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From Missionary Incarnate to Incarnational Guest: A Critical Reflection on Incarnation as a Model for Missionary Presence

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Abstract

In the post-colonial era, the incarnation has become an important model for cross-cultural missionary presence. Though this model improves on Eurocentric and colonial models, it is deficient because it is unrealistic, potentially paternalistic, inappropriate in the light of globalization and post-modern understandings of culture, and because it doesn’t sufficiently respect the particularity of the incarnation of Christ. This article proposes an alternative model of the role of the cross-cultural missionary as a guest and argues that it is more appropriate on precisely these counts.
From Missionary Incarnate to
Incarnational Guest: A Critical Reflection
on Incarnation as a Model for Missionary
Presence
1
Berdine van den Toren-Lekkerkerker, Church Mission Society (UK) for Theological Education in Africa
and Asia
Dr Benno van den Toren, Professor of Intercultural Theology at the Protestant Theological University,
Groningen
[Published as: Berdine van den Toren-Lekkerkerker and Benno van den Toren. “From Missionary
Incarnate to Incarnational Guest: A Critical Reflection on Incarnation as a Model for Missionary
Presence.” Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies 32, no. 2 (2015): 81
96. Page numbers added in the text.]
Abstract
In the post-colonial era, the incarnation has become an important model for cross-cultural missionary
presence. Though this model improves on Eurocentric and colonial models, it is deficient because it is
unrealistic, potentially paternalistic, inappropriate in the light of globalization and post-modern
understandings of culture, and because it doesn’t sufficiently respect the particularity of the incarnation
of Christ. This article proposes an alternative model of the role of the cross-cultural missionary as a
guest and argues that it is more appropriate on precisely these counts.
Key words
Cross-cultural mission, culture, globalization, incarnation, incarnational mission
Introduction
‘Incarnational Ministry: A Critical Examination’ was the title of a 1990 article in the Evangelical Missions
Quarterly written by Harriet Hill. This article turned out to be a plea to mission educators to be more
realistic in their teaching about the role of missionaries. After her studies to become a missionary, Hill
was fully convinced that she needed to be incarnational to enter fully into and become one with the
host culture, a rural village in Ivory Coast, in order to follow Jesus and His call to mission. She writes:
1
An earlier version of this article was presented at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies on 4 June 2014. We are
grateful for the opportunity to test the value of our thesis for the different parts of the world represented in the
OCMS community.
But I failed miserably. Even after years of trying, vast differences remained. The model that
sounded so wonderful in my missions classes wasn’t working for me, but rather than question
the model, I assumed the problem was myself. I was doing something wrong, I was failing God,
and guilt overwhelmed me. (Hill, 1990: 196)
2
[p. 82] We resonate with this experience. In 1997, we left the Netherlands for what became eight years
of ministry in the Central African Republic. Similar to Harriet Hill, we went with the conviction that we
wanted to be one with the local community. Our living conditions made that much more feasible than
for Hill: we lived on a campus of a theological school in the same kind of home as a number of our
colleagues who had studied abroad and were relatively well off in their own context. And yet so often
we felt guilty for being different: for having access to medical care that was far beyond the reach of our
colleagues, for the protection of a European passport. And though we felt very welcome, we realized
that we were always considered foreigners. And in certain relationships we would also feel resentment
to us as Westerners, because of our association with the world from which we had come and to which
we still belonged. Today, we continue to meet people living and working across cultures, sharing their
lives in mission, highly motivated to serve, yet burdened with feelings of doubt and guilt because of the
distance they perceive between the high ideal of incarnational mission and the practice of their daily
life.
The term ‘incarnational mission’ continues to be a much used term in mission literature. Yet it is a term
that is often used without a clear definition or theological understanding. How does incarnational
mission relate to the uniqueness of the incarnation of Christ? What does it mean when Jesus sends his
disciples, as the Father sent him? What is the place and role of the Holy Spirit and of the community of
Jesus followers (the Christian community) in this?
Another set of questions also centres on the practice of cross cultural living in mission. Is the
incarnational model a pretentious model? Is it possible to identify completely with a host culture? How
does the host culture perceive this missionary effort? What happens when disaster strikes and
evacuation of the missionary is needed? (Hill, 2000). Is the incarnational model a mystifying model?
What about the cultural identity of the missionary should/can that be denied? What role should the
missionary identify with in a plurality of roles available in local communities in a globalized context?
Many other questions could be asked. In this article, we will primarily reflect on the incarnation as a
model for cross-cultural missionary presence. In the next section, we hope to bring some clarity to the
understanding of the use of the notion of ‘incarnational’ in relation to mission. In the subsequent
section, we want to analyse some of the practical and theological drawbacks of the incarnation as a
model for cross-cultural missionary presence. Finally, we propose the metaphor of the ‘guest’ as an
alternative image to clarify the role of the missionary: a guest is someone who is invited to a reciprocal
sharing of life with the host community in an attitude of humility, meeting each other deeply and
authentically in the presence of Christ, God incarnate, through the Holy Spirit.
2
The issues raised in this article are clearly important to the Evangelical Missions Quarterly readers, given the
number of passionate contributions to the debate. See further McElhannon (1991); Hill (1993); Baker (2002).
Defining Incarnational Mission
The complexity of the discussion of ‘incarnational mission’ partly comes from the fact that the meaning
of the expression is not always clearly defined. In this section, we will therefore clarify how the use of
the expression in this article relates to other uses.
The word ‘incarnation’ in relation to mission seems to be used with at least three different meanings in
different contexts. The title of the conference for world mission and evangelism of the World Council of
Churches (WCC) in 1989 was: ‘Your Will Be Done: Mission in Christ’s Way’. According to Darell Guder,
this theme was chosen against the background of a rising unease with the lack of attention given to
evangelism as the verbal proclamation of the gospel within the WCC. Mission in Christ’s way could bring
evangelism as verbal proclamation together with evangelism through social action (Guder, 1994; cf. Min,
2011). The Evangelical movement in the church also seem to use the term ‘incarnational’ to bring
together both evangelism as verbal proclamation and [p. 83] social action. But their primary concern
seems to be to underline the social implications of the Gospel and the Church’s call to social action.
3
For
both movements, the importance lies in the fact that we, because of our identity in Christ and our
identification with the other, cannot help but speak the Gospel and act against poverty, injustice or
oppression. The incarnation is seen here as a model for the church which is Christ’s ongoing incarnation
in the world.
In missiology, the notion of incarnation is also used to refer to the need or ideal that Christian
communities become ‘incarnate’ in their local contexts and live out the Gospel in culturally appropriate
and recognizable forms. We find this reflected in references to incarnational motives in ‘The Willowbank
Report’ on Gospel and Culture (Lausanne Movement, 1978: §6b). Here, the incarnation is seen as a
model for how the Gospel should be ‘“en-fleshed”, “embodied” in a people and its culture, [. . .] “a kind
of ongoing incarnation”’ (Bosch, 1991: 454, quoting P. Divarkar). This mirrors an important stream of
Roman Catholic missionary thinking at and beyond Vatican II (Langmead, 2004: 161190) which sees
‘the incarnation in terms of God assuming cultural existence’ (Langmead, 2004: 162).
In this article, we focus on a third use of the notion of incarnation in mission: incarnation as model for
the behaviour of the cross-cultural missionary. Christians are encouraged to enter into the unknown
host culture, to identify with the people in this culture as followers of Christ, who entered into our
humanity, emptied himself, and died on the cross. The ‘incarnational missionary’ is called ‘to following
the way of Jesus’ as he or she ‘moves across boundaries of geography, culture/language, social class, or
other such distinctions’ (Allison & Allison, 1993: 22). ‘As Jesus entered fully into our level of living and
working, we as missionaries are also to fully enter into and work at the level of others so they can relate
to us’ (Thomas, 2012: 46). The incarnational model for personal relationships means that ‘If Jesus did
indeed set the example, then it is clear that it was my [Sherwood Lingenfelter’s] example to work as
hard to become Yapese as he did to become Jew’ (Lingenfelter and Mayers, 1986: 24) Many would see
the life and ministry of Hudson Taylor as an important example (e.g. Thomas, 2012: 48). He lived in
3
The Cape Town Commitment (Lausanne Movement, 2011), written at the Third Lausanne Congress in Cape Town,
does not speak of incarnational mission as such, but uses the term ‘integral mission’, which is based on the ethical
implications of the life and love of Christ.
China for 51 years at the end of the 19th century and was known for his sensitivity to Chinese culture. He
chose to wear Chinese clothes and adapted his lifestyle in order to affirm local culture, even though this
was badly viewed by other British people living in China.
4
The Missionary Incarnate
So far we have seen that the use of the notion of ‘incarnational mission’ is very fluid and multi-layered.
We believe that the use of the model of the incarnation of Christ for the understanding of Christian
mission has profoundly enriched Christian mission. In this section, we want to argue that a
misappropriation of the metaphor for understanding the role of the missionary can lead to unwarranted
demands on the missionary. This is particularly unhelpful in a globalizing and multi-cultural world and
can easily hide a paternalistic attitude towards the community in which the missionary works.
The Incarnational Model is Unrealistic
In her article referred to earlier, Harriet Hill asked two crucial questions concerning this model as far as
the missionary is concerned. Is it realistic? And is it honest? (Hill, 1990: 198f). The ideal of incarnation in
the host-culture seems not to be realistic in the long run: maybe I can become a real part of a culture, a
community, a family for a shorter period of six months to two years in order to get to know a culture
profoundly. But it is not realistic for a ministry over a longer period. We cannot completely [p. 84] share
the lives of the people we are working with. And we do not want to completely share their lives. It is
therefore dishonest to suggest that we are completely part of their community. Let us illustrate this with
two examples which have created tensions in our own ministry. First there was the question of the
education of our three boys. We knew that their futures would not be in the Central African Republic,
but in the Netherlands or elsewhere. That is why we sent them to the Lycée Français in Bangui and to a
boarding school in neighbouring Cameroon. Yet, that made us different from the community and even
from our closest colleagues. These schools were far beyond the reach of our African colleagues.
Another issue is evacuation. In our years of ministry in Bangui, we have gone through several periods of
civil unrest, sometimes of heavy fighting in the part of the city where we lived. Sometimes we have just
stuck it out with the others, looking for shelter and praying and singing with our children till the next
round of fighting was over. But once Benno was evacuated by the French army and once we left on the
first plane after weeks of fighting and unrest. This was a very painful experience, not just because of the
physical threats, but more so because it proved to be the end of all ideals of being just like our
colleagues, of being one with the people we were serving.
Even in our ministry itself, we often used resources that were much less accessible to our colleagues: as
teachers, we used our furloughs to read up on recent academic publications and had an extensive study-
leave that our colleagues at the school in which we worked could not have afforded. But that study year
allowed us to support the development of the new doctoral program.
4
These three uses of the notion of ‘incarnational mission’ or ‘incarnational ministry are the most important ones,
but the list is not exhaustive. PJ Flamming, for example, understands ‘Incarnational Leadership for Ministry’, as
following Jesus’ strategy and methods (Flamming, 1995).
We also shouldn’t underestimate how hard it is to relate and communicate according to local cultural
expectations. Communicating is not just about mastering a local language, but it demands mastering the
nuances of how needs, commitments and attitudes are expressed in both verbal and non-verbal
communication. The local people may tacitly know these things without being able to express them for
themselves, let alone teach them to others. After returning from Africa, we lived for over eight years in
Oxford, England, culturally much closer to us than Central Africa. Yet, we are far from mastering the
nuances of local English communication. We often do not get the unspoken messages, either critical or
affirmative that the Oxonians so craftily hide in their formal and understated conversations. We need
our non-English accents to remind people that we are not one of them. We need this, because,
otherwise, people would constantly presume that we have understood what was only implicitly
communicated. We need this so that they know that when we do not master the nuances of polite
exchange, this is not because we are rude and offensive (cf. Loewen, 1976: 240f).
The critical questions mentioned so far may of course mean that we are just not dedicated enough, not
radical enough in our love and identification, not patient enough in our efforts to adapt to the local
culture, and that both contemporary missionaries and contemporary mission agencies have become too
willing to embrace the luxuries and the safety of the modern Western world to be effective and true
ministers of Jesus in a foreign place (cf. Thomas, 2012). There may be a lot of truth in the statement that
missionaries and mission agencies often embody too much the values and culture of their home
country, and that this limits the fruitfulness of their ministry and the depth of their engagement with
local communities. We do not, however, think that the answer should only be to develop more fully,
radically and truly incarnational missionary ministries. The fact is that the limitations of this
incarnational model do not only come from the missionaries, their families and their agencies, but also
from the expectations of the host-culture.
The Incarnational Model is Inappropriate in a Globalizing World
The basic idea of the ‘missionary incarnate’ is that the missionary becomes as much as possible part of a
local culture. This ideal presupposes that the host culture is a relatively isolated and a relatively
homogeneous reality. That is why the incarnational model is most attractive in contexts such [p. 85] as
the remote and rural parts of China where Hudson Taylor worked, or the isolated Micronesian Island of
Yap in the late 1960s that formed the training ground for the Lingenfelters. Both of these
presuppositions are increasingly questionable, firstly because of the processes associated with
globalization, and secondly because of newer insights into the nature of culture associated with
postmodernism that stress the dynamic and fluid nature of cultures with their tensions and rivalries.
Let’s begin with globalization.
[The term g]lobalisation refers to increasing global interconnectedness, so that events and
developments in one part of the world are affected by, have to take account of, and also
influence in turn other parts of the world. It refers to an increasing sense of a single global whole.
(Tiplady, 2003: 2)
An important consequence of globalization is that many communities are going through a period of
cultural change, most often more rapidly than ever before in their history. They are confronted with
new forms of education, with Western media, with the economic and political opportunities and
pressures of a globalized world. Profound tensions are developed between traditional cultural views and
values and new ones that are brought in from the other parts of the world. In Bangui, you can for
example chose between traditional medicine, Western medicine, the Muslim marabout, the Christian
prayer healer and Chinese acupuncture, all with their own understandings of illness and health. You can
hope for a future such as the materialist West presents, or you may be offered a scholarship from an
Islamic university in Cairo in Egypt. You can choose a career in the Church or you can continue to long
for the good traditions of Africa’s past. With very few exceptions, contemporary missionaries work in
such situations of rapid cultural change, of cultural conflict and often of cultural crisis, fuelled by global
developments and flows of information.
These issues have consequences for the ability of missionaries to enter incarnationally into the culture
of the host-community. They do not enter a homogenous culture in which they can only fit if they
become part of that community. They have to choose among a number of different cultural strands;
they cannot equally identify with all of them. Furthermore, they enter into a community that is probably
linked to the wider world of which their own culture forms a part. The host community does not receive
the missionary as if coming from a neutral foreign culture. The missionary represents a particular culture
and often a culture with which the host culture has had many experiences, sometimes good, often bad.
This was already sharply expressed in the 1950s by David McDonald Paton, an Englishman who had
worked as a missionary in China:
In a country revolutionised by the invasion of the Western world [China] a Christian missionary
who comes from the western world, be he [sic] as harmless as a dove, as unpolitical as Jane
Austen, is by himself by his very existence a political fact. (Paton, 1953: 66)
And in our globalizing world of the early twenty-first century, missionary presence is itself also an
expression of the globalizing forces that fuel cultural encounter, cultural exchange and cultural clashes.
The Incarnational Model Presupposes a ‘Modern’ Concept of Culture
As already hinted at, the incarnational model of missionary presence presupposes an understanding of
culture in which ‘unity and harmony are key assumptions’.
5
Many training manuals, as for example the
books of the missionary anthropologist Charles H Kraft, presuppose such a view of cultures as fairly
closed, homogeneous and stable entities.
6
This presupposition is not only less [p. 86] adequate in view
of the experience of most contemporary missionaries (as indicated in the last section); this
understanding of culture has also been increasingly questioned by cultural anthropologists. Postmodern
sensitivities for conflict, tension and fragmentation have contributed to this change and to the discovery
that all cultures go through changes and incorporate different views and different interests that are in
tension and in continual dialogue. In many respects, cultures are not only characterized by foundational
agreements, but equally by continuing disagreements and by continuing tensions and a continuing
5
This is Gerald Arbuckle’s characterization of modern concepts of culture (Arbuckle, 2010: 2).
6
Kraft does refer to cultural change (Kraft, 1996: 12f; 360ff), but this comes more as an afterthought, without
changing the central line of thought.
dialogue. Cultures must constantly adapt to new situations and are therefore always developing. These
developments are mostly slow and often unperceived, but can sometimes speed up and even lead to
crisis (Tanner, 1997: 3856). Such tensions characterize every culture, even the most remote group deep
in the Amazon rainforest and even the most stable culture that hasn’t seen major change over many
generations. In our globalizing world, we need these notions of cultural change, tension and conflict
even more to enable us to understand the processes of cultural interaction, tension and change in the
cultural communities and people we are serving (cf. Schreiter, 1997: 12).
Host communities do not expect missionaries to completely identify with the local culture, because in a
globalizing world they are seen as representatives of a foreign culture, a culture that is either resented
or envied and possibly both at the same time. Given the flux, tensions and interactions of cultures and
communities, it is also no longer clear with which culture the missionaries should identify. Older studies
of inculturation and incarnation often want to relate the Gospel to the cultures of the past, the
traditional life of the tribes that are described in older anthropological studies. This world is not entirely
past, because it profoundly influences the present. But the African traditions are now interacting at the
same time with Christianity, modernity, post-modernity and Islam. These communities are deeply
divided over the way they should relate to influences from other cultures; new changes are confronting
them when they are not even adjusted to earlier changes. Many are in fact simultaneously participating
in and negotiating between different and competing cultural frameworks. The contextualization and
incarnation of the Gospel should not happen in relation to a traditional culture gone by, but in relation
to this dynamic cultural mix of the present (cf. Messi Metogo, 1997: 179194; Schreiter, 1997). Even in
the more remote and traditional cultures, missionaries become themselves actors or catalysts of
change.
Incarnational Mission Can Be Paternalistic
It is important to note that the incarnational model of missionary service is developed out of a deep
respect for local cultures, a belief that the Gospel can take root in every culture and a desire to serve
and identify with the local community. In this respect the incarnational model of mission is a huge step
forward compared to the Eurocentric shape of mission of earlier generations that saw the spread of
‘Christianity, civilisation and commerce’ (Livingstone) as one single package. Yet, it is also important to
develop a sensitivity for the inherent paternalism that can hide behind the respectable face of
incarnational ministry. That is in fact hard to avoid with this model of missionary service.
In this model, the cultural encounter is, after all, controlled by the missionary. The missionary engages
with a receptor culture but does not allow the receptor community a similar insight in his or her own
culture. Missionaries might even consider modernity so dangerous that they want to protect the
receiving culture from having to engage with it. The missionary is allowed to form both an appreciative
and critical view of the local culture but does not necessarily entrust and empower the receptor
community with the possibility and tools to appreciate what the modern West has to offer. In this
respect, incarnational ministry does in fact represent the older model of ‘accommodation’ of the Gospel,
rather than the more recent model of ‘contextualization’ or ‘inculturation’. These terms can of course be
defined in different ways, but David Bosch points to a very important [p. 87] contrast in approach to the
receptor culture when he notes that the missionary is the subject of the accommodation process: the
missionaries see themselves as capable of working out what the Gospel means in a given context and
work that out for the community; in other words, they translate the Gospel for them. In the
contextualization model it is the receiving community itself that is considered to be the subject of
contextualization. Only they have sufficient understanding of their culture to allow them to understand
how the Gospel can be properly contextualized (Bosch, 1991: 449). The missionary can only be a
dialogue partner, a critical friend, a guest, who encourages and critically accompanies the community in
this process (Bosch, 1991: 453; Schreiter, 1985: 18). With respect to this contrast between
‘accommodation’ and ‘contextualization’, the incarnational model for missionary ministry falls on the
side of accommodation: it is the missionary who does the accommodating of the Gospel for the local
community. This approach both overestimates the missionary and underestimates the local community.
At the level of human relationships, the incarnational model also can be problematic. When the
missionary seeks to identify fully with the host community, she runs the risk of inauthenticity, or, as
Loewen calls it, playing a personality (Loewen, 1975: 416417). In her host community she may share in
the joys and sorrows, the worries and opportunities. Yet, since the people in this host community do not
know her home community, she may be unable to share her own, personal joys and worries. The fact
that the missionary most likely has had a formal academic education also can set her apart from the
people in her host community, since she will have learned to reflect on situations in an analytically and
academically informed Western linear argument style. These reflections may not be easily shared or
understood. Part of the missionary’s life cannot be shared with the host community. From an
incarnational perspective, this creates an unequal relationship, where the missionary is again in the seat
of power.
7
At the same time, when a missionary leaves his home community for a life in cross-cultural mission, s/he
does leave much behind: family, home, being known and a natural sense of belonging. These are
important parts of the human experience. By entering into a host community, the missionary may find
new relationships, a new home and new belonging. Yet, in the original home community, people will not
be able to see these new relationships and belongings; they will primarily see the things the missionary
has left behind. This results in a language of sacrifice, and many missionaries are seen as ‘sacrificing
saints’ (Loewen, 1975: 405). One can only wonder what such language means for the self-understanding
of the host community of this ‘sacrificing saint’. Sadly, a missionary’s identity is easily built at the cost of
the host community’s dignity.
The Incarnational Model Risks Diminishing the Uniqueness of the Incarnation
of Jesus Christ
Is it possible for people in mission to truly incarnate into the culture and community of the other as
Christ became incarnate in Jewish culture in first-century Palestine? Is not Christ’s incarnation unique?
Christ entered into humanity and became one of us in order to share in our lives and to save us from sin,
shame and death. He became fully human, but also remained fully God. That is why he could bring
7
We have written this article out of our experience as Western people in mission service. The issues relating to
power dynamics may be less strongly felt by missionaries from the Global South to the West, but many of the
other aspects of the analysis may still apply.
salvation. Garrard writes that the incarnation of Christ is ‘soteriological, unique and unrepeatable’
(Garrard, 2006: 103f).
8
This unique character of the incarnation of Christ then raises on the one hand the question if we are not
diminishing the work of Christ by talking about the incarnational character of our missionary life. Are we
not underestimating the sheer magnitude of Christ’s saving death and resurrection when we as human
and fallible beings identify with his incarnation? How can we ever ‘be Christ’ to others in such a saving
and redeeming way?
[p. 88] On the other hand, we run the risk of diminishing the totality of the incarnation of Christ, both in
his total immersion in the human condition as well as in his godly wisdom and power through which he
gave people sight, healing, freedom and finally eternal life. Christ the man fully identified with human
life in joy and suffering. Christ the Son of God brought into this human life his gift of healing and
wisdom. It was exactly because he became authentically human that he could share in our lives. Yet, it
was because he remained authentically God that he could save. Todd Billings writes that Jesus did not
only suffer with humanity, He also suffered for humanity (Billings, 2004: 191).
‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’ (John 20:21) is much quoted in the literature around the
incarnational role of the missionary (Whiteman, 2003: 409). Jesus is the sender and becomes ‘the
example’. Paul’s Christological hymn in Philippians 2 is also much used (Allison and Allison 1993: 24;
Lingenfelter and Mayers, 1986: 17). The disciples/apostles (plural!) are called to follow Christ, to live as
He lived, to serve as He served. As Jesus entered fully into human society, emptied himself, accepted
suffering and even death, so are the Christians, the people in mission, called to enter into the
community and lives of their hosts.
Abandoning the incarnational model for missionary presence may not be an option. In mission history
and current praxis, there are too many instances of inappropriate relationships, where inequality in
power and resources and cultural barriers are taken for granted. A possible way for a continuing
understanding of the missionary role as incarnational is by realizing that we use the incarnational
language as a metaphor when applied in mission. In a metaphor, one speaks of one thing, yet applying it
to another thing. A metaphor takes the model very seriously, but not literally. The metaphor therefore
can be more or less appropriate and certain elements inherent in the metaphor can be applied to what
is suggested more or less appropriately (Langmead, 2004: 36). Therefore when we speak of the
incarnation as a metaphor for the missionary role, we are not speaking of a missionary incarnate, but of
a missionary who seeks to shape his or her life by the values of the incarnation, and is motivated by the
reality and example of Christ incarnate. The precise role of the missionary in relation to the host-culture
is, however, better expressed as the role of a guest.
8
This article is followed in the same journal by an article by Andy Lord, in which he questions Garrard’s assumption
that the incarnation is limited to its soteriological value. Lord stresses that Jesus’ incarnation is a sign of God’s
relationship with the whole of creation and Jesus’ incarnation is an expression of this ongoing relationship (Lord,
2006).
The Missionary as Guest
The incarnational model is not the only model available for cross-cultural missionary presence and
engagement. In recent years, biblical scholars (Skreslet, 2006), anthropologists (Loewen, 1968, 1975,
1976; Loewen and Loewen, 1967) and missiologists (Bevans, 1991; George, 2002) have proposed a great
variety of metaphors and models. These models have various functions. Some concentrate mainly on
the way the Christian message is shared and how one learns from the other (prophet, teacher [Bevans,
1991], participant-observer, learner [George, 2002]), others on the roles that are available in the
receptor culture that the missionary can inhabit (friendly alien, merchant, foreign aid worker [Loewen,
1976: 228, 232233]), patron [Kay, 2006: 131f; Loewen, 1976]). These models are therefore not all
mutually exclusive and may make different, sometimes contrasting, sometimes complementary
contributions to the understanding of cross-cultural mission.
In this article, we want to explore the model of the ‘missionary as guest’, which has been mentioned by
Bevans (1991: 50f), but has not been explored in great depth. We propose this model because we focus
on a limited question: how do we understand the relationship between the cross-cultural missionary
and the host-community and culture in which s/he works? The model further has the strength of strong
biblical precedent and is may be universally recognized in a great variety of cultures. The host-guest
relationship will be experienced and lived out differently in diverse cultures. Two traits of the guest-
metaphor are central to the following argument: mutual respect [p. 89] and the dependence of the
guest. Our discussions of this theme with representatives from different backgrounds suggest that these
two fundamental traits are recognized in a great variety of cultures and make sense in a wide range of
missionary situations. Personally, the model had a great plausibility in our own missionary experience as
we reflected on our relationship with the local community.
This model does justice to the fact that most missionaries today work with local Christian communities
that receive them as guests and co-workers from overseas sister communities. In many other situations,
where missionaries work by themselves, a case could be made for the importance of investing more
time in building relationships with existing local Christian communities. We will in this article therefore
concentrate on the work of cross-cultural missionaries working with local churches in a joint outreach to
the community. Much of what will be said, is, however, also applicable to missionaries who work as
guest-workers among non-Christian communities.
Biblical Precedents and Theological Value
Jesus himself accepted the hospitality of many of his friends and supporters, such as Peter and his
mother-in-law (Mark 1:29) and Martha, Mary and Lazarus (Luke 10:38). His living conditions in
Capernaum are uncertain, but on his missionary journeys he depended on the hospitality of people who
would welcome him into their homes (or boats) so that he would have a base from which to work and a
place to minister and preach. Interestingly, the role of a guest allowed him to engage and be part of a
much wider range of communities than if he would simply be, as the Son of God, living as a carpenter’s
son in Nazareth. Communities are localized, and intense community can only be built with a limited
number of people, often within a limited social stratum. But as a guest, Jesus was received across the
different Jewish people groups and beyond, and often among people that would not consider Him a
natural part of their in-group, such as Pharisees (Luke 14: 1) and tax-collectors (Luke 5:29). He also
accepted the negative side of depending on local hospitality, the need to move on when he was no
longer welcome, as was the case in the region of the Gerasenes (Luke 8: 37).
The same pattern was repeated among the disciples and apostles. When Jesus sends out his disciples in
pairs, he encourages them to accept the hospitality of the people they will encounter on their journeys
but to ‘shake of the dust of [their] feet’ and leave if they were not welcome (Matthew 10:14, NRSV). We
see a similar pattern in Paul’s ministry, who stayed s with a wide range of people, such as the Cyprian
Proconsul (Acts 13:7) and Lydia, a tradeswoman (Acts 16:16), but moved on when he had overstayed his
welcome or became a liability to the local Christian community, as in Thessalonica (Acts 17:10).
9
The understanding of missionaries as guests in their host cultures also makes sense theologically. It links
in with the profound truth that Christians, wherever they are, are always ‘aliens and exiles’ (1 Peter
2:11, NRSV) or ‘strangers and foreigners’ (Hebrews 11:13, NRSV), ‘resident aliens’ belonging to a
different Kingdom (Hauerwas and Willimon, 1989); they are a pilgrim people (Walls, 1996: 8f). We can
be at home, wherever we are called to live, but will in an important sense always remain strangers. In
more sociological terms, Christians always have a ‘marginal identity’.
This tension between being both ‘in the world’ and ‘not of the world’ can also be understood and lived
out with the help of the metaphor of the incarnation. However, incarnation strongly suggests that we
are embodied in one specific cultural form. This embodiment in one particular cultural context may be
characteristic of the presence of God the Son in Christ, but it is less appropriate to describe the presence
of God the Spirit in his people. In our reflections on missionary presence, we should not only take our
clue from the incarnation, but also, and perhaps even more, from the [p. 90] nature of the work of the
Holy Spirit. From the day of Pentecost onward, the Church has characteristically been a multicultural
community in which the Gospel is proclaimed in multiple languages and embodied in many cultural
forms. From the very beginning, the early church faced the challenge of being a multicultural community
in which Hellenistic and Palestinian Jewish Christians and Christians from different pagan and Jewish
origins worked side by side in mission. The model which Paul embodied in his missionary lifestyle was
very much one in which he encouraged people to recognize and respect differences while being united
in the one body of Christ. The body of Christ post-Pentecost is a multicultural body of ‘Greek and Jew,
circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free’ (Colossians 3:11, NRSV) and it is as a
member of the Jewish people that Paul is willing to be ‘all things to all people’ (1 Corinthians 9:22, NRSV)
and considers himself called to be a blessing to the nations (Romans 11:13).
10
It is Practical and Realistic
When we speak of the guest model for missionary presence, we are not expecting the missionary to live
in the home of the local host. Hospitality should be understood from a community perspective. The
9
BN Hill (2000) uses this Thessalonica episode as a starting point for developing a ‘theology of evacuation’; a
theme that is relevant for our question, for evacuation may sometimes be proposed by the host-community and is
therefore a prime instance when the desire to complete identification proves undesirable from the perspective of
the host-community.
10
On the affirmation by the Holy Spirit of cultural plurality in the body of Christ, see Billings (2012).
missionary is the guest of the local community, living amongst them and participating in their life as a
community.
As guest of the host community, the missionary will need to make the greatest effort to understand the
culture, learn the language and to adapt to the lifestyle of the community as appropriate. Yet, at the
same time, both the host community and the missionary realize and accept that the guest is coming
from somewhere else, where life is different, and where values and expectations have different
priorities. Where this dual reality is both communicated and accepted, both the missionary as guest and
the community as host will be able to meet the other in relationship, yet also accept the other as
different. Authentic relationships become possible over barriers of cultural difference. This can work out
in practical situations such as, for example, different expectations around the drinking of alcohol. In
most churches in the Central African Republic, Christians consider the drinking of alcohol a sin. In our
Dutch Christian culture, the abuse of alcohol is seen as a sin, but not the limited consumption of alcohol
which is viewed as one of the good gifts of the Creator. When we were living in the CAR and were
members of a local church where alcohol was forbidden, we did not drink alcohol during our stay there.
As guests we adhered to their culture and expectations. Yet, we have never hidden the fact that in our
culture the drinking of alcohol is not a problem and that while we are in the Netherlands, as part of our
own local community, we will not abstain from alcohol. Cultural integration and authenticity can go
together.
This authenticity is also emotionally healthy, since the missionary does not have to pretend to be
someone he is not. Their personal identity can even be seen as a contribution to the wider host
community, because of the new perspectives and opportunities that s/he can provide.
Even though a guest can behave with a condescending attitude, most of the time a guest realizes that
s/he is dependent on the host. The missionary needs the host community to learn how to live in this
particular context, to learn to speak the language and s/he needs to host community for a host of
practical matters, and much more. This relationship of need leaves little room for a superior power
relationship on the part of the missionary, but rather encourages humility and teachability.
Rather than arrogant visitors demanding that everything be done according to their tastes,
missionaries are those who appreciate whatever hospitality the host can provide. And, above all,
missionaries will be respectful of the hosts, realizing always that they have no real rights before
their hosts. (Bevans, 1991: 51; emphasis in the original)
11
[p. 91] Because they are dependent on the goodwill of the host, guests need sensitivity and humility to
not overstay their welcome. Especially when they have invested much in relationships and possibly in a
project, it can be very hard for them to let go. Yet, the project is not the property of the missionary, the
11
Both Lingenfelter and Mayers, and Allison and Allison, rightly stress the dependence of the cross-cultural
missionary using the image of the socialization of a child: ‘They must enter a culture as if they are children
ignorant of everything from the customs of eating and talking to the patterns of work, play and worship’
(Lingenfelter and Mayers, 1986: 23; cf. Allison and Allison, 1993: 23, on the example of Jesus in this respect). This is
a valuable insight, but it seems that the image of a guest is equally able to express this dependence while giving
the guest a greater responsibility than a child would have.
guest. The host community is the real owner. Being dependent on the host community will also make
the guest sensitive to what can be spoken about and what actions or behaviours are appropriate, and
then encourage them adhere to these. This too may require humility, especially for missionaries coming
from cultures (such as the Dutch) where one is rewarded for clear and strong opinions and where one is
expected to communicate what one thinks and believes. Adopting this attitude in a host culture might
well be offensive and inappropriate.
Yet, such a humble and respecting attitude does not preclude curiosity and the discovery of new things.
It also allows for reciprocity in the relationship between the guest and host. When the guest and host
really meet, they will realize that in their relationship there is mutuality in needs as well as in gifts. The
host may be in need of the specific skills and knowledge that the guests bring into the host community,
precisely because they come from a foreign culture and community. The guest is in need of the
hospitality of that community. When we were in the CAR in March 2013, we were there in order to
contribute to the teaching at the theological school. The school needed our gifts of teaching. Yet, we
needed their hospitality even more than normal because we happened to be there when rebel forces
invaded and took the capital. During the days of anarchy and looting which followed, we were in need of
the hospitality and protection of the school community. This hospitality was given so very generously
and warmly, in such a way that we now look back on our time with them as a time of blessing in the
midst of fear and danger. This hospitality has impacted us in such a deep way that it changed us and our
perception of the world and our understanding of God. Yet, at the same time, through our presence in
the community in this time of hardship, we were also able to contribute the gift of a relationship with
the wider Christian community in the world. In times of war and insecurity, people often feel abandoned
and alone. Our natural links with the UK, the Netherlands and even Chile in Latin America, and their
prayer for us and the host community, provided a sense of belonging to a life that was wider than the
dire situation in the CAR at that moment. This visit became an experience of a reciprocal sharing of our
gifts, of mutual learning and growing together in our understanding of ourselves and of God.
It is Anthropologically Appropriate
Hospitality is an important value in many cultures, making the guest metaphor for the missionary role
even more appropriate. The guest metaphor does not only help the missionary in their self-
understanding, it also provides the host culture with a recognizable role for themselves and for the
missionary, giving dignity, space, and responsibility to both parties in the encounter.
Loewen makes the point that cultures have different roles available for missionaries: insider roles and
outsider roles. An insider role is a specific role that is present in the local culture, for example a healer,
or a patron role. These insider roles carry longstanding expectations, which are mostly unknown to the
missionary and even more difficult to adhere to in the long run. For example, a doctor who could be
seen as a healer in Indian culture would in that culture be expected to ask high fees for a diagnosis.
From a missionary perspective, this would be very difficult to integrate with the Christian calling to
compassion (Loewen, 1976). It is therefore more appropriate to look for an ‘outsider role’ such as the
one of a guest.
Being recognized in an outsider role also takes seriously that cultures in general do not allow for the
integration of a stranger in a short period of time. In the region where we grew up in the Netherlands,
people can still be seen as an outsider after more than 10 years of living and [p. 92] participating in the
community. Pretending to be a member of the host community is unrealistic and may be disingenuous.
To state this more positively, the outsider role also brings advantages. A guest is not expected to have
the same alliances as members of the host community. They do not have to support everything that the
host community supports, such as the local caste system or in the United Kingdom to the class system.
This gives more freedom and can provide fresh insight. It is also possible for a guest to have strong
relationships with different people who in the local culture would not relate to each other. Women
missionaries among the Fulanyi in the CAR, for example have a much greater liberty to speak to the local
men than Fulanyi women would have. And if the guest does make a wrong judgment and behaves
inappropriately, she can be excused for a lack of understanding of the situation precisely because she is
an outsider. And if the relationship between the guest and the host is really good, the host community
might be able to speak with the guest to explain the offence and help the guest to find a good solution.
When we arrived in the CAR, we arrived at a time when it was very warm and humid. Our house only
had wooden shutters for the windows, and because of the heat we would leave those open, even at
night when we had the light on. This clearly was inappropriate, and soon a leader of the school
community came and talked with us about this. Together we decided that we would make curtains and
close those. A good compromise was found. This is corroborated by Bevans’ experience:
My own sense is that as long as we acknowledge our strangeness, sometimes sadly perhaps, and
sometimes even humorously, we strangers will be accepted and listened to as honored and
valued guests. (Bevans, 1991: 52)
It is Relevant in a Situation of Globalization and Cultural Interaction
Half a century ago, Loewen drew attention to the opportunities presented by outsider roles even in
fairly closed cultural communities. These considerations have become even more relevant in our
globalizing world today in which cultural exchange and interaction is part of the fabric of life. In this
world, missionaries are automatically seen as representatives of the culture to which they belong either
for good or for bad. Denying our cultural adherence would be dishonest, even if our culture does
provoke resentment, such as the resentment representatives of former colonial powers may face. When
it does, it may even be better to honestly face this resentment and try to develop relationships that take
us beyond, rather than to deny our adherence from our culture. The resentment will remain and simply
go underground if it is not faced. If it is faced, cross-cultural guests may even become agents of
reconciliation.
In many cases, our identification with another culture may in fact provide a positive point of contact.
Local people may want to get to know or work with missionaries precisely because they are foreign,
because they represent a contact with the outside world, because they provide opportunities to learn
English. Our value to both the general population and the local Christian community is partly because of
our ties with another often Western world. Often this is related to our access to financial resources,
but this should not necessarily be considered an expression of selfishness or greed. These resources are
important for personal flourishing in our global world, sometimes on the very basic level of helping
people understand aspects of the threatening and enticing world beyond the local community,
sometimes also by helping people with access to educational and medical resources. Our own value to
the academic institution in which we taught was significantly enhanced by the fact that we represented
another contact with the wider Christian and academic world.
Cross-cultural missionaries are therefore also ‘cultural brokers’ (Loewen, 1976: 233). Missionaries help
negotiate the relationship with other cultural streams that profoundly influence [p. 93] the communities
with which they work. They can help local communities to develop critical insights into the blessings and
curses of global modernity and postmodernity, blessings and curses that are multifaceted and that often
elude us if we focus on the most obvious, visible, material aspects of this influence. Missionaries can
help these communities navigate their rapidly changing world. In Africa, four cultural streams are
coming together: African Traditional culture, Christianity, Islam, and modernity. As cross-cultural
missionaries, we ourselves were part of two of those streams. We were working with fellow-Christians
who were seeking how to live with these tensions, and our contribution as Westerners is partly to be
with them as Western Christians and even more as Western Christians.
Cross-cultural guests can only effectively work as cultural brokers if they develop a real empathy,
possibly even an ‘incarnational empathy’ (Hill, 1993: 266), with their host community. The guest needs
empathy to learn to see through the eyes of the host culture, to learn to hear through the ears of the
host culture, and learn to interpret through the values of the host culture, without necessarily fully
agreeing with or adhering to these values and interpretations. This will allow the development of a
mutual trust, which is a precious gift in the midst of cultural clashes which keep producing mistrust and
misunderstanding. It also allows the missionaries themselves to gain a deeper insight into their own
culture, to share these insights with their host-community and to grow in a joint learning process of
what it means to serve Christ on the cultural cross-roads of our world.
Conclusion: The Incarnational Guest
The Christian community embodies the message of the Gospel in a variety of local contexts and cultural
forms. In our globalizing world, the Christian community can be effective and sensitive precisely because
it is itself a global and multicultural community. As a result, it can flourish in a variety of cultural and
social contexts and also engage in a critical intercultural dialogue between different parts of the body of
Christ about how to faithfully relate to this multicultural environment. One of the crucial ways it can
model Christ’s making one body out of many peoples and languages is in modelling in an attitude of
humility, learning and mutual respect what a multicultural community and cross-cultural engagement
can look like. This means that the cross-cultural missionary will follow Christ in his ‘kenotic’ ministry in
an attitude of costly service (Philippians 2:5–11), with an ‘incarnational ethos’ (Kok and Niemand, 2009).
We have argued that such service is most authentic, and that the Gospel can therefore be faithfully
shared and served if cross-cultural missionaries understand themselves as guests, accepting in humility
that they depend on the hospitality of the host-community, adapting as far as possible to local customs
and expectations as a guest would do and contributing the gifts that a guest can bring from elsewhere.
Our reflections have not led us to abandon the value of the example of the incarnate Christ for Christian
mission. This is where Guder’s distinction between the noun ‘incarnation’ and the adjective
‘incarnational’ is helpful. He writes that indeed the incarnation (noun!) of Christ is unique. Yet, the
missionary role, as sent by Christ, is based on this unique event. He writes: ‘An incarnational (adjective!)
understanding of mission is precisely not a continuation of the once-and-for-all incarnation (noun!), but
the continuation of the incarnate Lord’s mission as he shaped and formed it’ (Guder, 1999: 23). And this
continuation is realized through the work of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus sent out his disciples, he sent
them out in the power of the Holy Spirit (Jn 20: 21, 22). It is the Spirit who makes Christ incarnate in our
lives and beyond, in and through the Christian community (Billings, 2012; Langmead, 2004: 5355). This
dependence on the work of Christ for us and the work of the Spirit in us helps us avoid an unbearable
burden that only spiritual heroes can shoulder and that for most of us and possibly for all would lead
to dishonesty (Langmead, 2004: 231f). As Ross Langmead aptly wrote, with a reference to Bonhoeffer’s
notion of ‘costly grace’: [p. 94] ‘Mission in Christ’s way emphasizes the cost; mission in Christ’s presence
emphasis the grace’ (Langmead, 2004: 52).
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Author biographies
Berdine van den Toren-Lekkerkerker has a Masters in Christian Studies from Regent College, Vancouver,
and is currently studying for a PhD in Missiology. She worked in theological education in the Central
African Republic in French-Speaking Africa (19972005), as Mission Education Advisor for CMS-UK
(20102014) and currently as CMS mission partner.
Dr Benno van den Toren studied theology in Utrecht, Oxford en Kampen. He taught Systematic theology
at the Bangui Evangelical School of Theology (in de CAR, 19972005), Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (20052013),
and currently in Groningen, the Netherlands. His recent publications include Christian Apologetics a
Cross-Cultural Dialogue (London: T. & T. Clark/Continuum, October 2011) and La doctrine chrétienne
dans un monde multiculturel. Introduction à la tâche théologique [Christian Doctrine in a Multicultural
World: Introduction to the Mission of Theology] (Carlisle : Langham Global Library, 2014).
... And within the community, ideas of Western superiority can still be perpetuated through language of Mission Partners helping the poor, teaching the marginalised, while they themselves are believed to be sacrificing much. 30 Mutual learning across such strong boundaries remains difficult. ...
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