I was born and grew up in Birmingham, England, a city of about one million people. When I was 21, I left Britain for the first time, to serve as a student missionary in Ghana. I read a book by Brother Andrew called Battle for Africa. The author stated, “A missionary should have two homes: heaven, and the country he lives in. Which excludes the country that he comes from.”1 While overseas, I met missionaries who appeared to have more in common with diplomats of the countries from where they were coming than with citizens of the country in which they were serving.
The missionaries told me not to drink the water. “You will get sick,” they said. “Your western body juices can’t handle it.” Two Peace Corps workers taught at our school. They said, “They told you the truth. If you drink it, you will get sick. But in time, your body will adjust.” I was tired of responding to hospitality with the question, “Is the water boiled?” One day a local person asked me, “Are you drinking yet?” I made up my mind: I would drink the water. I drank it; I got sick. I ended up in the hospital with dysentery.
They gave me tablets to bind me. Too many. I got constipation. They gave me laxatives to free me. Too many. I got diarrhea. For days I alternated between constipation and diarrhea. In time (thankfully), my stomach calmed down. When I caught up with the missionaries, they had heard all about it and delivered a stern rebuke. I accepted it. I saw how drinking had cost me dearly. Inside, however, I was pleased that I could now visit in the homes of the people. I could now respond in the affirmative to the question, Are you drinking yet?
Incarnation often costs us dearly.2 Our seminary professor, Ivan Warden, brought the author of our textbook to campus.3 George Webber told us how he moved his family into a humble city apartment while bearing the title of president of New York Theological Seminary. I was very moved at the price he and his family were willing to pay.
Dr. Warden taught us how to conduct a church-community analysis when we would go to a new territory. We would study the historical background of the town or city and then complete a geographic and demographic analysis. We would consider the area’s economy, power structure, values, and community spirit. Our marching orders were clear: “ ‘ “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” ’ ” (Jer. 29:7, NIV). So, when we pastored in Toronto, Canada, our slogan became “Apple Creek: The Community-Driven Church.” Listening to each neighborhood’s unique story was an essential part of “exegeting” the city.4
My wife, Pattiejean, and I later attended a mission institute in the beautiful country of Mexico. One of the themes was “Serving Incarnationally,” and we had to participate in what was called an ethnographic field trip. It involved entering our nearby town, observing the culture, and eating and drinking with the people. In Jamaica, incredibly, pastors go into the heart of the city and invite gang leaders to a meal for fellowship and open dialogue. One person from each gang carries a large bag. That bag contains the guns— ready in case there has been a set up.
Ministry to the cities is not about slogans or occasional headline-making events. It’s about sitting with people and addressing their areas of pain. It is life and death. Police killed by citizens, citizens the police swore to protect; citizens killed by police, citizens the police swore to serve. It has cost the lives of urban ministers and cross-cultural missionaries.5
I read about Someone else known for eating and drinking with the people. They called Him a glutton, a wine bibber—and a friend of sinners. It cost Him, too. Nevertheless, I hear Him saying, “Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: For I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city” (Acts 18:9, 10, KJV; emphasis added). So, pastor—are you drinking yet?
1 Andrew van der Bijl and Charles Paul Conn, Battle for Africa (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 1977).
2 For an expanded understanding of the term “incarnation”, see Sam Wells, Incarnational Ministry: Being With the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B.Eerdmans, 2017), reviewed on page 26.
3 George W. Webber, Today’s Church: A Community of Exiles & Pilgrims (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1979).
4 See Sean Benesh, “10 Ways to Exegete Your City,” Visioneering Blog, Feb. 10, 2017, www.visioneeringstudios.com/2017/02/10-ways -to-exegete-your-city.
5 David Trim, “This Week in Adventist History”, in Adventist News Network Bulletin, broadcast Hope Channel, August 17, 2018.