Reflections on the Incarnation: Incarnational Ministry (A follow up post to An Empty Christmas)December 20, 2013
The incarnation of Christ serves as a model for ministry and missions, often called incarnational ministry. The primary biblical passage for this approach is found in John 20:21: “as the Father has sent me, I also send you.” (See also John 17:18.) The following observations are the foundations of incarnational ministry which should characterize our personal ministry as well as that of our churches.
First, we should be motivated by love. John 3:16, which you know, clearly spells out that the Father sent the Son out of a motivation of love for the world. Our motives for reaching people should be fundamentally about glorifying God and reflecting His love for others. The desire to see our church grow, personal fulfillment, etc. are all secondary in importance.
Second, incarnational ministry takes the initiative to reach people. God the Father sent His Son as the pivotal point in His mission to redeem a lost world. Throughout the Bible we can see God’s mission of salvation. As co-laborers together with Him (1 Corinthians 3:9), we should be faithful to be on His mission (google Missio Dei). Taking initiative means that we are active as Jesus was to “seek and serve” the lost.
We should not be content to sit in a church building, but should actively engage the lost where they are. A phrase that would summarize this characteristic of incarnational ministry is “Go and Tell, not come and hear.” Of course, in practice, we should do both, but too many churches are passive. “The lost know where we are,” is an un-expressed philosophy of ministry in the churches that have forgotten their mission.
Third, incarnational ministry is characterized by humility and service. Part I of this article explored how God the Son emptied himself as described in Philippians 2. The direct application of this passage is humility towards one another within the body of Christ (see Philippians 2:1-4). The application of service to the lost is made by Jesus himself in Mark 10:45 “For the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.” Steve Sjogren and others have done a great job alerting churches to the opportunities of “Servant Evangelism.” Meeting needs is a practical way of demonstrating the love of Christ. “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Acts of service put one in contact with lost people and provide the basis for forming relationships.
Perhaps the most common single reason unbelievers give about why they do not attend church is that they perceive those in the church as judgmental and “holier than thou.” This perception, while often wrong, does have enough truth to it to warrant a fresh self-examination of the needed attitude of humility.
Fourth, incarnational ministry has at its heart faithful obedience. The Son was obedient to the Father, even to the ultimate sacrifice of death on a cross. Maybe the second most common reason unbelievers do not attend church is that “the church is full of hypocrites.” Sometimes I wonder how many church goers are sincerely seeking to be faithful, obedient and setting the right example of following Christ. A verbal testimony of Christ should be backed up with a visual testimony of obedience.
Fifth, incarnational ministry means getting on the same wavelength or level as those we are seeking to minister to. Missiologists use the term “identification” for this idea. Christ became a man to get down on our level. Missionaries and ministers will have to cross cultural barriers in order to identify with a different culture. This is most readily apparent in communicating to others in their “heart” language or language they grew up speaking. For missionaries it also means learning the culture and effectively adapting to it, in addition to learning the language.
Identification is often difficult because of the extent or degree to which one identifies with the culture. If Christians are too separate, they are viewed as irrelevant, foreign, a sect etc. (such as the Amish). On the other hand, if there is too much identification, there is a risk of becoming “enmeshed” in syncretism with a loss of biblical authority and obedience to Christ. As Jesus himself prayed in John 17: 16-18, His followers are to be in the world, but not of the world.
The apostle Paul expressed the idea of identification in I Corinthians 9:19-22:
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.”
Many years of research have consistently demonstrated that the vast majority of people who become Christians do so because of relationships. To establish a relationship with another person, you have to identify with them. Jesus, as He became incarnate, took the initiative to establish a relationship with us. I hope you will follow His example and take the initiative to establish relationships with those that need to know Him! Merry Christmas!
- Stephen Parks, PhD
Instructor of Global Studies