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Book Review: Incarnational Ministry - Hiebert & Meneses

“Our response to human cultures must be an ongoing process of critical contextualization” (Hiebert: 19). With these words in the introduction of the book, Hiebert casts the die of the mold for the heart of what this book addresses – critical contextualization, the different types of cultures, and how these affect Christian ministry. In playing a role in the advancement of the gospel, we have to make sure that we understand how we do what we do affects others, especially those in cultures different from our own. This book helps explain those differences and how we can adjust in order to not create more barriers for the gospel. We must see that “transforming a society is a process” (p. 19). My review of this book led me to ask the following questions:

What makes Urban Societies specifically unique?

Hiebert asserts that “the sheer size of modern cities makes it difficult for us to understand them” (p. 260). This gives rise to large and highly complex socio-cultural systems that can become difficult to understand. The key to this is to look at both the macro and micro level of social interaction. At the macro level is the city as a whole – its infrastructure, systems, etc. At the micro level is the peoples at the street level – groupings, families, interactions, etc. “We must constantly remind ourselves that cities are not a single, uniform organization” writes Hiebert (p. 262). Cities become the center of power, wealth, and economic and political interactions. They usually have a great diversity among ethnicities, classes and even the locations of where these diversities live. There is a greater need for specialization, hierarchy and change.

Hiebert also notes that relationships are vastly different as well. “Family and kinship groups… take new shapes under the pressure of the city,” sometimes splitting public and private life and even inadvertently emphasizing the nuclear over the extended family (p. 276). Mobility, individualism and freedom erode stability. Hiebert goes on to observe that “the dominant social structures of public life in cities are associations and institutions” (p. 279). These are all important observations especially as our church is located in the city, and has a desire to reach the city.

What does the church look like in an urban society?

Hiebert asks the question, “How can the church not only survive but also thrive in the city?” (p. 325). What was encouraging in reading this section of the book was that he notes that “the early church was an urban movement” (p. 325). Paul’s church planting and evangelism strategy was an urban one. Because of the diversity in cities, Hiebert makes a great observation about churches:

“One thing is clear. There will be no one form of church that serves as the model for all the others. There will be house churches, store-fronts, local congregations, and megachurches; ethnic churches and integrated churches; churches that stress high ritual order and those that emphasize informality. No one of them can serve the spiritual needs of all people.” (p. 328)

He notes that mobile people will have a more difficult time building the necessary community because “commuting prevents their members from developing the multiplex relationships necessary for intimate fellowship” (p. 334). This is important to know and appropriate for our context since our church is a “regional” church which pulls from people all over the city.

What is the role of incarnation in contextualizing the gospel?

The principle of incarnation is crucial in understanding how to truly contextualize the gospel. As Hiebert points out that “mission is more than a text. It must take flesh in human context” (p. 369). The revelation of God through His word must take on the unique attributes and qualities of the different peoples, languages and cultures. Hiebert notes that “we must incarnate our ministry in the contexts of the people we serve” (p. 370). This happens through both social and cultural contextualization. The goal of incarnation is transformation.

SUMMARY

Hiebert’s analysis of the many different facets of contextualizing the gospel as we seek to reach out to other cultures was helpful and fascinating. I have always enjoyed the depth and detail of Hiebert’s work, and this was a book I have not read before. It was enlightening to have his help in looking at the different opportunities and barriers that we face as we seek to be on mission with God to seek and save the lost.

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