The Incarnation and Culture

The Incarnation of Jesus Christ has so many great implications for humanity that to expound them all would be, to some degree, impossible. There is one particular implication of the Incarnation that has enraptured me as of late, however. The fact that Jesus came to earth, and that God inhabited sinful human culture with the expressed goal of bringing redemption, calling men to God, and generally being a “missionary,” has profound implications for the modern church’s ministry methods. It is relevant, then, to speak of the Incarnation as a Model for Ministry.

Now this idea has of course been explored in numerous works and by hundreds of preachers, pastors, theologians, missiologists, and ministry strategists. Since there are far more interesting and articulate expositions of this idea elsewhere, my goal here is not to rival their works but to simply summarize the general idea with the hope that it can spark good conversation and thought amongst our readers.

As we think about the general doctrine of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ several things stand out to me. (1) Jesus inhabited sinful human culture, (2) Jesus had an uncompromising goal of redemption, and (3) Jesus used culture to achieve that desired end. Exploring these three facets of the Incarnation will convey more clearly what I have in mind when I speak of the “Incarnation and Cultural, Contextualized Ministry.”

When we speak of Jesus we are referencing the God-Man. That is the one person in the history of the world, indeed in the history of existence, who was both Holy, Pure, Perfect God and fully Human. What this does not mean is that Jesus’ humanity experienced sin in any capacity. Despite what some would say, sin is not a part of the human experience, even though it is part of the experience of all humans save one (Jesus). Sin is a corruption of the human experience, of what it means to be in fact a human being, but it is not fundamentally bound up in the idea of humanness as God had originally created it. Jesus, as God, was fully human but was without sin.

When we speak of Jesus’ inhabiting human culture we mean that the holy, pure, just God took on an earthly form, became a man, and lived and dwelt among the sinful world that had rejected and hated Him as God, and would continue to do so (even to the point of crucifying Him). The application that we derive from this aspect of the Incarnation for Church ministry is that despite what diminished Fundamentalism has taught, the church should not, and in fact cannot, hide away from the world in order to do ministry. Jesus dove head first into the sinful world. He lived on the same block as vile sinners. He spent time with prostitutes, whores, and extortionists. He dined in the home of hated and wicked men like Zacchaeus. Some Christians will tend to use the expression “in the world, but not of the world,” as a defense of abstaining from culture. But here is Jesus in the midst of corrupt culture, and if ever there was one who was “in the world, but not of the world,” it was clearly the Messiah!

What this means for ministry is that we can no longer flee from the cities of corruption (thankfully many men and women have already gotten this idea and thousands of Christians are returning to the cities to do ministry). It means that we can no longer ignore culture (popular-culture included) and believe that we will impact the lost. It means that we can no longer buy into the insane Fundamentalist thought that says, “if we just unlock the doors of our church, then those who hate God and don’t know Jesus, and don’t believe they need Jesus, will come in.” No! What we must do is take our cue from the ministry of Jesus and from the Incarnation. We must go into the sin-filled world of the sinners who don’t know Jesus and we must lovingly bring the gospel to bear on their lives. This means a plethora of things for the practicalities of ministry, but largely it means a willingness to change our methods to incorporate the particulars of our culture. Missiologist Dr. Ed Stetzer keenly writes, “Every church is culturally relevant. It is simply a matter of whether the culture of the church is in any way similar to the culture of its community or only meaningful to itself” (“Why Is Cultural Relevance A Big Deal?”).

Of course Jesus passed this ideal onto his disciples, and it is most noticeable in the ministry of the Apostle Paul, who in 1 Corinthians 9 writes:

1 Corinthians 9:19-22 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.Doing effective ministry means conveying the unchanging message of the gospel to a sometimes drastically and rapidly changing world. Jesus entered this sinful world, lived in it, and used it to bring redemption.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Since I mostly agree with what you’re saying, I’ll focus on something I don’t agree with. Yeah, I’m like that!

    It means that we can no longer ignore culture (popular-
    culture included) and believe that we will impact the lost.

    There are two ways I could approach this and so in two ways I shall:

    1) Cultural comprehension and facility, while perhaps helpful, do not seem to be any kind of necessity for impacting the unbeliever. While cultural acumen may be put to use in conveying the gospel, it is the gospel that impacts lives.

    Further, Scripture makes it seem as if lives of righteousness and the works of the Spirit may also impact the lives of unbelievers. And in such passages as it recommends these things, it makes no mention of any specifically cultural involvement.

    2) In a very real way, ignoring culture is impossible for all save perhaps the deeply autistic. Whether I watch television or not, I am thoroughly entrenched in the culture because I am a member of the culture. I am, in a sense, a very real participant in world culture because despite the auspices of difference (as related to niche-cultures), there is little that makes my culture honestly different from a tribal African culture or a Wall Street financier’s culture. We all share in the human experience and despite value differences and varying ideologies, our experiences are not all that dissimilar.

    And for that, it is impossible for me to ignore the human culture when doing anything in life.

  • Chris Crocker

    “I would just like to know if you know what a plethora is? I would not like to think that a person would tell someone he has a plethora, and then find out that that person has ‘no idea’ what it means to have a plethora.”

  • David


    I can see that we’re roughly on the same page. And while I certainly would not want to emphasize cultural comprehension over and above gospel proclomation, it seems to me that to communicate the gospel clearly we need this cultural awareness. In the old model of evangelism you could simply proclaim the gospel because largely everyone was aware of Christian teaching (though this hardly warrents the lable of “A Christian Nation”). Now days, however, fewer and fewer people know and understand anything about Christianity. Building relationships is the first step to modern evangelism, and this requires cultural awareness.

    Furthermore, while it is indeed true that we cannot escape culture. The fact remains that most churches exist in a culture that is purely nostalgic and non-existent in the present world they live in. They don’t know how to do ministry in their new context. It’s the reality of that Ed Stetzer quote above.

  • Jason Stambaugh

    I don’t have any particular gripes with the post, but wanted to bring up a sub-topic that runs parallel to this issue of bringing the gospel to bear in culture. I spent four years leading Young Life. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Young Life is youth ministry set up to bring the gospel to high school kids outside the walls of the “church”. It is what I would like to call guerilla ministry. It is very unorthodox and forces, I think, leaders to walk on the edge.

    With that said, I became close to about 25 high school boys and girls, with about another 30 or so on the periphery. To get close to them, to earn their trust, I would hang out with them on their terms. As we know high school kids maintain lives that are often a far stretch from what their parents could imagine. I was party to conversation about sex, drinking, drugs, sometimes hate…the list could go on….

    But when I was there, right in the thick of it, I think this debate culture and ministry clashed. Should I have pulled out the whip and lashed the ground and proclaimed the unrighteousness while sitting around a table at Denny’s? Or should I just try to steer the conversation toward more wholesome topics? What would Jesus do?

    Would Jesus when hanging out with prostitutes pronounce their latest trick a terrible tragedy and a sin? Or would Jesus sit back, get close and earn their trust before pointing the finger?

    What do you all think?

  • Jesus was not born in sin and had no sin in Him. He walked with power we do not find much in the church. Paul also walked in similar power.

    Matthew 4:23,24 talks about the start of Jesus’ ministry, He taught in synagogues (churches), preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness…

    We are called to be separate and apart but it does not say to separate yourself from society.

    I too believe we are to get out of the building and into the world but we must also be careful to be lead by the Holy Spirit.

    The most obvious place to start is with family, friends and associates you may have influence over.

    Don’t start out trying to save the world. Jesus gives us the pattern in Acts 1:8 …and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

    After you have developed some spiritual muscles then take on some of the “world” around you but take a friend. That too is part of the pattern.

  • David

    @ Jason- I think in those kinds of settings one of the best things to do is actually answer questiosn that teens have about those subjects with the Bible. You don’t need to change the topics, per se, you just need to speak about what the Bible says on these issues. It’s helping teens to develop an all encompassing Biblical Worldview.