Sunday, June 24, 2007

Incarnational Ministry, Part I

I’d like to begin by telling a story about a man named John Perkins. Perkins is an African-American with a third-grade education, who grew up during the Jim Crow era in a sharecropping family in rural Mississippi. Following the murder of his older brother by the local sheriff, he escaped from the South by migrating to California where he married, started a family, and became a successful businessman. He also began searching for spiritual meaning in his life—a journey that eventually led him to make a commitment to Jesus Christ.

After several years of active ministry as a Christian businessman, Perkins sensed God’s calling to pursue a new ministry in his hometown back in Mississippi. So during the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement, John Perkins and his family left the relative safety and economic security of California to return to the poverty-stricken and racially-charged atmosphere of the rural South. When he got back home, he was received with mixed feelings. It’s not that his friends and family weren’t excited about seeing him again. But they just couldn’t understand why he would leave the good life in California to come back to a godforsaken place like Mendenhall, Mississippi. But what his friends and family didn’t realize is that Perkins had simply given up the good life of economic comfort to pursue that abundant life that Jesus promises in John 10:10.

In spite of the initial skepticism surrounding his return, Perkins was ultimately able to minister to both the spiritual and physical needs of his former friends and neighbors, eventually pioneering a model for ministry--known as Christian community development--which has been widely replicated by hundreds, if not thousands, of Christians seeking to effectively minister in urban settings. Basically, Christian community development is a holistic approach to urban mission that is not just interested in saving souls—important as that task is—but is also concerned about meeting the physical and social needs of others as well. Holistic ministry is rooted, in part, in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. who once said:

Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men, and is not concerned about the slums that cripple the souls, the economic conditions that stagnate the soul and the city governments that may damn the soul is a dry dead do nothing religion in need of new blood.
The linchpin to Perkins’ method is the concept of relocation, which is based on his understanding of incarnational ministry. By incarnational ministry, I simply mean that in order to reach others, we must become like them in the same way that God chose to become human in order to minister to us. So by relocation, Perkins advocates that we must live in the same community as those whom we seek to serve. Increasingly, many Christians have recognized that their ministries are most effective when they choose to reside amongst the people they hope to reach, even if that means leaving the economic comfort and cultural security of their homes and neighborhoods to do so. It is only by living side-by-side, in solidarity with the others that one can truly understand their needs and problems and, ultimately, the solutions that are needed.

Coming Next: The Biblical Basis for Relocation

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