This is a time of year when we set our minds on the mystery of the incarnation – God became a man.
“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
The incarnation is the wisest missions strategy of all time! Birthed in the deep counsel of the Trinity, God came up with a plan to reach the human race with the gospel. He knew that in order for humans to receive the heavenly truths about Him and His plans, He would have to “become flesh,” taking on the appearance, language, and culture of those He was to reach. Of the many reasons that the Son of God became a human being, one is so that He could communicate the truth to other human beings:
“For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’” (John 18:37b)
God became a Jewish man, spoke the common Jewish dialect (Aramaic), wore common Jewish clothing, lived in common Jewish housing, and worked a common Jewish job. In so doing, He was able to communicate eternal truths to His target people group (the Jews) in a way that they could receive (with a little help from the Holy Spirit, of course!). The impact of His 3½ year incarnational missions strategy has been revolutionary! His earthly ministry was recorded by the very Jews He successfully reached, and for the last 2000 years the things He said and did in the Gospels have transformed lives, families, and societies all around the world.
Jesus had a brilliant method for reaching a target people group, a strategy which provided an example for all missionaries to follow. I call this strategy “incarnational” ministry. Like Jesus did, a missionary must “become the flesh” of the people group He is targeting. He must adopt their customs and culture. He must learn their language and worldview. The more a missionary can become like the people he is targeting, the more effective his gospel witness will be. The people won’t stumble over superficial things like his appearance. They won’t feel alienated by his strange customs. They won’t feel suspicious of his intentions. The more he becomes like them, the more they can focus on the message and not the man. The more the gospel can “go native,” the more the natives will claim it as their own.
Jesus, the first cross-cultural missionary, modeled the strategy of incarnational ministry. And Paul, the second cross-cultural missionary, implemented it all over the world:
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law…so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law…that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.” (1Co 9:20-22)
For this reason, natives will typically make effective missionaries to their own tribes and other nearby tribes. A native missionary will be able to go much further in incarnational ministry than someone from the West. A native who is from a similar cultural background to other African tribes already looks like them, talks like them, thinks like them, and lives like them. To a certain extent, he can “become their flesh” without even having to change much.
In this Christmas season, we have so much to be thankful for. Let us thank God for His wisdom in the incarnation of Jesus. He was willing to lower Himself and “become flesh” so that He could communicate to us in a way that we could receive.
And let us thank God that He is causing a native missions movement to emerge all over the earth, giving a witness to the unreached in a way that they can receive.
Everyone reading this is a “natives” to somewhere. Perhaps God has caused you to “become the flesh” of those around you for a reason – to give a witness of the gospel in word and deed to a certain people in a way they can receive.
Others of you are called to reach a different culture or sub-culture than your own. How could you “become the flesh” of the people you are trying to reach?
So as we set our hearts on the incarnation of Christ this Christmas, let us all find how we can employ this brilliant incarnational strategy at home. And let us find how we can partner with the native missionaries abroad, helping them bring a relevant witness to their neighboring tribes.