J. Todd Billings, a good young theologian in Michigan, has a new CT article that pushes against the propriety of using “incarnation” for what we do…
What do you think? Do you think “incarnational ministry” is a good theological category?
In recent decades, scores of books, manuals, and websites advocating “incarnational ministry” have encouraged Christians to move beyond ministry at a distance and to “incarnate” and immerse themselves into local cultures. Some give a step-by-step “incarnation process” for Christians crossing cultures. Some call us to become incarnate by “being Jesus” to those around us. Indeed, many of these resources display valuable insights into relational and cross-cultural ministry. But there are serious problems at the core of most approaches to “incarnational ministry”—problems with biblical, theological, and practical implications.
I encountered these problems myself as a practitioner of “incarnational ministry.” At a Christian college, 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. Eight months later, equipped with training in cultural anthropology, I set about learning the language and culture in Uganda. But I quickly ran into doubts about the “incarnational” method. Would the Ugandans necessarily “see Jesus” as a result of my efforts at cultural identification? Was I assuming that my own presence—rather than that of Christ—was redemptive? Is the eternal Word’s act of incarnation really an appropriate model for ministry?…Viewing the Incarnation as a model for ministry leads to a dangerous imbalance in two ways. 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….
Yet because they take the Incarnation as their “model” of ministry, these evangelicals often assume that they—rather than the Holy Spirit—make Christ present in the world. In these circles, one often hears the slogan that “you and I may be the only Jesus that others will ever meet.” Youth leaders are admonished to go out and “be Jesus” to youth, wherever they are. Church planters are told to “be Christ” to the people they meet. The burden of incarnation—and revelation—is on the shoulders of the individuals. Such a theology often leads to burnout. In spite of its motive to be relational and evangelistic, this approach functionally denies the adequacy of Christ’s unique incarnation and the Spirit’s work as the supreme witness to Christ (John 15:26). We forget that we are not equipped to represent Christ to the world without being united, as a community, to Christ through the Spirit….
In the end, not one New Testament passage suggests that we should imitate the divine act of becoming incarnate. Instead, the passages used to support “incarnational ministry” illustrate the pervasive New Testament theme of union with Christ by the Spirit. We actually become united to Christ the Lord by the Spirit’s power.