The term “incarnational missions” is one of those catch phrases used so much it almost lacks any meaning when we hear it now. It seems that now, all it really means is ‘to go and live among a people’.
The idea of incarnational missions is based on the Incarnation of Christ, God taking on flesh, the uncreated entering into the created. St. Gregory of Nazianzus’s oft-quoted, “that which is not assumed is not healed”, not only helps us understand the impact of God’s Incarnation, but would naturally also extend to incarnational missions.
As for the Incarnation of Christ, he becomes fully man…every aspect of man. Therefore, every aspect of man is healed as it is united to God. And in missions, the extent to which we are truly incarnational will be the extent to which the world will be able to be healed by the gospel message.
In the past twenty-five years, as we have watched “old school” Protestant mission efforts be retired out and new missions methodology implemented, we have also seen a weakening in local churches. (We may see an increase in numbers of people “coming to faith”, but that is easily manufactured, even accidentally, with money.) Now, even if we live on-site (instead of moving to a more “strategic” location to train trainers and help churches plant churches), how often do we make ourselves immune to the concerns of the locals? We fly while they take the train; we have a nice new heat and air unit when they have screen windows; we receive foreign funding to maintain prayer websites while they eke out a living running a corner store selling soft drinks; we enjoy “friendship evangelism” at an American fast food chain while locals walk through the food market to buy their meat and vegetables.
This is an issue of incarnation. The less we incarnate into that culture and worldview, the less the gospel will be understandable. Or even more simply: the less we incarnate the gospel, the less the gospel is incarnated.
So, what is incarnation? Incarnation is entering into a culture and worldview. All of us, right now, are incarnate in our current context. It may not be missions, but it is incarnation. And all of us are living out a witness/testimony/martyrdom. Especially in America, where Orthodoxy is less known, the life each of us live is the only definition of ‘Orthodox Christian’ those around us are likely to know.
If all mankind is to hear the good news of Christ, there will be a need to send out people to live out their martyrdom somewhere else. That is missions. That may mean sending out to another close-culture context, like establishing a mission parish an hour-drive away, or that may mean establishing a mission parish in some city in China. Both are missions. Both must be incarnational, if we hope to actually communicate the fullness of the gospel.