone because the advertisers are masters at training our desires. They know how to bypass the head and go for the gut. The malls, the commercials, the coffee shops, the auto dealers, the layout of our cities—all of it pushes us towards a specific version of the good life: have this, live this way, and you’ll be happy.

Now mentally walk into an American suburban church. The service is carefully tailored to appeal to you. Programs are designed to meet your needs. You choose which church activities you want to sign up for. The church staff is the production company and you are the consumer.

“It’s different,” you might say. “I’m not being offered a ‘product,’ I’m being offered Jesus. I’m being drawn into worship.” Yes and yes. And this is why I’m not accusing the consumerist mentality of being evil. People do come to know Jesus through this approach—often!

am arguing, however, that this approach subtly shapes our view of the gospel, its purpose, and our role in the mission of God. For the first Christians, church was anything but consumeristic. They didn’t need to advertise programs to meet one another’s needs. Their lives were intertwined enough that they just knew where the needs were and did what they could to meet them.

When church is set up in such a way that every aspect of our spiritual life is presented like a sales pitch, wrapped in entertainment value, and tailored to catch our fancy, we’re bound to misunderstand the purpose of it all. We’re bound to miss the reality that we don’t go to church or volunteer at church, we are the church. When we embrace the consumerist mentality, we get the impression that all God expects of us is to sit in on services and attend programs.

But there’s more to the Christian life than this. And the tragedy of the consumerist model is that we’ll never allow our people to experience how much more there is until we stop marketing to them. The gospel calls us to self-denial, not savvy shopping. We have to find a way to view the people in our churches as members of a body rather than costumers, attendees, or even volunteers.

So instead of assuming that attracting large groups and gathering loads of signups for our programs is a neutral way of communicating the gospel, what if we all stopped to consider how our approach to “doing church” shapes the people we’re reaching out to? What if we asked if there is a better way to do what we’re doing, a way that will communicate the gospel effectively without unintentionally validating the consumeristic mentality of the shopping mall? The reality is that many of our churches are doing pretty well in this respect, but we could all afford to do better.

 


[1] In my missiology classes, we talk about principles of missions: how to best present the gospel in a certain culture. One important concept we discuss is “contextualization.” How do we take the cultural forms we encounter in a given society and accurately express the gospel in terms that are familiar and compelling to that group of people? For example, when you enter a Middle Eastern society, you’ll want to start by presenting the gospel in the local language. That much is easy. Other questions are more difficult: Should we refer to “God” (a generic English term for the Divine Being) as “Allah” (a generic Arabic term for the Divine Being)? Or does that go beyond contextualization and enter the realm of “syncretism,” which is missions-talk for mixing two religions together? The goal is to find the cultural forms that can best express the gospel and to avoid those that might distort the gospel. It’s not easy to do, but it’s an important concept. Missionaries and missiologists are careful to think through these questions as they bring the gospel to new cultures. Yet few in America have ever considered how the cultural forms they utilize affect the gospel message they are trying to communicate. Specific to this post, how can we contextualize the gospel in North American cultural forms while avoiding syncretistically distorting the gospel? My argument is basically that utilizing the consumeristic methods of the shopping mall have led us past contextualization and into syncretism.

Every person on the planet is longing for something. There are things they want, hope for, pursue, need. Across the board, every single person has a nagging sense that something is wrong with the world. They spend their lives searching for what they believe to be missing. This is true for individuals, and it is also true for the cultures and subcultures that those individuals inhabit.

The word gospel literally means “good news.” We proclaim the reality of what God accomplished in Jesus Christ when he sent him to this earth and culminated his plan of redemption. The gospel is good news in the fullest possible sense of that phrase. In the name of Jesus, healing comes to every part of this world that has been broken. The good news affects everything. Just as there is no portion of this world that has not been affected by sin, so there is no portion of this world for which the gospel is not good news.

So when we speak to a college student who is struggling to establish her identity, the gospel is good news. She feels displaced, like there is some kind of strange disconnect between herself and the people around her. The gospel reaches into her situation and proclaims that in Christ, relationships are healed. The sin that separates us from God and one another has been abolished. God’s Spirit claims us, recreates us, allows us to see who we truly are and who we are meant to become.

When we speak to an environmentalist who is disgusted by the way our corporate greed and poor stewardship are affecting our planet, the gospel is good news. The environmentalist longs to see human beings living in a harmonious, mutually beneficial relationship with the world around them. Typically, the environmentalist places his hope in social action and an over-exaltation of nature, but we get the privilege of proclaiming to him that the gospel is the good news he is looking for. God created man to have dominion (gracious stewardship) over the earth (Gen. 1:26). God even placed man in the garden with the responsibility of “working and keeping” it (Gen. 2:15). Man’s relationship to the planet has been scarred by sin, and the earth itself “groans” because is “in bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:19-23). The good news is that the gospel restores man’s relationship with God, with his fellow man, and with the creation. And ultimately, God will re-create the world to be all that it was originally intended to be—and more (see Rev. 21-22).

We could walk through the burning desire of every heart and every culture and trace the ways in which the gospel is good news. Ultimately, everyone is longing for the good news of the gospel, but most people are looking in all of the wrong places.

The gospel affirms the best of every culture and points us far beyond the good things we spend our lives pursuing. And as we realize that the good news if far greater than we imagined, we also find that what we had been pursing pales in comparison.

So let us be those who proclaim the good news in every respect. Let us spend our lives treasuring the gospel and seeking out all of the ways in which it is the good news that everyone is longing for.

But let me add a caution. Don’t imagine that everyone is on the right track and only needs a nudge to help them realize the fullness of the good news. Far from it. Because not only is the gospel good news for every culture, the gospel also subverts every culture. That will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

 

 

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