“I believe ‘with’ is the most important word in the Christian faith” (p. 7). And so Samuel Wells begins Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church. The title raises a question right from the start: with his clear focus on “being with,” Wells only briefly mentions the word incarnational, so why is the title Incarnational Ministry? Although it has become popular to speak of incarnational ministry, the anthropocentric orientation of that term and its tendency toward an exemplarist Christology would seem antithetical to Wells’s argument. All the more so since the primary focus of the book, “being with,” is grounded in being with God in Christ: baptism grafts us into the body of Christ and the Eucharist places us in union with Christ (p. 38).
Most of us would agree that the principle of “being with” is central to Christian ministry; we simply have no idea how to do it and we certainly don’t seem to have the time. In a world ordered and shaped by the myth of continual progress, the idea of being with is not only counterintuitive, but is something for which we have no training or practice, no learned habituation.
If in the Nazareth Manifesto Wells laid out an apologetic for being with, here he gives body and substance to what it means to be with one another in ministry. And by ministry he is not referring solely to ordination but to the ministry everyone in the Church is called to. He contrasts his emphasis on being with to other approaches to ministry — working for, working with, and being for. Although he writes that he is not trying to discredit these other models of ministry, it is clear that he sees them as poor substitutes for our true calling. In particular he seeks to dismantle the stranglehold that “working for” has on the Christian imagination and practice.
In the first instance, as Wells argues, being with involves simply showing up. Yet, this is no passive presence, standing next to another person, but active presence and careful attention, which transforms showing up into focused interaction. Being with involves participation or partnership with one another. Central to this is the church as “a community of persons who have come to regard being with God as being definitively practiced amid the particularities and contingencies of being with one another” (p. 81).
At times Incarnational Ministry reads like a stream of consciousness — Wells quickly moves from one thought to another — yet not in a scattershot fashion but in a manner that reveals the rich interwoven texture of our relationships with God, with one another, and with ourselves. His experience and skill as a preacher is manifest as Wells moves fluidly from description, to reflection on a biblical text, to sharing an anecdote or telling a story. It is as though he is inviting his listener to be with him: to sit down and engage attentively in the natural flow of conversation as he explores what it means to truly be with one another and to be with God. In fact, the book demands a being with.
Wells consistently brings to his writing a deep sense of his engagement and living with the Bible in the context of the Church over an extended period of time, which makes it all the more surprising that he only offers a brief note on what it means to be with the biblical text. In his chapter on “Being with God,” he explores the idea that the Bible is more poem than story and at the end of that section he says the Bible “is ultimately a gift to God’s people to demonstrate the truth of God’s heart.” If that is indeed true, then it bears far more development in this book. What does it actually mean to be with the biblical text, what does it mean to be with the text together in the church?
That question must take into account the nature of the text, the way in which God is intentionally present in and through the text and the way in which the community allows itself to be shaped and formed by God in and through its confidence in the way God uses the text. This seems particularly pertinent because so much of the way we think about the biblical text and engage with it is not a being with at all but a controlling, mining, expropriating relationship — much like many of our relationships with other people.
Being with God in the way his truth and heart is revealed through the text must be primary to encouraging the kind of presence that is not passive but active: active in the sense of serving to shape and form the people of God. If the Bible is central to the way in which God is with us, revealing the truth of his heart, then exploring what it means to be present and attentive to the biblical text demands more description than Wells gives to it, especially because it is the pattern Wells demonstrates throughout the book.
Full of wonderful perspicacity gleaned through a life of ministry, this book offers insights that cause the reader to pause, to consider, to think deeply about the questions being raised: what does it mean to be with oneself or to be with God or to be with the troubled, the hurt, the afflicted and the dying? Wells does not provide easy answers to these questions, but instead invites us to live with and wrestle with the way they must shape our life and ministry. This is a book we might come back to again and again as we learn what it means to be together with the God who is with us in Jesus Christ.