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Incarnational Mission: Being with the world by Sam Wells

25 May 2018

Ann Morisy on mission rooted in and modelled on the incarnation

SAM WELLS takes the implications of the incarnation very seriously, and, from reading this book, I do, too.

The essence of the incarnation is God’s being with us. Wells urges us to use “being with” as the touchstone for our discipleship, and sets out in this volume how it can also be a pulse that runs through our efforts at mission. Wells understands mission to mean “being with the world”, and provides illustrations of the performative character of the incarnation, through presence, attention, acknowledging mystery, and openness to delight, enjoyment, and glory, and working in partnership.

Wells chronicles how openness to this performance brings new possibilities in relationship to the lapsed, those seeking to embrace faith, those of other faiths, those of no faith, and those who are hostile to faith. Notably, Wells omits any consideration of how to apply “being with” to the indifferent, or the geezer culture that just can’t be arsed; and, for sure, these are the dominant attitudes of Joe Public.

The chapter that I found most rewarding was “being with” those of other faiths. Here, Wells provides a helpful summary of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, making clear that Judaism is not an “other faith”: our God is the same God; our prayers are directed to the same God; and a Jewish child is the person whom we Christians believe is our Saviour.

In the second half, Wells encourages Christians to practise “being with” neighbours, organisations, institutions, government, and those who are excluded. The pivot for this implicit second half is an excellent chapter on “being with neighbours”, an innocent enough theme, one might think, but Wells challenges the reader with the disconcerting description of a neighbour as potentially someone “who promises to draw me into a boundary-less ocean of need”.

Reality triumphs over sentiment in this chapter, aided by illustrations from Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. Do note that this book is directed as much to a North American readership as it is to the UK.

It is hard to avoid the feeling this is an unnecessarily bulky book. Wells welds together material that he has already aired or, perhaps, he feels ought to have an airing, but he would have better resisted doing so in this volume.

For example, in the chapter “Being with Institutions”, Wells reflects on his approach to “being with” during his time at Duke University (2005) as Dean of the Chapel. Here he provides an extraordinary review of his counselling techniques. What he offers is seriously good, with precious insights, but somewhat unexpected, and conveyed with such perfection of method that I began mouthing Stevie Smith’s yowl “Did he never feel strong Pain for being wrong?”

Those familiar with Wells’s writing will know how much he loves a pattern, happily numbering each point and jubilant in finding alliteration. Occasionally, however, Wells imposes the “being with” riff so relentlessly that he risks trading in stereotypes and oversimplification — except when he holds our feet to the fire with searing honesty and actuality.

Ann Morisy is a freelance community theologian and lecturer.

Incarnational Mission: Being with the world
Sam Wells
Canterbury Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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