Incarnational Mission (Samuel Wells) -- A Review

INCARNATIONAL MISSION: Being with the World. By Samuel Wells. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018. X + 254 pages.

What is mission? Once upon a time mission, in church contexts, was often something that happened over there, across the seas. It involved sending brave women and men to faraway lands to spread the Gospel among those who never heard the Gospel. Church people participated in this work by sending money (and prayers) for the support of missionaries. In recent years, with the rise of the missional movement, the concept of mission has expanded to include what occurs closer to home as well as what happens faraway. Mission is what God’s people do in partnership with God. It can include evangelism and church planting, as well as social justice activities and acts of compassion. It can involve financial support, but it is much more than that. This question of mission is taken up by Samuel Wells, vicar of London’s historic St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Church, which sits on Trafalgar Square. Wells uses the concept of “being with”—a concept utilized in several other books by the author—to explore the mission of the church in our contemporary situation.

Incarnational Mission is a companion to his book Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church, published in 2017 (a book I have not read). As Wells notes,  Incarnational Mission replicates the method and structure of this earlier book, laying out ways in which the church is “being with.” In this case it involves being with those who are not believers, whereas the earlier book focused on being with those within the Christian community. In his estimation, mission involves surprises, including "the wisdom or kindness of a stranger, the depth of community that emerges in the face of tragedy, the mistakes that turn into God's opportunities" (p. 18). It is a reminder, he believes, that the Gospel doesn't belong to the church, and that the church is often catching up to what God is already doing. But mission involves moving beyond the walls of the church and into the world itself, whether that involves being with the lapsed or being with the government.

This book explores the "mission of being with" in terms of ten relationships: the lapsed, seekers, those who profess no faith, those who part of other faiths, the hostile, neighbors, organizations, institutions, government, and the excluded. Incarnational engagement involves "being with," which entails rejecting what Wells calls the "problem-solution axis" present in "working for" and "working with" models of engagement. In this vision of mission there is no necessary solution to the predicaments faced by the church or the world. We cannot solve people's problems, we can only accompany them "while they find their own methods, answers, approaches—and meanwhile celebrate and enjoy the rest of their identity that's not wrapped up in what you (perhaps ignorantly) judge to be their problem" (p. 13). I think this is poignant, especially for affluent/privileged white Christians who see themselves as the savior of others. In other words, we take pride in believing that “those people” need us, rather than seeing others as partners in a ministry that blesses both parties.
As Wells invites us to participate in the "mission of being with" in relationship to the lapsed, seekers, those of no professed faith, those of other faiths, the hostile, neighbors, organizations, institutions, government, and the excluded, he does so in light of eight dimensions of reality: presence, attention, mystery, delight, participation, partnership, enjoyment, and glory. Each of the eight is, he reveals, "rooted in the life of the Trinity and embodied in the life of Jesus." 

I found the book compelling, with some chapters being more interesting to me than others. I appreciated the chapter on being with other faiths, since I have been active in interfaith work. Wells writes with an evangelical vision but does so with a sense of respect of the dignity and honesty of the other. He speaks of journeying together for the good of the world. This involves learning from one another. While he believes that evangelism of the religious other is appropriate, it is not the purpose of this form of engagement. Whatever outreach is made, it should be done with honesty and respect. Keep in mind that this engagement involves “being with.”  I also enjoyed the chapter on "being with government." Since he is from Britain, which has a state church, he has a different vantage point to look at this question than most Americans. At the same time, he spent considerable time in the United States, so he understands our system. In his approach to the subject he seeks to walk through the narrow passage separating the constant critic of the state and the chaplain for the state. In other words, he recognizes and affirms the importance and value of government, which is called upon to keep order and to do what needs to be done for the welfare of the whole people. There is both an appreciation and a wariness about the relationship with government that seems healthy to me. So, considering our current situation, this chapter can be of great help. There were chapters that were of less interest, or that seemed to drag on a bit. In the chapter on organization he lost me at points, with his analysis of management theory. Others might find it fascinating.

Over all, this is an informative book. At times it seems repetitive, as in each chapter he brings into play each of the eight dimensions of reality. At points this seemed forced, but I understand the principle that undergirds his work. Overall, there is much of value here for the church and the pursuit of its mission.  It helps us envision mission in all its variety, which will allow each of us to find our way into the church’s mission in the world.


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