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An Incarnational Missiology for the Emerging Church
Defining Incarnational Ministry
The most popular concept that has been used – even over-used – to describe effective Christian ministry in recent years is that of ‘Incarnational Ministry’. Many books have been written, many articles posted on the Internet, to explain the concept and explore its implications for contemporary cultural missiology (Google it and see!). Richard Passmore, in his book Meet Them Where They Are At, is perhaps the most pragmatic exponent of this view. Pete Ward, in Youthwork and the Mission of God and Danny Brierley in Joined Up both explore the same idea, as does Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Church, albeit within a wider ministerial context than the previous authors.
The notion, of course, is based on the belief that the principle of how Jesus ministered 2000 years ago in Palestine can and should be applied to how we seek to minister to others in the 21st-century. We are to become, as Luther said so eloquently, “little Christs.” The fact that the Word became Incarnate and assumed human form is the fundamental raison d’etre for the church to seek ‘the form’ of contemporary cultural expression in its effort to relay the Good News which is the Christian Gospel. For the Emerging Church Movement, this is a foundational principle and underpins all our efforts to be culturally relevant in a postmodern era. To no small extent, the issue is primarily one of initiative. God took the initiative in assuming cultural identity through Christ and so we are to take the initiative in developing ministerial and ecclesiological forms that identify with the shifting patterns of contemporary society. It is no longer enough to assume that the world will come to us. It is no longer enough to assume that we should go to the world. The Emerging Church Movement is concerned to blur – even dismantle – the distinctions between “us” and “them” in an honest endeavor to present a Christ for today. This is no mere intellectual exercise. It is not enough to think as ‘they’ do: the Church must actively choose to operate beyond its own boundaries – beyond the safety of its own walls – in order to be fully incarnational.
It is an often-expressed criticism of Emerging Churches that, in blurring or dismantling the distinctions, the content of the Gospel is lost through the changing context of presentation. This need not necessarily be the case, however. In the same way that Jesus did not deny his divinity in assuming human form, neither need the church deny its eternal ontological holiness in becoming culturally relevant. In The Purpose Driven Church (p.238), Rick Warren states, “Fulfilling God’s purpose must always take priority over preserving tradition. If you are serious about ministering to people the way Jesus did, don’t be surprised if some of today’s religious establishment accuse you of selling out to culture and breaking traditions.” Holding the balance is, of course, difficult and the Emerging Church makes itself an easy target by sometimes getting the balance wrong. However, no journey towards self-expression is without its pitfalls and dangers and, just because we sometimes get it wrong, there is no need to abandon that journey. Indeed, if John Stott, writing in The Contemporary Christian (p.244), is right, we dare not abandon that journey: “On the one hand, [Jesus] came to us in our world, and assumed the full reality of our humanness….He fraternised with the common people and they flocked around him eagerly….He identified himself with our sorrows, our sins and our death. On the other hand, in mixing freely with people like us, he never sacrificed, or even for one moment compromised, his own unique identity. His was the perfection of ‘holy worldliness’. And now he sends us out into the world as he was sent into the world (John 17:18; 20:21). We have to penetrate other people’s worlds, as he penetrated ours – the world of their thinking (as we struggle to understand their misunderstandings of the gospel), the world of their feeling (as we try to empathise with their pain), and the world of their living (as we sense the humiliation of their social situation…).”
For the Church to be motivated towards an incarnational ministry, the Church must, like Jesus before us, be motivated by love. Furthermore, that love – to be truly incarnational – must be unconditional. This is not to suggest soft love but hard love. It will be hard for Christians to love and love and love again even when it faces rejection. Furthermore, Christians must be willing to challenge without condemning. If there is one prevailing fault of the Emerging Church Movement it is surely its unwillingness to stand against – even condemn – what is unbiblical. To be sure, the Emerging Church Movement is quick to condemn ecclesiastical practices it deems to be unbiblical but often does not hold to the same standards of holiness on ethical issues. Soft love, if it is to be truly incarnational, can never be an option.
Ultimately, incarnational ministry is about friendship. The witness of the Gospels to us is that Jesus was prepared to be the friend of sinners. Sadly, we often miss the humour and fun of the Gospel stories. Jesus at a wedding; Jesus having dinner with his friends; Jesus out for a walk on the beach or in the cornfields; Jesus sending up the Pharisees and the rich; Jesus telling tall stories; Jesus mocking the system. Not every social interaction by Jesus was taken as an excuse to proclaim the Gospel message. Rather, he sought to live the Gospel message by embodying the friendship of God to sinners. It is a truism of St. Francis of Assisi that we should, “preach the Gospel always. Only use words if you have to.” Embodiment, through friendship, is often more powerful than words. That is the testimony of incarnational ministry.
There is little doubt about the validity of this Biblical model for ministry. Which one of us would deny the power of relationship in the presentation of the Gospel? Which one of us would deny the need to embody the Gospel as – even before – we speak it? Certainly for me, I would never have embraced the Truth of Jesus Christ were it not for a small band of Christians who befriended me without any sense of obligation upon me some 23 years ago. I was acutely aware that they lived the Gospel and embodied the truths of Jesus long before I asked them to explain those truths to me. I imagine the same would be true for many of you too.
However, the importance of incarnation as a model for ministry is in danger of being dumbed down at best, lost completely at worst, because we have not really been prepared to wrestle with the true cost of incarnation for ministry. Too often for us, incarnation is an ideal we aspire to without becoming a lifestyle we embrace. When the Word became Incarnate, there was a whole lot more to it than merely embracing a contemporary cultural form and forming friendships within that paradigm. Incarnation was a costly business for the Son of God – and not just in reference to his eventual crucifixion. The act of incarnation itself was costly. To fully redeem this notion for ministry, we must redeem the costly nature of the act itself. Once this has been redeemed, we are in a better position to reflect on the costly nature of Christian ministry itself.
It is in Philippians 2:5-11 that we see this truth expounded most graciously. This passage, of course, is not about Jesus. It is about you and me. Paul begins in verse 5 by stating, “Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus.” Christ is the exemplar but we are the objects of Paul’s concern here. In the verses that follow, Paul outlines the true cost of an incarnational ministry:
If we are to move ‘beyond incarnation’ and ‘into incarnation’ in our ministry, we need to briefly unpack this passage to find out what it may entail.
Abandonment of equality
The history of the institutional Church in the Constantinian era is imbibed with the meta-narrative of power. This brief article is no place to argue the point nor go into details: the truth is self-evident. A system of rights and privileges is what has given power to the priesthood and/or presbyteral system, both in terms of personal and doctrinal authority. Sometimes, though not always, this has had negative implications and results. Nevertheless, power and position has traditionally gone hand in hand with the proclamation of the Gospel.
According to this Christological exposition in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, this was not the way of Christ. For him, the notion of relying on power and privilege was not an option in the act of Incarnation. Perhaps Jesus could have claimed equality with God, quite literally, as his divine right. But he chose not to do so. Indeed, as Motyer points out in The Message of Philippians (p.110), there may also be two other interpretations of this sentence which would carry even more profound overtones. First, that Jesus would not cling on to a position that could be exploited for self-advantage. Second, that equality could be grasped as a thief steals something that does not belong to him.
Incarnational ministry, after the model of Christ, begins with the foundational ideal that powers and privileges must not be claimed. We may have the ‘right’ to the benefits of a particular offices but that does not mean that we should necessarily claim them. Far less should we fall into the temptation of exploiting position and power for self-gain. The temptations for those in ministry are very real. We must pray for ourselves and for those in ecclesial authority for wisdom in the way we and they use the authority that God has given.
Abandonment of self
Rather than claiming his power and privileges, Jesus chose to give them up. Arguably, this verse in Scripture has raised more questions than almost any other. What does it mean for Jesus to have emptied himself? Did he somehow become less than he was? What is the content of this Kenotic Christology that has had so much ink spilled over it? However, as Motyer suggests (p.112) this may not be the question we need to ask. “We ought to notice that in asking the perfectly natural question, ‘Of what did Christ empty himself,’ we are, in fact, departing from the direct line of thought in this passage…It is not ‘Of what did he empty himself?’ but ‘Into what did he empty himself?’ Rather than the image of a jug of water being emptied out, we need instead to picture the water being poured into something. It is that something that makes sense of this passage…
Acceptance of servant status
…and the something is the something of servanthood. Complete and utter self-giving. As Gordon Fee says in Philippians (p.95), “This is how divine love manifests itself in its most characteristic and profuse expression. Christ entered our history not as kyrios (‘Lord’)…but as doulos (‘slave’), a person without advantages, rights or privileges, but in servanthood to all.”
Crucially, Jesus is the servant of all. He did not pick and choose whom he served. He was the servant of all. That is the hard part of ministry in and for the Christian Church – to be the servant of all. The temptation for those in Christian ministry is often to fall in to one or more errors with regard to servanthood.
First, we are tempted to be choosy about whom we decide to serve. It is often the case that our Churches exist for the acceptable and shun the unacceptable. I was Vicar of a Church a number of years ago in the East End of London. A bag-lady began attending our Sunday evening worship. After one month, a small group of respectable ladies, who had been regular worshippers for many years, came to me with an ultimatum. They brought my attention to the severe body odour problem which the bag-lady had (as if I hadn’t noticed it myself!) and then proceeded to say, “You need to make a choice, Vicar. This woman is ruining our worship. You must either ask her to leave the Church or we won’t be back!”
For a while, I missed this group of ladies…but not for too long.
Second, we are tempted to be servants – but not as an end in itself. We may choose to serve our community in order that they are converted to the faith. We may choose to serve our community in order that the reputation of the Church increases. We may choose to serve our community in order that we mark a particular liturgical season with due reverence. That is not the way of Christ. He served. Full stop. Christ became the servant of all and continued to serve even when the majority did not choose to recognise him. Jesus never served in order that… Jesus just served.
Acceptance of identification
Contrary to Docetic views, the Incarnation was full, real and complete. When people came into contact with Jesus, they came into contact with a man. To be sure, there is an ambiguity about this verse (“he became like a human and appeared in human likeness) that allows for the fact that this was no ordinary man. Jesus was one of us – and yet different. The God-Man embraces human culture and yet still remains above it. In the same way, we are called to a form of ministry that embraces the culture in which we live and work and yet remain somehow detached from it. We are called to be “in the world but not of it.” We are to be Jews when we are with Jews, Gentiles when we are with Gentiles. We are to be all things to all people so that we may win some for Christ. The hardest part of this Incarnational ministry that we are called to practice is holding in tension this paradox of cultural embracing-detachment in such a way that we remain authentic in love. As Stott commented in The Contemporary Christian (p.360), “In every non-Christian (and many Christians too), even in the jolliest extroverts, there are hidden depths of pain. We can reach them only if we are willing to enter into their suffering.” It is no easy task to enter into suffering in the way that Jesus does. However, nothing less is required of us in Christian ministry.
A controlled life
The Gospel narratives portray the image of a man who was utterly reliant on his Father. Jesus was completely obedient to God in regard to his activities (John 5:19), in regard to his judgements (John 5:30) and in regard to his speaking (John 8:28). Obedience is the model that Jesus gives us and obedience to the Father God is the teaching that he gives us through the Sermon on the Mount: obedience in conduct (Matt 5:15, 44, 48; 6:1), prayer (Matt 6:8, 9; 7:11) and daily reliance on him (Matt 6:31, 32).
A controlled death
Paul stresses the incredible depth of Jesus’ commitment to humanity by the repetition of the word ‘death’ in this verse. His commitment was total, as Fee reminds us (p.97): “No one in Philippi, we must remind ourselves, used the cross as a symbol for their faith; there were no gold crosses embossed on Bibles or worn as pendants around the neck or lighted on the steeple of the local church. The cross was God’s – and thus their – scandal, God’s contradiction to human wisdom and power: that the One they worshiped as Lord should have been crucified as a state criminal at the hands of one of ‘lord’ Caesar’s proconsuls; that the Almighty should appear in human dress, and that he should do so in this way, as a messiah who died by crucifixion. Likewise, this is the scandal of Pauline ethics: that the God who did it this way ‘gifts’ us to ‘suffer for his sake’ in this way as well.”
And that is the ultimate call of Christian ministry; that we must be prepared to die to self (literally or metaphorically). It is, of course, a scandal even today. It is a scandal to an institution that it is called to renounce all power and privilege. It is a scandal to the rich and the spiritually powerful that we are called to assume the form of servants – without question and without motive. It is a scandal that the Body of Christ is called to give up everything that it has in order to model Christ.
It is a scandal to a traditional Church that it is called to die.
Ultimately, however, that is what Incarnational Ministry is all about. We belittle the concept if we continue to think about it merely in terms of building relationships and making ourselves culturally relevant. Incarnational ministry is as much about death as it is about life. It will be a courageous – and obedient – Church that seeks to model this form of ministry into the 21st-century. Is the Emerging Church Movement brave enough to rise to that challenge and pave the way for a truly incarnational transformation of society?