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.