Monday, August 13, 2007

Mikel Neumann Interview: The Incarnational Ministry of Jesus: An Alternative to Traditional Apologetic Approaches

Dr. Mikel Neumann is associate professor of intercultural studies at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, where he supervises the intercultural internship program and teaches in doctoral- and master's-level intercultural programs. He served as a church-planting missionary for twenty-five years in Madagasdcar under the auspices of CBInternational. Dr. Neumann was the missionary scholar-in-residence at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, Illinois (1995-1996), where the researched the intercultural dimension of small group ministries. His research took him to Chicago, Caraas, Bombay, Accra, and Moscow. His book Home Groups for Urban Culture was published by William Carey and the Billy Graham Center in 1999. He has degrees from Western Seminary and Fuller Theological Seminary (M.A. and D.Miss.). He is an international resource consultant with CBInternational, and this ministry has taken him to thirty-five nations to teach, encourage, and help local people.

Morehead's Musings: Mikel, thank you for agreeing to respond to a few questions about your chapter in Encountering New Religious Movements, and related issues. The title of your chapter is "The Incarnational Ministry of Jesus." Christians are familiar with the doctrine of the incarnation, but can you tell us how you define the "incarnational ministry" of Jesus and what this means?

Mikel Neumann: The idea incarnational ministry goes back to the fact that Jesus adapted himself to humans. He became one. That is the most radical adaptation in the universe known to humans. The example then, is for us to adapt to our hearers. The burden is on us to communicate in such a way as to be understood. Let the message of the cross be communicated in both our lives and words. It is a simple idea yet not so simple in working it out because it touches every area of our lives.

MM: How was this type of ministry modeled by Jesus?

Mikel Neumann: He became human in space and time, identified as to family, tribe and nation. He lived among people and served them at their point of expressed need. He taught them in a way they understood. There are a number of examples in the gospel of Jesus communicating in different ways to different audiences, whether the religious leaders of Jerusalem, the common peoples of the Middle East, or his discussions with Gentiles.

MM: In your chapter you discuss definitions of ministry, or as you say "getting it right" in ministry, as whether people respond positively. Another definition of success often used by pragmatic evangelicals is counting the numbers of converts, another way of looking at a positive response. How do you define correct ministry, or whatever term we want to use, in relation to an incarnational ministry model as exemplified by Jesus?

Mikel Neumann: I would suggest that if through our lives, service, and finally, words we have opened people’s minds to the gospel message and it’s implication for them, we have succeeded. I’m not against counting people but that is not the primary success indicator.

MM: In your article you discuss relationships, levels of cultural interaction, and practical demonstrations by Jesus as aspects of his incarnational ministry. How is this applicable to cross-cultural missions approaches overseas, and how might it also be applicable to the West, particularly where the new religions and alternative spiritualities are concerned?

Mikel Neumann: Many people wiser than I have spoken of cultural interactions in cross-cultural situations. However, in dealing with new religions and alternative spiritualities we have a different situation. We still need to incarnate the gospel but we also must maintain our identity in Christ. Because many of these groups, particularly those related to the Christian tradition, are often aggressively evangelistic in nature and apologetic in approach we can find ourselves being led in a fruitless direction. Personal service to these people and our own spiritual pilgrimage by way of personal testimony may evidence more fruit.

MM: You also discuss the book of Acts, and contrast a traditional apologetic response with that of incarnational ministry. Can you summarize and contrast these for us?

Mikel Neumann: By traditional apologetic I mean giving a logical/philosophical reasoning as to why the Christian faith is correct or superior to another. While I see a lot of correction of false practice and belief in the new system it is directed to Christians. The incarnational ministry assumes the truth and serves people at their point of need, declaring the gospel truth in understandable ways.

MM: One of the most interesting parts of your article for me was your discussion of an apparent change in Paul's ministry as it developed. I think many of us hold Paul in such esteem that we forget that he didn't always have ministry figured out correctly, and that he was making mistakes and modifying his methods as he pursued missions in the first century. How do you see Paul becoming increasingly relational in his ministry with the Gentiles?

Mikel Neumann: Yes, and increasingly gentle. Immediately after his conversion he was the same fiery preacher he was before conversion (Acts 9:20ff) which as he became more and more powerful caused people to try and kill him. I take that to mean he was so much better at proving his point that the leaders realized the only way to stop him was to kill him. They were not convinced by his arguments. That is the problem with an “apologetic” approach. Later in his ministry we see his gentleness, especially in the epistles. The two approaches can work together but a incarnational spirit must precede any would-be apologetic.

MM: You propose an incarnational ministry approach to new religionists. This involves recognition of and interaction with various cultural levels and an incarnational application. Can you summarize the model you propose and tell us how various facets of incarnational ministry interact with the various levels of culture?

Mikel Neumann: I used the model that Dr. Donald K. Smith brings forth in his work, ­Creating Understanding. It’s a simple, yet useful, model for this approach. He uses an onion to demonstrate four levels of communication. The outside or most surface level, the onion skin, is the behavior level. This level encompasses speech, culture, non-verbal communication and other obvious interactions. Our works of service can be applied as incarnation at this level. A second, slightly deeper level is designated authority which subsumes both formal authorities (governments, religious books, etc.) and informal (charismatic leaders, peer pressure, etc.). Experience is a deep level of culture that is unique to each person. That is the level where testimony can be effective whereas apologetic really only works at the more surface authority level. Core values are the deepest level and those change only gradually over time. Peeling an onion causes a lot of grief and tears. The metaphor is apt as we seek to communicate with those we love and desire to see understand the gospel message.

MM: You conclude your chapter with a comparison of traditional apologetic approaches with incarnational approaches, and you illustrate this with a helpful chart. Can you describe the similarities between these approaches, and touch on the very real differences in terms of tendencies?

Mikel Neumann: I think the practical difference is one between winning a debate (apologetic) and winning a person (incarnational). The former brings forth a tendency to verbal interaction, the later causes the much more difficult effort toward involvement in a person’s life.

MM: How might we shift from approaches that are largely apologetic-based and move to a blending of incarnational ministry informed by cross-cultural missions and that of contextualized apologetics?

Mikel Neumann: The shift is already in place. Many colleges and seminaries are teaching these principles in their intercultural studies programs. That is a huge change over the years. Many theologians as well have had cross cultural experiences that have brought them understanding of incarnational approaches. The basic issue is one of caring for people enough to become their friends, spending time with them, to the point where our “words” will be heard. Then the gospel can be made plain. That is the goal.

MM: Mikel, thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions.

No comments: