Review of Incarnational Mission

by Tim McNutt
postulant, The Episcopal Parish of Alton

As the reviewer, I already have a pretty good hunch that you’re not going to rush out and buy a copy of Incarnational Mission: Being with the World. Something about this review might spark a slight interest, but soon the spark will fade, and life will continue. That’s unfortunate, because Samuel Wells has some excellent thoughts about what it really means to relate to the world outside of our Eucharistic communities in the way Jesus would.

Most of us are remarkably familiar with the concepts of discipleship and ministry. It’s when we start talking about ‘mission’ that we find ourselves on shaky ground and nervously coughing. Therefore, Wells begins by simply attempting to reposition our thinking with that of Jesus in the parable of the Good Shepherd in John 10. We’re familiar with role that Christian believers appear to play as the sheep. Yet Jesus also reminds us in v. 16, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Wells points out there’s no ambiguity in Jesus’s words – Jesus longs for his sheep on the outside of the fold to be gathered as part of the greater flock. This continual gathering is central to his identity and mission.

As evidence, Wells reminds us that Jesus invested most of his time simply being with those outside of the fold throughout Nazareth and Galilee. By contrast Jesus spent little time doing official ministry tasks. Applied to today, Wells posits that mission means we need to be more considerate of those outside the flock and participate in meaningful ways of being with them. Jesus speaks; these sheep hear his voice; and we have the privilege of being with them as moments of God-awakening take place in their lives.

There are three great strengths to this book.

First, Wells focuses most the book on the valuable concept of ‘being with’. In other words, we must enjoy people for their own sake. We are not called to fix the world nor are we called to put things right. Israel wanted God to be with them (Is. 64.1), so God came down as Emmanuel. As believers, we are called to embody Emmanuel and ‘be with’ the world. As Jesus was with people and participated in their lives, he has called us to the same task. We are to be with the sheep who are outside of the fold, because it’s Jesus who is ultimately calling them to himself through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Second, Wells does not lump the sheep outside the fold into one group as if people are all the same. Separating the sheep into various types allows us to be with them more realistically instead of attempting a one size fits all ministry. Specifically, Wells describes the lapsed; seekers; those of no faith; those of other faiths; and those hostile towards Christianity. He also addresses being with the world might mean through collectives such as neighbors; organizations; institutions; government; and the excluded. These chapters enable us to see the world more as Jesus sees it.

Third, Wells compiles a list of important missional values but explains how the various types of people above require different orderings of those values As representatives of Jesus’s mission, we too need to consider exactly how we are being present in the lives of the lost sheep dependent upon their type. We need to offer them authentic attention. We need to allow for the mystery of God’s work rather than simplistic solutions to their every question. We need to delight in what God is doing. We need to participate in those who are outside the fold as partners in their journey towards Jesus. We need to learn to enjoy being with people as an end in itself (instead of using people for projects and/or discarding them). Finally, we must share as agents in the ministry of glory – “the originating purpose and final goal of all things, is God being with us in Christ.”

Mission comes down to the concept of being with. “You can’t change people’s lives for them; but you can walk alongside them.” The key to the book isn’t in its principles, but in the application of being with those whom Jesus is calling to himself. In conclusion, I would recommend purchasing Incarnational Mission and applying some of the author’s ideas to those outside the fold in your part of southern Illinois

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