A Theology for a Strange Land

Jayakumar Christian 02 Apr 2010

A Response to Joel Van Dyke and Kris Rocke’s ‘The Beautiful Question of the Incarnational Gospel

In Theology of Hope theologian Jurgen Moltman reminds the church that ‘…if God is not spoken of in relation to man’s experience of himself and his world, then theology withdraws into a ghetto and the reality with which man has to do, is abandoned to godlessness.’ The Center for Transforming Mission (CTM) seeks to do just the opposite—to speak of God in relation to man’s experience, singing the Lord’s song in a strange land. The challenge before the church is not its own relevance or irrelevance, but the danger of abandoning the world to a state of godlessness.

For those who frequent “strange lands” Joel Van Dyke and Kris Rocke identify the key elements for constructing a theology. Liberation theologians have always asked the question, “Where do we locate ourselves when we read the Bible?” However, Van Dyke and Rocke point out that our location does not define the Word, but the Word defines and transforms the location. For example, the authors demonstrate how the ministry of CTM recovers public places such as prisons, streets, and nightclubs for God. They go on to describe ‘incarnation’ as healing a divided world, dealing with ‘the world of matter,’ and giving ‘voice to pain.’

The ministry of CTM not only takes the ‘song’ to the strange land, but also redefines the strange land itself as a place where God is comfortable. In our work with World Vision we are often up against the world’s tendency to marginalize the strange lands as god-forsaken. Consequently, the poor and the oppressed are often excluded from the so-called ‘mainstream.’ In such a context, genuine mission is more than a bundle of well-intentioned activities; it becomes a prophetic act redefining reality. The church is called to challenge and redefine popular perceptions about ‘mainstream.’ We need a theology of strange lands.

Van Dyke and Rocke also suggest that mission is about clarifying the identity of persons. Reflecting on the story of Hagar, they suggest that ‘unnamed and used property’ – that is, the poor and marginalized like Hagar – have an identity too; they too have a name. In Christian theology the very fact that the ‘Good News is to the poor’ affirms that the poor and the oppressed have a ‘response-ability.’ We see this often in our work with World Vision. Many women in self-help groups take on political leadership positions in their communities. Recently, I was with a group of HIV positive women. These women had borne the brunt of stigma in our society. As they described their condition, one woman commented that today she not only belongs to a community of positive persons but is also able to reach out to others in need. We often see such identity clarification, where ministry follows healing. Mission is about clarifying the identity of those in the strange lands. The marginalized too have a name.

Finally, the article points out the need for mission to be close to the poor. Over the years we seem to have sophisticated our missional practices and outsourced mission to mission boards and specialists. It is time to recover the local church-centric nature of wholistic mission. That is where the ‘connect’ with the neighbourhood is. Parachurch ministries like CTM and World Vision must walk with the local church in its own neighbourhood rather than in parachurch-selected neighbourhoods.

It is time to demystify incarnation and make it easily practicable for every member of the local church. Every church member must be nurtured to be an incarnating wholistic practitioner of the Good News.

When we equip and empower the local neighbourhood church to incarnate Jesus Christ in its own neighbourhood, then, truly, we will be able to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.

Jayakumar Christian is national director for World Vision India, and the author of God of the Empty-Handed: Poverty, Power, and the Kingdom of God.

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)