In a Masters class that I taught recently, one of the students asked me a question that I found tricky: “can missional incarnation happen upwards?” Knowing the student, it was clear to me that I was faced with a good trap. On the one hand, I would have to process this question in the light of my own discomfort with the homogenous unit principle in missions and church planting. On the other hand, I also had to be aware of the trap of the prosperity gospel, because, as the student added, “we need rich people to be able to evangelize other rich people.” (Of course, I have seen pastors demanding huge increases in their pays just so that they can roll with and evangelize the rich).
This highlighted a problem that I had not seriously thought about yet: incarnational theology and the problem of race and class divisions in missions. Generally speaking, we think of missionaries “incarnating downwards” from a higher and more powerful state into a less powerful and, of course, less affluent context, usually to serve among the poor. We talk about incarnation in the slums, or on the ghettos, etc.
Could a less affluent person incarnate himself among the rich? What would this look like? What will it take?
In the context of African missionary work in the West, one begins to wonder cross-racial incarnation will work. Will it even work? Mission, as we have come to know, has too much colonial paternalistic baggage. How will 21st century postcolonial world (at least in the political sense of the world) understand mission in ways that makes incarnation possible across races and classes. I told my student I had not immediate answer … my experience makes me believe this will be a very important but hard road to travel … but I thanked him for making me think about this.
Intentional intercultural mutuality is the way forward for mission … but how far are we from the starting point?