Is “Incarnation” the Right Word for Ministry?

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.

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  • I haven’t read anything else by Mr. Billings, but it feels like he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder regarding incarnational ministry.

    Also, having just finished the whole article, I can’t help but feel like he is setting up a bunch of straw men in his arguments.

    Granted, I’m a bit biased in this—I work for a ministry that for over 25 years has been sending teams to live and minister incarnationally among the urban poor in the U.S. and around the world. This idea of incarnating into another culture and location is central to how God has called us to be ministers.

    But no one I know or work alongside would suggest that our incarnation is a divine act, nor would we say that we are supposed to take the place of Jesus in our neighborhood. We testify to Christ in both word and deed, we don’t take his place. We know full well that we are useless without the power and guidance of the Spirit, and we recognize that unless we have a community around us (our team, our local churches, our local leaders, our missional community around the world), we will burn out quickly.

    I realize that in recent years, “incarnational ministry” has become a bit of a buzz word, and so I realize that Billings is likely responding to examples he has seen of people who, instead of appreciating incarnation as an approach to ministry that Jesus modeled, have set it up as the ONLY RIGHT way to do ministry. This always happens with fads, where good things are blown out of proportion as they become popular. But this is no reason to condemn the good along with the bad. Perhaps Billings hasn’t seen the good?

    Here’s what it comes down to for me: Billings is trying to argue against incarnational ministry as a theological concept. He is debating against people who he thinks are making incarnational ministry into a theological imperative, the one RIGHT WAY to do ministry, and something that Scripture expects of everyone. He thinks theology built around incarnation sets up Lone Ranger missionaries who forget about Jesus and don’t trust the Holy Spirit. To the extent that such a thing exists, he’s probably right.

    But incarnational ministry isn’t a theological category; it’s a missiological category. It’s an approach to ministry where people recognized that, “Hey, God spent a lot of time getting in the messy lives and local contexts of the people He wanted to speak to so they’d understand Him… maybe we should try that, too!” It’s about God calling certain people to focus on walking alongside people in life, to do Kingdom work from the ground up, instead of using our power and authority to hand things down to the poor.

    Incarnational ministry isn’t a requirement or mandate. But for those of us called to deeply relational, grassroots, holistic, empowering, upside-down-Kingdom, Jesus-oriented approaches to ministry, it’s a useful framework (or a wineskin, as my ministry likes to call it) for talking about how we cross cultures and build bridges for the sake of the full Gospel.

  • Paul W

    I do not pretend to be current in models of professional church ministry or its labels. Nonetheless, there are some things that seems quite strange to me about this way of talking.

    1. The label. As living human beings on planet Earth we are– are we not– already incarnate. Incarnation is something we have through birth.

    2. The model. Seems like the classic model of imitating Christ was one that emphasized crarrying a cross.

    3. The implication. That my job is to become “incarnate” in another culture. Didn’t Jesus pretty much spend almost all of his ministry within the culture in which he was incarnated?

  • DRT

    I take it as a serious disrespect to the Incarnation, further it is Christian jargon and jargon is not what someone whould be immersing themselves in when going to meet others.

  • “(W)e are not equipped to represent Christ to the world without being united, as a community, to Christ through the Spirit…”

    “…(W)hen the gospel is reduced to identifying with others, the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation becomes an afterthought…”

    The church is Christ’s body until he returns. The church’s task is to witness to the Gospel — “the reality of God’s redeeming activity through Jesus Christ.”

    To unite, as a community disciplined by and through humble submission to the Gospel, to Christ through the Spirit — by embracing the life (history) of the church in confession and repentance is the way of incarnational living.

    It is not our task to “identify with others,” but to offer hospitality to the stranger.

  • Norman

    Perhaps it would help to explain how a 45 minute seeker service contrasted to a 45 minute liturgical version is theologically that much less of a worship service. I would hope the points of contact that make church relevant is the relationships that one invest in their local congregation no matter what kind of worship venue is utilized. One of my grown children married a devout Episcopalian and my visits to that church simply presents an organization difference between my Restoration church. I don’t see much utility in the functional presentation except that it may provide a solace reminder of Jewish synagogue and Temple worship from the earliest times that we find in the High church experience. IT’s the people and the relationships that I put premium on but that’s just me.

  • I think that what seems to be going on here is an example of what we risk happening every time we use theological categories to systematize and crystallize what it means to follow Christ.

    When missions or theology become systematic (i.e. defined by static terminology and/or by a specific sequence of steps or “best practices” we are treating Christ like a fast food franchise. We change the menu a bit to be accepted in each culture (non-beef patties in India), but the whole thing is still run from “corporate headquarters” whose goal is simply to sell as many “super-sized” value meals as possible (yes, I suppose I have a “church as corporation” chip on my shoulder).

    If, in your circles, the word “incarnational” has become shorthand for something you feel is oppressive, then, by all means, step up as a prophetic voice to refocus on the Truth tht originally inspired the word. That said, with the instant and global communication possible on the Internet, we need to be humble and sensitive to the fact that the words or phrases that speak oppression to us might very well be simultaneously speaking grace and power to another.

    We are called, NOT commanded, to put flesh and blood on the word of Christ, by walking in the spirit of grace and love, especially for those to whom the historical Jewish narrative makes little intuitive sense. Once they have seen Christ they will understand, if their hearts are ready.

  • DRT

    Norman, wrong thread brother….

  • DRT

    mate w.,

    I want to touch on the systematic statements you make. that seems to be a real danger today in many regards. I think a lot of people read the bible simply as a cross reference to their system, checking off the things that match and ignoring the rest. applying that to outreach is similar in potential problems. but let’s face it, folks like to feel they are right and having such a backing makes them feel good. to bad it is not Jesus way.

  • DRT

    Nate W. sorryabout that, darn phone.

  • When Hudson Taylor, against all the conventional missional wisdom of his day, adopted Chinese dress and ways, he was incarnating not only the preeminence of Christ but the value of the target culture. We will not be an anonymous mass of billions of people around the throne of the Lamb, but peoples of specifically identifiable cultures. I tend to agree that Billings, while trying to make some good observations, seems to create unnecessary claims about incarnational ministry. It may do Billings well to meditate long and intensely on the theology of Luke-Acts. The church is the *continuing incarnation* of Christ and Paul did incarnate the Gospel in different ways to different cultures. I think Paul was a smart guy. Incarnation ministry does not detract from the one off Incarnation of Jesus; it shines a strong, commendable light on “the Word made flesh.” Does Billings ever reflect on Paul’s description of the Corinthian believers—“*you* are a letter of *Christ*…read by everyone…written on the human hearts”? Because Billings has come across unwise use of the incarnational ministry reality does not mean that incarnational ministry is itself at fault.

  • JoeyS

    Perhaps finding solidarity is a better approach or phrase than “incarnational.” I only suggest this because incarnational assumes that an outsider is coming in when in reality, we are all of the same substance, the same essence. But solidarity means that we seek to be with who would otherwise be the “other.”

  • Alan K

    I have to agree with John up in #10. Let there be no doubt about it whatsoever: the church is the provisional reality of Jesus Christ in the world.

  • Dan Reid

    As Todd Billings knows, I’m delighted to see him take on this issue. He has pointed to exactly what’s wrong with it theologically and exegetically. And he has pointed to its problems in practice (based in personal experience and observation). Having traveled a road very similar to Todd’s theologically and in cross-cultural ministry/living (in fact, having grown up in another culture), I can only applaud him. Biblical texts have been misconstrued in support of incarnational ministry and the practice of “incarnational ministry” has (in my experience) not been critically self-aware. What is it that “incarnational” does for ministry that “servant” (understood, say, in Pauline context) does not?

  • Billings is first-rate. The article is a shortened piece of his argument that he lays out in his most recent work “Union with Christ.” I highly recommend the work.

  • @Dan Reid #13,

    Incarnation, in a ministry sense, doesn’t replace servanthood—it empowers it.

    Duane Elmer, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, says that when doing cross-cultural ministry, we shouldn’t call ourselves servants until the local people start thinking of us like that themselves. “Servanthood” can look very different from one culture to another; we, as Americans (or white middle-class evangelicals) can come in and try to be servants, but still come across as oppressors if we haven’t understood the culture.

    Incarnation enables us to do cross-cultural work better. It doesn’t replace the need to be servants—it helps us to understand how to be a servant in the culture we want to reach.

  • JoeyS – “solidarity”

    Thanks for your insight. I think you hit on a couple really good points. To the extent that we understand “incarnational” ministry to mean carrying Christ into a place here he did not exist before I would agree that it is a poor term. We are not outsiders bringing what we have to replace what they have, though this is a common perception.

    Rather we need to understand that what they are searching for is ultimately Heaven, regardless of what form their search presently takes. When we understand this our focus moves from changing to understanding. We can freely become “all things” to each person and fully enter into another person’s search (as opposed to superficially pretending while having a secret agenda) by going with them wherever their road leads. And walking along with them just as Christ would. This of course will include speaking Truth, but even moreso BEING truth.

    Like I said above, the moment “incarnational ministry” becomes a systematic gospel vehicle rather than a heart level response to the lovliness we see in another person, we have stepped out of grace and entered into shame, burnout, and oppression.

    Again, the words are metaphors. Whether you call it “incarnating”, “putting on”, “serving”, “dying daily”, “taking up your cross”, etc., the point is that as we believe that we are known and loved by God we naturally will get to know and live others as they are. If the words you are using communicate something different in the ears of another, it’s time to evaluate whether they are HELPFUL words or not and to discern what other words or metaphors might more clearly give an impression of what it means to follow Christ.

  • I would also recommend that folk read Billings whole argument in his book “Union With Christ,” so far from what I’ve read in the comments folks aren’t really appreciating Billings finer “theological” points (and to the chagrin of some, I’m sorry, we all do “theology”, it’s either good or bad relative to its object of consideration and the implications of his life, Jesus Christ). I am not sure how suggesting that Billings has made a category mistake (missiology V. theology) can be sustained in a meaningful way. In what way is missiology not a really a christological category, and in what way is christology not a theological category (or so called theology proper)?

    The basic point of Billings argument, as I read it, is that we are not Jesus, ultimately, we are not God’s Son by nature, but his children by the grace of adoption; and so we participate from his life, we don’t ever BECOME Jesus … we bear witness to his life as participants in it (i.e. his life). There is a distinction. Based upon the usual incarnational logic, and applying it to an ecclesiology, all of its Protestant practitioners are being truly and internally inconsisten; since the usual logic of incarnational ministry is following a belief that pro-longates the incarnation of Christ in the world. But the incarnation cannot be prolongated or augmented by our efforts, it can’t be reduplicated, it can only be participated from. We as Christians do not re-present or extend the incarnation, if so then, at the least, we are no longer Protestants. And this is something else that ought to be appreciated about what Todd is saying—i.e. his context—he is writing as a Reformed Protestant theologian, and trying to think consistently from there, and then applying this kind of “theological” and “biblical” consistency to applied ministry situations.

  • Tom F.

    This article, like the previous article on narrative theology at CT, is theologically astute but the sad truth is that, in context, I can’t help but wonder if it is really about theology.

    The article on incarnation seems to act as a proxy to attack what is perceived as a mega-church model of ministry, which is thought to be a focus on cultural engagement through practical application of social science and psychology rather than an emphasis on Christ, “…techniques for adopting a second culture, listening to others…but apparently there was no more need to mention Christ”. The article then takes an (unattributed) swipe at a mainline missions conference, “…missionaries claimed that they did not need to bear witness to Christ”.

    The reason why these examples are irrelevant is because these theological mistakes are not primarily caused by the theological categories (i.e., model of ministry) that the author is talking about . To see this, ask yourself: Would mainline churches make the life, death, and resurrection of Christ more central in their mission efforts if they adopted the author’s model without changing any of the rest of their assumptions? It seems unlikely; the issues are far more complex than that. It seems unlikely that ministry model is even the primary issue as regards the deficient in mainline ministry models.

    The author calls out conservative evangelicals too, but they most come off as well-meaning but slightly mistaken on this front.

    I think the author is actually right about the theology, and I would probably reconsider using such “incarnational” language. What I worry about, thought, is that in the process of convincing the readers that this is an important discussion, and not simply theological minutiae, the author relies on caricature. As I said in response to the narrative theology article, more and more CT pieces are really about defining theological boundary markers, and looking for theological ways of cutting off progressive currents within evangelicalism. We had narrative theology before, and now incarnational ministry. There seems less concern about making sure these progressive currents remain orthodox (everyone seems to have decided that this is simply impossible ahead of time), and simply more of a desire to identify these currents as either “mainline” (which seems to be becoming the academically polite evangelical way of saying liberal), and therefore dangerously other.

    I’ve been reading CT for almost 8 years now. I entered when Bell, McLaren, and others were still orthodox and new, and there was a spirited discussion at CT as to how best incorporate all that. When all that broke down, it not only meant the end of “emergent”, it seems to have meant the defeat of a dyanamic tension within CT between traditional evangelical types and progressive types. I think that this tension was incredibly productive for changing evangelical attitudes on social justice, and kept people with diverse views talking to one another. The seeming collapse of this space at CT is a loss.

  • Dan Reid

    If the article engages you, you need to read Billings’s book.
    Peter: No one should do ministry proclaiming themselves a servant. And you surely shouldn’t proclaim that you are “incarnating” yourself. Let’s say I as a U.S. citizen go to minister in the slums of Manila. Let’s say I move into a squatter shack along the Pasig River. It seems to me that if the incarnational model of mission is going to work, it needs to where there. What does incarnational ministry look like there? Should I revoke my U.S. citizenship, torch my bank account, symbolically burn my return ticket and revoke any number of other privileges that come with my status? I’ll still be regarded as a privileged oddity (an American, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto!), and rightly so. I bring with me a perspective and (probably) education that is unavailable to others in that context. And I still won’t be “incarnational” in any remote measure approximating the true incarnation. Exactly what is the point of this? There is nothing wrong with me moving into the slums to minister, and identifying with the people as best I can. But it is delusional to think in terms of incarnation as a model for ministry, it is based on a mistaken reading of passages such as Phil 2:5-11, and I would even argue that it downgrades the real Incarnation. On the other hand, if I go as a servant–self-aware of who I am and who I’m not–I identify with people/culture as far and as well as I can, and I put at their disposal whatever I have to give (whether it’s educational advantage or contacts or whatever). Bear in mind that there were plenty of servants/slaves in Paul’s day who were in fact educated and privileged in their home cultures but who now used their talents for their masters.

    Much more could be said. Todd Billings says it well in his book. I don’t think what I’ve said will convince the committed, but I do hope that it will help provoke the healthy reflection that leads to reconsideration. I greatly admire many of the ministries that are carried out under the banner of “incarnational,” but I think they’re mistaken in their theological basis, and if taken seriously they hold out an unattainable goal (and perhaps ill-placed guilt).

  • I have to disagree with the final assertion: “In the end, not one New Testament passage suggests that we should imitate the divine act of becoming incarnate.”

    Philippians 2:5-11 tells us that we should have the same mind a Jesus and then describes the incarnation (in fact the Christ Hymn in Phil. 2 is one of the core scriptures in the doctrine of incarnation).

    While Mr. Billings does bring up good correctives, and I like the word “solidarity” from the previous comments, it’s false to say that the bible never instructs us to imitate Jesus as he incarnates the divine into human form.

    What, exactly, that means and how we work it out needs to be more clearly defined. We do need to make more space for the Spirit to work and to fully affirm the unique and efficacious incarnation of Jesus. On those points I will heartily agree.

  • These discussions always leave me feeling like all sides are talking past one another. Once again, I think that we tend to squabble over the words that we use to describe that which is ultimately indescribable. “Right Theology” is simplythat which results in the fruit of the Spirit. Words will change and understanding will evolve, but to be a living sacrifice for another person is Truth.

  • Billings is spot-on. This kind of correction is long overdue.

  • Dear Scot,
    I must confess that, in spite of legitimacy of the issues raised, I am not impressed nor convinced by the CT article and most of the conversation around it.
    I find it typical for the sort of Christomonism that dominates present day Evangelicalism. Pitching Jesus against the Spirit, or the other way around, would make Church Fathers look at us in dismay.
    I am sure we can do much better than that.

  • @Dan Reid #19:
    As a disclaimer, in all my history with my organization, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Phil 2:5-11 used as a major argument. But then, we mostly focus on God’s heart for the poor, instead of arguing over what’s the best way to do ministry.

    Otherwise, I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said. Our people in the slums of Venezuela and Cambodia, and elsewhere, have wrestled with those exact questions: what privilege do we let go of, what privilege do we use for the community, and how do we accept that we’ll never be able to fully incarnate into that culture? This is one of the benefits of doing this as a missional community, instead of individuals—we try to keep each other accountable, realistic, and healthy.

    The language of the incarnation has been a useful framework for us to learn from and be inspired by, without wanting to discredit or ever believe we could replicate The Real Incarnation. But, at least for us, that’s all it is: a framework, a model, an inspiration. If using the word “incarnating” is a stumbling block to someone, but they still generally agree with the cross-cultural approaches I mean to imply by it, then let’s find another word. Incarnation is a helpful word to me, but I’m not going to plant my flag over an issue of terminology.

    @DanutM #23:
    “Pitching Jesus against the Spirit, or the other way around, would make Church Fathers look at us in dismay.
    I am sure we can do much better than that.”

    Yes yes yes. Thanks for highlighting the false dichotomy here.