Certain sections of the Church have lost touch with the the salt and light of the gospel, the central transformative message of Jesus. In the response to this serious and legitimate need, some church leaders have advocated the adoption of incarnational ministry, the practice of being the Jesus people see through the lens of a foreign culture, particularly in the context of evangelism. Ministries and churches (often in an attempt to be, or at least appear, cutting-edge) describe themselves as incarnational ministries, taking pride in applying the label. Unfortunately, many have done so with little or no knowledge of the theology history behind the concept.
As a result, the potential theological and ministerial dangers of the incarnational model, already identified and confronted by the church of the 4th century, are extant once again on the modern stage.
What is the incarnational model?
A plethora of books have been written on the subject of incarnationality, offering to guide the culture-crossing reader through the incarnation process. “Being Jesus” to lost people is a phrase often heard from the pulpits of churches that desire to become more relevant to people and cultures that seem more and more distant. Western Theological professor J. Todd Billings wrote in Christianity Today; “I was told that just as God became flesh in a particular culture 2,000 years ago, my job was to become “incarnate” in another culture.”1
There are many Biblical verses used to advocate the incarnational model. One such verse is from Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of John’s account of the incarnation in John 1:14:
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”2
Also used frequently is a (carefully dissected) verse from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8 NRSV)
With these texts in hand, young people are moving to imbed themselves into unfamiliar and often exotic cultures, with the ardent desire to “be the hands and feet” of Jesus to people who are in need.
Incarnational Ministry’s Historical and Theological Roots
Though incarnationality is seemingly of recent origin, the concept is not unfamiliar to church history. In the mid 4th century, the early church was in tension with its understanding of the nature of the Christ and the potential paradox concerning his humanity and divinity. Billings summarizes the issue:
In the developing christological controversy in the late-fourth and early-fifth centuries, there developed two competing schools of christological metaphysics, the Alexandrian and Antiochene. The Council of Chalcedon combin[ed] the language of advocates of both schools, but exclud[ed] the extreme versions of both sides….Chalcedon end[ed] up affirming a “middle ground” position between these two thinkers… Both sides of the controversy leading up to Chalcedon sought to preserve the integrity of the divine and the human in Christ, as well as keeping in mind the soteriological concern that redemption is accomplished in Christ.3
Although most4 evangelical churches today agree with the findings of the two councils, their willful ignorance of their own history and theology has caused them to develop a mindset for ministry that the early church would have rejected.
The Problem: The Bodily Incarnation was and is Reserved for Jesus
At best, the model of incarnationality is simply redundant. Christians do not need to try to become a second incarnation, they are only called to point toward the finished work of the first. “We are always to point beyond ourselves, as witnesses. We are not Christ, we are not an “ongoing incarnation” in the world… we are not sent into the world to perform another incarnation, but as disciples who bear witness to Christ and his reign by the Spirit.”5
This is not a “second best” scenario for the followers of Jesus. Instead, it is written in the nature of of His Church. “While His death and burial ends His earthly mode of relating to his disciples, they will now relate to Him in a new dimension of His bodily reality through the Spirit. The Risen One does not cease to be present to them…”6
So then, after the first Incarnation, individual believers in Christ are never asked to become a second incarnation. John 20:21 is an oft-used verse to rally incarnational ministers: “As the Father has sent me into the world, so I send you into the world.” Separating this verse from its context allows for the neglect of the next verse: “…and with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” It is not a believer’s “incarnation,” but the Holy Spirit who makes Christ present in the Church and beyond. The Spirit makes the Church’s witness effective. Unfortunately some evangelicals make the mistake of acting as if they- rather than the Holy Spirit, make Christ present in the world. If that is true, the burden of incarnation – and revelation- is on the shoulders of the individual.7
If a minister (who is without a doubt fully human) can be a second incarnation to a people group and literally “be Jesus” to them, was the first incarnation also completed by the fully human man, Jesus? The ancient councils say no, but if the incarnational approach is correct it raises major soteriological concerns, and questions what redemption was accomplished in Christ (the not-God-man)’s death. “The problem is not the doctrine of the Incarnation, which is central to Christian faith. Rather, the problem results from a distortion of that belief—turning the uniquely divine act of the Word becoming incarnate in Christ into a “method for ministry that is repeated in our own lives.”8
The Church is the Incarnation
“This passage might seem to say that we should become incarnate just as Christ took on a “human likeness.” Such a reading, however, moves against the larger context of the passage. In Philippians 2:1-4, Paul has just admonished believers to be “of one mind,” acting toward one another with humility and harmony, exhorting them to look not “to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”… Paul is concerned with the attitude or disposition of believers. He wants them to serve each other with Christ-like humility, not to imitate every detail of Christ’s uniquely redemptive life and work.”9
The mindset Paul writes of is essential for being part of the larger incarnation of Christ: The Body of Christ, the Church. But individual Christian ministers are not the Body of Christ, they are simply part of the Body of Christ. Believers are adopted into Christ; they do not have a divine nature in-and-of themselves as the incarnate Christ did. The Incarnation of Christ in the world today is not shown through individual effort, but through the Holy Spirit’s expression through the unified church. This is the Church Jesus prayed for: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21) This “mutual indwelling” takes the form of a communal existence.
Put another way, Christ did not say “I am the vine… and you are also vines.” Believers are branches who apart from Jesus can do nothing.
To the one and only Son of God and Son of Man, as to their head, all the members of the body are joined, all those who are received into the faith of this mystery, in the fullness of this love. Thus, there is one single body; it is a single person, a single Christ, the head with the members, who rises up to heaven, crying out in its gratitude and showing to God the church of his glory, “Here is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!” …Christ’s Body is the organic field of his relationship to the world. It affects and is affected by the manifold reality of our embodied coexistence in him.10
The mystery and mission of the church is that each follower of Jesus is a part that somehow forms the Body, the Incarnation of Jesus, and presents it to the world. The Incarnation is no longer one man, but the body of believers with Christ as its head, diverse and ever-expanding.
Christians Do Not “Bring Jesus” To Anyone
Practitioners of incarnational ministry often erroneously believe that the cultures they are entering have been neglected or forgotten about by Jesus. Therefore when they arrive, Jesus arrived too. There are indeed people groups who have never heard the name of Jesus, but long before the wheels of a missionary’s plane lands in their village, God is at work, preparing hearts. Incarnational missionaries believe they are Jesus to the lost, so they are tempted to expect that a newly “converted” believer would ultimately take on the qualities of their ministers. Is this the teaching of the Gospel?
There is an alternative to the incarnational model. Adventures in Missions is the largest Christian short-term missions agency in America, sending thousands of students around the world to serve. One of the core teachings contained in their training materials is simply “We don’t bring Jesus to anyone. Jesus is already working there. We’re just coming to join Him in that work.”11
Kingdom-oriented missionaries arrive to serve, not manipulate. They are servants, not colonizers. They do not seek to convert unreached peoples into pew-sitting evangelicals. They seek to introduce the lost to the Jesus they love, and want these people to love and serve Jesus too- even if the love they demonstrate is unfamiliar or uncomfortable to the missionaries.
David Bjork, an evangelical, and a former missionary to France, wrote of his experiences in his Journal of Missiology article:
“I wondered: Is it really necessary for me to establish a “new church” in France? How seriously should I take the faith and witness of the ancient church in this land? What would be my most appropriate response, as the cultural “outsider” and “guest” in France, to the spiritual needs of the French? …Through the years I have endeavored to minister in France from a kingdom of God paradigm stressing relational methods. This has allowed me to accompany more than two hundred French teenagers and adults as they welcomed the lordship of Christ over their lives. All of these individuals were Catholics.12
Bjork realized that being Kingdom–oriented means realizing that he was trying to lead people to the love of Jesus, not “convert” them into a carbon copy of himself. Bjork never indicates in his article if he ever saw anyone become an evangelical. For a kingdom-oriented minister, Jesus is Lord of Catholics, Baptists, and mainstream evangelicals. He found the necessary distinction between “I am the door,” and “there is the door.” Only Jesus can to say “come to me”. Others follow the Way, but they can never become it.
Incarnational Ministry as Soul Gentrification
Walter Goldschmidt, former president of the American Anthropological Society once said, “Missionaries are in many ways our opposites; they believe in original sin, the moral depravity of uncivilized man, and the evil of native customs. Because they wish to change the people we wish to study, we view them as spoilers.” Some missionaries must confess, ‘Guilty as charged,’”13
Believers who choose to minister to others must never forget that the mystery of the Holy Spirit is they have the privilege of revealing the perfect risen Christ to a broken people, through a broken people themselves. The church is in a constant process of repentance, renewal, and sanctification. Believers must apprehend the three-fold now/not-yet nature of salvation: that they have been saved by the resurrection of the Christ, that they are being saved by the transformation of the Holy Spirit, and that they are waiting to be saved in the Age to Come. Although humbling, this mindset prevents a “superhero mentality” from developing; one in which the Christian believes themselves not a simple and fragile jar of clay, but a fully-sanctified incarnation of Christ. Under this mindset, the believer’s culture, and what the person of Jesus become equally vital to the story of conversion.
Slowly, the goal shifts from sharing the good news of Jesus and becomes getting “lost people” to look just like themselves. In doing so they invite the lost into an inert, personal story, one that asks them them to trade sin for sin, and brokenness for brokenness. There is another way, one in which a broken person comes along side another broken person and gently says, “There is a thing that is not me, but has called me, and compelled me… to serve you out of love.” Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), himself Jewish, once wrote, “How odd / Of God / To choose / The Jews.”14
If God’s desire was for power, control, and rapid social change, Jesus would have Incarnated as a Roman, or better yet, an Emperor. Instead, God chose that He would be incarnated as a Roman-dominated, late-iron-age Jew. “…Jesus was thoroughly shaped by his Jewish culture. The God of the universe was manifest through Jesus, who was embedded in this particular culture…The Incarnation tells us something important about God. For making known God’s supreme revelation, God chose an imperfect culture with its limitations.”15
At no point did Jesus renounce His Jewishness, He embraced it fully. Christians who desire to emulate the ministry of Jesus will not colonize another’s culture, lest they “fall into the cultural trap of assuming that what works well for ministry in [their] own culture will also work well in a different culture,[and] assume erroneously that all human beings see the world essentially the same as [they], and that cultural differences are not that significant since we are all human beings created in God’s image.”16
In the early 90s a group of Christians calling themselves “the relocators” began moving into the most dangers sections of Los Angeles. A National Catholic Reporter article at the time quoted one of the relocators: “Crime emerges because of the breakdown of community. The most effective way to combat crime is to help create community in places where it’s falling apart.” Unfortunately, the “community” that these white, middle-class relocators were attempting to build was just that: white, and middle class.17) Further more, it was protestant, and conservative. Hector Lopez, a Los Angeles pastor who had been ministering for many years in the same neighborhoods the relocators were moving to, called their move “…soul gentrification. It’s turning people into clones of ourselves – the worst form of paternalism.”18
Within a decade, the movement a fizzled, and the whites had moved out. They had attempted to become imbedded with the poor, but unfortunately, they failed to answer the question of why the poor were poor in the first place.
“Incarnational identification with the people among whom we live and serve does not mean we try to “go native.” Try as we might, we cannot. We cannot go native because our parents were not “native.” That is, we already have been shaped and molded by another culture, so we can never completely rid ourselves of that experience. And we don’t need to do so. Pathetic attempts to “go native” are often met with disgust by those we are trying to impress.”((Whiteman, 409))
Ministers who exchange their elitist and colonial mindsets with a kingdom-oriented mindset minister, “…in union with Christ [and] point to the final purpose of all cross-cultural ministry: to participate in the Spirit’s work of creating a new humanity in Christ, in which a culturally diverse people gathers to worship the triune God… In engaging other cultures, the New Testament church did not draw on a theology of ‘incarnational ministry,’ but instead responded to the Spirit’s work of creating a new people in Christ.”19
Moving Toward A Healthier Model
The desire of incarnational pastors and ministers to reach the hurting for Christ is truly commendable. Even an imperfect work should be celebrated over choosing apathy or profitless “arm-chair quarterbacking.” This healthier middle ground is where ministers move from viewing themselves as “little christs,” to “little servants of Christ.” Jesus’ own words resonate this in Matthew: “…whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…” (Matthew 20:27-28 NRSV)
If believers can truly be “incarnated” into a people group, they should seek to be incarnated as servants. Billings wrote in his Christianity Today article, “Over the past decade, I have come to see that incarnational ministry actually obscures the much richer theology of servant-witness and cross-cultural ministry in the New Testament: ministry in union with Christ by the Spirit.”20
Through being servants, Christians witness to Christ’s love. Those Kingdom-minded servants “…are not concerned about organizing a church or establishing a Christian institution. Their goal is to reconcile people to God without placing undue stumbling blocks in anyone’s path. Furthermore, they believe that they can best proclaim the Kingdom of God in post-Christendom lands by assuming the posture of servants who set aside their own ecclesiastical rights and privileges.”21
These kingdom-oriented ministers believe that at no point should they ever make someone think that the minister is the model. A missionary can only say “imitate me as imitate Christ” in hindsight of their actions, and in holy fear of the judgement of a transcendent God. A God who does not, as some ironically point out “love who they love and hate who they hate”. The missionary can only live with people, share with them and hope that their lives, lived in service, point to a deeper reality of Christ’s love. This type
of Christian ministry takes the form of community development, building a Body of Christ that is lead by natives of their culture. “The image we see here is one of cultural diversity, not cultural uniformity. People from every ethnolinguistic group will surround the throne of God, worshiping God, not in English, or even English as a second language, but in their own languages, shaped by their own worldviews and cultures.”22
Be Yourself… A Servant, Fully Submitted to God
“Be the hands of God” is a well-worn slogan among pastors attempting to inspire their followers to be more incarnational. The Church father, Irenaeus,coined this term when he wrote of the hands of God in the preface to book IV of Against Heresies. Many pastors teach that the “hands of God” is a metaphor for believers, serving the world. This was not the original intent. Irenaeus wrote that the “hands of God” were not believers, but Jesus and the Holy Spirit- thusly rounding out the trinity. “The Holy Spirit and the Christ being the hands of God the Father, reaching in from the infinite into the finite.”23
When a believer loves and serves others, their life points toward a risen and incarnate Christ. They are not the hands themselves. Kingdom-oriented Christians can trust in God because they know that “…neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”24 In contrast to incarnational ministry, the Incarnation itself actually calls us out of and beyond our cultural defenses.
When we take the Incarnation seriously as a model for mission, it frequently means downward mobility. Incarnation for Jesus led to crucifixion, and for us this means that there will be many things in our life that we will have to die to—our biases and prejudices, our lifestyle, our agenda of what we want to do for God, maybe for some of us even our physical life.25
This type of Kingdom-oriented ministry was understood by Lao Tzu, the Chinese taoist Philosopher:
Go to the people
Live among them
Learn from them
Start with what they know
Build on what they have:
But of the best leaders
When their task is done
The people will remark
“We have done it ourselves.”
Awad, Najeeb George. “The Holy Spirit Will Come upon You”: The Doctrine of the Incarnation and the Holy Spirit.”Theological Review 28, no. 1 (April 2007): 23-45.
Billings, J. Todd. “The Problem with ‘Incarnational Ministry.’.” Christianity Today 56, no. 7 (July 2012): 58.
Billings, J Todd. “Incarnational ministry and Christology: a reappropriation of the way of lowliness.” Missiology 32, no. 2 (April 1, 2004): 187-201
Bjork, David. “A Model for Analysis of Incarnational Ministry in Post-Christendom Lands.” Missiology 25, no. 3 (July 1, 1997): 279-291.
Bookless, Dave. “A Famine of Hope: Christian Mission & the Search for a Sustainable Future.” Evangel 25, (June 2, 2007): i-iv.
Chap Clark, “The Missional Approach to Youth Ministry,” in Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church, ed. Mark H. Senter III (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001)
Costas, Orlando E. Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), 1982.
Hight, Marc A. “The Son More Visible: Immaterialism and the Incarnation.” Modern Theology 26, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 120-148.
Kelly, Anthony J. “The Body of Christ: Amen!”: The Expanding Incarnation.” Theological Studies 71, no. 4 (December 2010): 792-816.
Krum, Brian. “The Missional Shift of Youth Ministry: from Cookie Cutter to Incarnational Ministry.” Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal Of Christian Thought & Practice 13, no. 1 (February 2005): 27-30.
McGhee, Michael. “Is Nothing Sacred? A Secular Philosophy of Incarnation.” Philosophical Investigations 34, no. 2 (April 1, 2011): 169-188.
Steinke, Robin J. “Theological Education: A Theological Framework for Renewed Mission and Models.” Dialog: A Journal Of Theology 50, no. 4 (Winter2011 2011): 363-367.
Tan, Seng-Kong. 2004. “A Trinitarian Ontology of Missions.” International Review Of Mission 93, no. 369: 279-296.
“They Relocate to Befriend Poor.” National Catholic Reporter 30, no. 2 (October 29, 1993): 3
Whiteman, Darrell L. “Anthropology and Mission: the Incarnational Connection.” Missiology 31, no. 4 (October 1, 2003): 397-415.
Zahniser, James H.Boyd, Craig A. “The Work of Love, the Practice of Compassion and the Homosexual Neighbor.”Journal Of Psychology & Christianity 27, no. 3 (Fall2008 2008): 215-226.
- Billings, J. Todd. “The Problem with ‘Incarnational Ministry.’.” Christianity Today 56, no. 7 (July 2012): 58. 63 [↩]
- Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002, 21 Oct. 2008 http://www.biblegateway.com/. [↩]
- Billings, J. (2004). Incarnational ministry and Christology: a reappropriation of the way of lowliness. Missiology, 32(2), 187-201. 193 [↩]
- Although recent scholarship (Orlando Costas and Jürgen Moltmann) have begun to emphasize the often neglected aspect of Christ’s humanity, rebalancing the Nicaean decision for a modern audience overly indoctrinated with Christ’s divinity. Costas writes in his work Christ Outside the Gate, “…the New Testament teaches that Jesus was a thorough human being…a poor, humble, enigmatic, lonely, Jewish preacher” Costas, Orlando E. Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), 1982. 6 [↩]
- Billings, “The Problem…” 61 [↩]
- Kelly, Anthony J. 2010. “The Body of Christ, Amen!”: The Expanding Incarnation.” Theological Studies 71, no. 4: 792-816. 802 [↩]
- Billings, “The Problem…” 60 [↩]
- Ibid. 60 [↩]
- Ibid. 61 [↩]
- Ibid. 61 [↩]
- As a former trip leader for AIM, I personally led hundreds of kids to Mexico, Nicaragua, and West Virginia. This teaching was reiterated many times to young people desperate to “bring Jesus” to a “heathen” people who often surprised the students when the locals proved to be more in love with God then they were. [↩]
- Bjork, David. 1997. “A Model for Analysis of Incarnational Ministry in Post-Christendom Lands.” Missiology 25, no. 3: 279-291. 280, 289 [↩]
- Whiteman, Darrell L. 2003. “Anthropology and mission: the incarnational connection.” Missiology 31, no. 4: 397-415. 400 [↩]
- Whiteman, 407, 408 [↩]
- Ibid. 407 [↩]
- Ibid. 408 [↩]
- Most people believe in the essential “rightness” of their culture, and transmit it along with their understanding of the Gospel. Whiteman responds to this: “The erroneous assumption is that the world is quickly melding into a homogeneous global village, with capitalism as its economic engine and English as its language of discourse. But this is not happening..” (Ibid. 397 [↩]
- 1993. “They relocate to befriend poor.” National Catholic Reporter 30, no. 2: 3. [↩]
- Billings, “The Problem…” 61 [↩]
- Ibid. 60 [↩]
- Bjork, 288 [↩]
- Whiteman, 408 [↩]
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Preface to Book IV [↩]
- Billings, “The Problem…”61 [↩]
- Whiteman, 409 [↩]