Incarnational Evangelism: Preaching the Word to a Words-Weary World

The mission of the church for the last two thousand years, in accordance with the Great Commission, has centered on making disciples of the nations, unifying them into the name and family of our triune God, and teaching them to obey His commands. But the means of making, uniting, and teaching disciples will vary over the course of our mission depending on the apparent needs of new audiences.

Well, at least our means should vary. Yet, over the last few centuries, the church’s world mission work, which has primarily originated in and proceeded from the West, has centered almost exclusively on propositional (as opposed to incarnational)1 means of evangelism, unification, and teaching. For instance, the Western church has generally evangelized through a delivery of the Gospel message. We have unified our congregations in assent to creeds and confessions. And we have taught largely through sermons, catechisms, and theologies (which have grown increasingly systematic). As Paul Hiebert explains,

We missionaries and church leaders tend to stress the cognitive aspects of the gospel. We are concerned with knowledge of the Bible and with theology. . . . Consequently, the methods we use, such as preaching and teaching, emphasize information and reason.2

The Western fulfillment of the Great Commission then, has been primarily through words, specifically propositional words. The propositional delivery of the Gospel addresses the mind first, but it does not directly address the affections or the will. Western cultures, those influenced by or founded on Greek and Roman world and life views, place the mind at the forefront of human faculties, and because of this, the propositional Gospel addresses classically Western cultures precisely where they need to be addressed. But the strength of this narrow focus in addressing the needs of Western people is matched only by its great deficiency in addressing non-Western cultures. And, in an increasingly anti-intellectual West, the propositional Gospel fades in missional relevance and impact with every passing year.

Should we mourn the waning of Western influence and strive against the displacement of the intellect as the principal faculty of human interior life? Or should the church rather adapt to this trend so that our mission to others (those not necessarily like us) can continue with vigor? If propositional evangelism has begun to lose its effectiveness, could incarnational evangelism hold up its tired arms?

In fact, many signs indicate that the Western church has already begun to adapt to our non-intellectual zeitgeist both internationally and domestically, especially on the front lines of the mission field. Incarnational evangelism, specifically through the arts, has begun to displace propositional evangelism. Missionaries and street evangelists have begun to replace topical, three-point sermons with targeted stories, pictures, songs, and theater. The arts represent an alternative means of fulfilling the Great Commission in a way uniquely fitted to the needs and concerns of non-Western and post-Western audiences. But is this shift a biblical solution for missions? Have missionaries diluted or compromised the Word-centered Gospel in a man-centered grasp for “relevance”?

“Preaching the Word”

As we begin this inquiry into incarnational evangelism, we should explore some biblical ideas that have until recently been interpreted mostly through a Western (i.e., intellect-oriented, abstract) worldview filter. For instance, I agree with most American Protestants that the work of the church mainly concerns “preaching the Word of God,” but we don’t necessarily mean the same thing by the phrase. To the average Western Protestant, “preaching the Word of God” entails the explanation of God’s divine message in clear, propositional terms (preferably by a professional sermonizer). To them, such preaching lies at the very heart of church and missional life—in contrast to, and subordination of, the importance of an incarnational “preaching of the Word” in sacraments, the arts, and beautiful deeds. Jonathan Leeman illustrates this typical outlook in Word-Centered Church:

Evangelicals typically place their theological discussion of God’s Word under the heading of “revelation.” The Bible reveals God and His purposes to us, we say. It imparts information. . . . the information it imparts is inspired, authoritative, and so forth. Such emphases make sense in light of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment’s attack on Scripture’s authority. God’s people have responded to these challenges by rightly reinforcing their arguments for the propositional nature of Scripture.3

One can detect this bias toward proposition in the Reformed balance of the relationship between Word and Sacrament. Whereas Augustine—and Calvin after him with some difference of trajectory—called the sacraments “a visible word,”4 and therefore included the rightly administered sacraments within the category of “the Word of God preached,” later Reformed tradition would first widen the distinction between the incarnational sacraments and the “immaterial” Scriptures, and then ultimately subordinate such vitiated sacraments under an exclusively disembodied Word. In fact, Geerhardus Vos posited this as the Reformed position on the matter:

Strictly speaking, there is not coordination [of association/importance between Word and Sacraments]. The Word is resident in the sacrament. The Word is accompanied with the sacrament. If one takes away the Word, there is nothing left of the sacrament. If one takes away the sacrament, because of that the Word is still not lost.5

I believe this unbalanced emphasis on the propositional quality of the Word of God is both erroneous and harmful—impoverishing and dishonoring the Protestant arts, mercy ministries, piety, and missions. An almost exclusive emphasis on the propositional Word belies a peculiarly Western hermeneutical and practical corruption that militates against a more holistic and trans-cultural interpretation of the Scriptures. Therefore, it should not surprise us that this emphasis has become so thoroughly feckless in the increasingly post- and non-Western Christian world. Ironically, it also directly contradicts the quality and composition of the very written Word of God it purports to champion.

The Full Word of God: More Person than Proposition

In fact, Leeman and Vos’s contention that the Word of God can exist apart from the sacraments or incarnation (even if they would not prefer such an unaccompanied Word), undermines some of the central tenets of biblical orthodoxy. It seems many in the Western Christian community have forgotten that the living and abiding Word of God remains an incarnate person, not a collection of propositions, though that person certainly delivers quite a few propositions to us as well.

The Western-minded diminution of the embodied Word tends quite naturally toward an abstracted and impersonal gnosticism which defies the biblical orthodoxies of the incarnation. Jesus as the Word made flesh anchors our abiding hope in the resurrection of the body and the restoration of the cosmos. And, lest you think I exaggerate the danger of excarnating the Word, consider the testimony of Abigail Rine Favale, who teaches great books at George Fox University:

Resistance to the idea of a physical resurrection struck [my students] as perfectly logical. “It doesn’t feel right to say there’s a human body in heaven, when the body is tied so closely to sin,” said one student. In all, fewer than ten of my forty students affirmed the orthodox teaching that we will ultimately have a body in our glorified, heavenly form.6

This is the natural, logical consequence of Western abstractionism. If our understanding of the Word does not necessitate the material elements of the sacraments, and if the Word of God exists in heaven even without incarnation or sacrament, then why did the Word of God ever need to become flesh? And why did Jesus need to take on flesh again in His resurrection? Why should we be resurrected? And why should we celebrate the sacraments in any other way than in our minds and spirits? Do we even need to go to church for worship if we can get a “better” sermon online anyway? An unbalanced propositional stance on the Word of God cannot adequately answer these questions.

The Written Word of God: More Poetry than Proposition

Further, even if one sets aside the issue of the sacraments and incarnation, by no means at all insignificant, one would still err to say that all words, simply by definition, communicate propositions. Many genres of literature clearly have another primary goal than the systematic explanation or impartation of information. With this in mind, the written Word of God itself does not exclusively, or even mostly, consist of propositional communication. Far from it. A cursory glance at the Bible’s table of contents reveals a startling, objective reality: most of its content consists of narrative and poetry—not propositional language.

Figures, stories, symbols, visions, parables, songs, poems, and theater—as well as picture-word measurements and blueprints for the tabernacle, temple, and Old Covenant cultus—overwhelm what amounts to a slim pamphlet of clear and explanatory propositional texts one collects mostly from portions of Moses’ law and the Epistles. Almost none of the prophets, all the way up to and including Jesus, spoke primarily in propositional language, but instead they preached and taught in representational language and incarnational deeds—some almost exclusively. And even in the much more propositional ministry of the Apostles and Evangelists, we still observe that historical narrative, prophetic poetry, and the Psalms played a central role (Acts 2:14ff; 7:2ff).

To say, as Leeman and others, that the Word of God possesses mostly a “propositional nature” misses a central quality of it altogether, a quality that many theologians and preachers fully understood and greatly appreciated until recently. For instance, nineteenth-century Scottish minister George Gilfillan wrote:

The language of poetry has, therefore, become the language of the inspired volume. The Bible is a mass of beautiful figures—its words and its thoughts are alike poetical—it has gathered around its central truths all natural beauty and interest—it is a temple with one altar and one God, but illuminated by a thousand varied lights, and studded with a thousand ornaments.7

And even Spurgeon, known as the Prince of Preachers, wrote in his autobiography that

. . . the Saviour had many likes in His discourses. He said, over and over again, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like;’ ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like;’ ‘Without a parable spake he not unto them.’ The common people heard Him gladly, because he was full of emblem and simile. A sermon without illustrations is like a room without windows.8

Into such a windowless room, it seems, we have willfully shut ourselves and our hearers if we truly practice the dead and unbiblical doctrine that propositional preaching and evangelism can alone constitute the preaching of God’s Word. No, the written Word of God, in its very form and content, models something quite different to us. Word and Sacrament, contra Vos, do and must coordinate. They coordinate like the spirit and the body, like faith and works, like the heavenly and earthly realities of Christ, the very Word of God. To subordinate, exclude, or diminish one or the other cannot help but produce heresy, complacency, and abuse. And in our time, this Reformed predilection has had massive unforeseen consequences on the Western church’s fulfillment of the Great Commission, both here and abroad.

The Arts as Incarnation’s Canary in the Mine Shaft

If the sacraments had a canary in the mine shaft—one sure indicator of the incarnational vitality of any given church, it would be the state of the arts. Wherever the sacraments languish neglected, you can be sure the arts share a similarly abandoned fate, and vice versa. Sacraments and sacramental symbols (“signs”) encompass a basically artistic goal—to combine sense and substance. Further, proposition simply cannot do what the arts do quite naturally: show forth a mystery or a paradox in a single coherent expression.

Throughout the history of the church, revival has often depended on believing artists fulfilling their duties in the assembly (e.g., Hezekiah, Josiah, Nehemiah, etc.). The tabernacle and the temple both depended on artists called by God by name to “prophesy” through and with the incarnational arts (Exod. 31:2f; 1 Chron. 25:1). Consequently, the revival of Old Testament worship almost always entailed a revival of the arts.

In fact, God has commanded that His worship comprise the arts (in song, sign, or sacrament), so that arts and worship have had and will have a long-term connection in His redemptive economy. A number of “prophetic” voices in more recent times have asserted the necessary relationship of arts and culture to worship and reformation even for our day. For instance, Hans Rookmaker believed that “without the artists and their work a reformation is not only unlikely but unfeasible.”9 This assertion, though it might seem grandiose at first, follows logically and practically from the coordinate importance and co-existence of the propositional and incarnational Word and the clear and inviolable biblical connection between the arts and worship.

The Arts are Central to Missions

Following from that, if right worship necessitates robust artistic expressions, and, as John Piper famously argued, right worship is “both the fuel and goal of missions,”10 then the arts should play a great part in missions as well. This idea, almost obvious upon some consideration, has only recently gained a secure footing, even among missionaries.

In recent times, it has become far more common to hear about missionaries sharing the Gospel by finding “redemptive analogies”; by telling story chains—often from the Scriptures themselves; or by writing songs or plays. It seems that, on the international missions front at least, incarnational Gospel presentations, either in works of mercy or artistic presentations, have gained a primacy.

Yet here in the States, mission work seems to have stalled. Fewer and fewer young people attend “church,” while more and more who grew up in the church leave never to return.11 And coupled with this, all of Western civilization—following younger generations into the digital age—seems to have “reverted” to an “oral culture.” We practice far less “literacy” than we used to, and therefore we have all become far less susceptible to “Western” modes of communication.

And the future bodes even more significant changes. We have already seen a massive shift from the “print-based culture of the mechanical age” to the “oral culture of the electric era,”12 Imagine the challenges that will arise for evangelists in the audio-visual culture of the digital age. Missions has only recently caught up with the electric era, in its attendance to oral culture. But what about the next generation? How will we present the undiluted Word of God to them in ways they will receive it?

Conclusion

Whereas propositions address the intellect, the arts address our affections and our values. This need not frighten us. Whether the Spirit of God’s truth encounters a person in his mind, his heart, or his will, eventually that truth will transform the whole person. With that in sight, what would fulfilling the Great Commission look like if we re-balanced our evangelism toward an incarnational approach?

First, we would need to focus on presenting the Good News as a person as much as a message. And not just the person of Jesus, but also the people of God. An incarnational approach to evangelism necessitates hospitality, community, corporate worship, and a compelling and servant-oriented aesthetic culture. Second, we would also need to open up to the possibility of teaching with the arts, as Paul exhorts us in Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you all richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another—with psalms, with hymns, with spiritual songs—in thankfulness singing in your hearts to God.”13 If the word of Christ is to dwell in us richly, we will require at least poems and songs. And even in that limited area, the contemporary Protestant church falls far short of our exemplars in the Psalms and Prophets.

Further, representative of the incarnational Gospel most explicitly held forth in the sacraments, the audio-visual arts have the greatest missional potential in the quickly globalizing digital age. If we hope to address the unique needs of current unreached peoples both here and abroad, which needs now center in the affections and will far more than in the intellect, we will need to address this pressing void of contextualization.

Given the precedent and prescription for audio-visual expressions of God’s truth in both the natural and biblical revelations, I do not think it treasonous or heterodox to say that an evangelistic and liturgical emphasis on the arts would be both a fully biblical and effective way both to reach the lost for Christ and also to nourish Christ’s already gathered sheep. Write a song like David wrote, tell a story like Jesus told, paint a picture like Leviticus, or stage a play like Revelation. This is no less preaching the Word of God. And it might very well be the greatest need of our time.

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For more on how the Reformed doctrine of Scripture has metastasized in its contemporary mutations, check out my article, “Handling the Word: Bibliolatry in Islam and Reformed Christianity.

  1. By “incarnational,” I mean “embodied” or “having sense-perceivable form,” though the word “representational”—as more directly distinct from “propositional”—also helps to clarify what I mean.
  2. Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1985), 34–35.
  3. Jonathan Leeman, Word-Centered Church: How Scripture Brings Life and Growth to God’s People (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2017), 32. Emphases mine.
  4. John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Louis Battles, 2 vols. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, (1559 translation edition) 1960), IV.xiv.6.
  5. Geerhardus J. Vos, Reformed Dogmatics: Ecclesiology, The Means of Grace, Eschatology, Richard B. Gaffin, ed. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), Ch. 3 (“Word and Sacrament”), Q. 17. Emphasis mine.
  6. Abigail Rine Favale, “Evangelical Gnosticism,” First Things, May 2018.
  7. George Gilfillan, The Bards of the Bible (New York: Appleton & Company, 1851), 7.
  8. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon, Vol. III: 1856–1878, eds., Susannah Spurgeon and W. J. Harrald  (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Compnay, 1899), 62–63.
  9. Hans R. Rookmaaker, Art Needs No Justification (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, (1978) 2010), 32.
  10. John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad!: The Supremacy of God in Missions, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, (1993) 2010), 35.
  11. Allison Pond, Gregory Smith, and Scott Clement.“Religion Among the Millennials.” Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
  12. Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig de Peuter, Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), 33.
  13. My translation.

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