Incarnational Life

Suddenly some Christian leaders began talking about “incarnation” and “incarnational” but the terms were referring not to God Incarnate, that is, God-becoming-body-and-flesh-and-blood, but instead of Christians and churches having an incarnational approach instead of an attractional approach. Then “incarnational” folks got tied to “missional” so that incarnational and missional mean much the same to many. But do they?

My colleagues, David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, dip into this “incarnation” discussion their 3d Signpost in their new book, Prodigal Christianity. To review, Signpost #1 is Post-Christendom, Signpost #2 is Mission of God, and Signpost #3 is Incarnation. Some fight the good fight of declaring and defending the Deity of Christ, while others focus rather one-sidedly on his humanity.

Do you like the word “incarnational” for ministry? for something the church is and the church does, of for something the individual is or does?

Fitch and Holsclaw contend we don’t need to defend; instead, “we need only bear witness to the reality of his working in our lives. For us, then, the past-event version of incarnation is not prodigal enough” (34). [False dichotomy a bit here in that apologetics do have some value, at least I would argue so.]

The big issue for them is that the Incarnation continues in the Body of Christ — so they shift to more recent model-of-Jesus approach: “Jesus is not just a divine event lost in the past but a living human possibility His life can live through our lives if we follow the model he left behind” (35).

The 3d signpost then is the “journey of God into everyday life.” It is about “God’s continuing presence with us” (37). On p. 41 they connect this to the church, the Body of Christ. But before they get there they tie incarnation to “kingdom” and Jesus’ public ministry — in a Trinitarian formula. The disciples “extend” the incarnation of Christ into this world as they extend kingdom. The deity and humanity of Christ are respected. Fitch and Holsclaw contend Hirsch’s incarnational model is too individualistic. They see incarnational mission becomes present especially in the church.

“In essence, we extend the incarnation (his ‘withness’) and bring his kingdom (what already exists and is at work in the world) into visibility before the rest of the world” (45). Where and how? is what I’d ask. They provide an example of reconciliation. Reconciliation within leads to reconciliation in the world.

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  • Rick

    I am uncomfortable with “incarnational”, since it signifies a unique situation.

    As DeYoung and Gilbert wrote: “We cannot re-embody Christ’s incarnational ministry any more than we can repeat his atonement. Our role is to bear witness to what Christ has already done. We are not new incarnations of Christ but his representatives offering life in his name, proclaiming his gospel, imploring others to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20). This is how the exalted Christ carries out his mission through us.”

  • scotmcknight


    If God is in Incarnate in Christ, and if we are the Body of Christ, do we — as the Body of Christ — extend the incarnation into our world?

  • Comments 1 and 2 highlight the divide – is the church the Body of Christ and thus a continuation of Christ’s Incarnation; or did Christ’s presence ‘leave the building’ with his ascension? Low ecclesiology and high ecclesiology will be correlated with our comfort level in ascribing ‘incarnational’ as an aspect of the church.

    I would posit that we are the Body of Christ and called to imitate Christ in all aspects of his life empowered by the Holy Spirit to do so.

  • Brad Brisco

    Rick illustrates that not everyone believes that the incarnation should serve as a model for mission. Some believe that the phrase “incarnational mission” is misleading or even dangerous. They are afraid that the use of such language will diminish the theological integrity of the incarnation of Christ. I think we should acknowledge these concerns and most certainly agree that there is absolutely no doubt that the incarnation of Jesus was a special, unrepeatable event (an argument by some as to why we shouldn’t use the language). Furthermore, as we enter into the world of others, we certainly cannot take on another’s identity in the way that Jesus did. He literally became one of us. BUT, having said that, surely we can make a distinction between THE incarnation and incarnational mission. As Darrell Guder states in a great little book “The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness”, there may be a risk, but it is one clearly worth taking.

    “Just as any theological concept is susceptible to distortion, there are ways of misconstruing the linkage of Christian mission with the incarnation. It is possible to dilute the uniqueness and centrality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ when his incarnation becomes a model for Christian behavior. A primary ethical or moralistic interpretation of the life of Jesus, such as was characteristic of nineteenth-­‐century liberal theology, often downplays or dilutes the event-­‐character of the gospel. But it is that event character, the historical ‘happenedness’ of Jesus’ life that both enables and defines Christian witness. As we seek to explore the missional significance of the incarnation, we need to resist every temptation to dilute the centrality of the incarnation event. The risk represented by the concept of incarnational mission is worth taking, especially as we are challenged to develop a viable mission theology for the Western world, which by common consent is now a very challenging mission field.”

  • Rick

    We are the body of Christ, but not in the actual sense and certainly not in the incarnational sense. Christ is our representative before the Father, and not divided among His followers. To say otherwise would be to divide, tinker with the actual Incarnation. We are His representatives, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. To stress incarnational is to diminish the trinitarian aspect of what is taking place, and to diminish the unique Incarnation.

  • In the end, for us, it is about simply being a neighbor. “Neighboring” is the term we use. Neighboring is mostly an acute awareness of your presence in the community, and how God is working through you. While there are milestones that may show success, neighboring is a slow burn with lots of quietness. The parish is not a place to win or lose, but a place of friendship and mutual concern for the community. The embedded small group (or missional community, or whatever) mustn’t take a stance in the neighborhood, but assume a posture of care and love and service and response. It listens to the neighborhood so that its prayers will have a language. The end result for us is not that people recognize a missional quality about us, but they are loved and cared for in such a way that their only interpretation of our actions is that what do (and how we do what we do) is not tied to a strategy, but to an example of Jesus, and to the pattern of his church from its beginning.

  • I know what people are talking about when they talk about the incarnation of Jesus. But when they start talking about “incarnational life,” “incarnational ministry,” “incarnational spirituality,” I confess I haven’t got the foggiest idea what they mean. And I have a sneaking suspicion they don’t either.

  • Brad Brisco

    I am sorry but I just find the concern with the use of incarnational to be lunacy. Do we have such concern for other words? I read about “gospel centered” EVERYTHING. Are we concerned that it will somehow diminish the true sense of THE gospel? And Kullervo to say “they don’t either,” really? Do you think Scot McKnight, or David Fitch, Darrell Guder, Alan Hirsch, etc. don’t know what they are saying?

    The language of “incarnational mission” represents the embedding of our lives and the gospel into a local context. If the essence of missional living is “sending,” then the heart of incarnational mission is “staying.” The word “incarnation” comes from a Latin word that literally means “in the flesh.” It refers to the act whereby God took it upon himself to enter into the depths of our world so that the reconciliation between God and humanity may be brought about. The incarnation is God’s ultimate missional participation in creation (John 3:16-­‐17). When God entered into our world in and through the person of Jesus, he came to live among us (eskenosen—literally, set up a tent). “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14a, MSG).
    THE Incarnation not only qualifies God’s acts in the world, but should also qualify ours. If God’s central way of reaching his world was to incarnate himself in Jesus, then our way of reaching the world should likewise be incarnational. We move in close and proximity and with real presence WITH others, for the sake of others. We identify with the other. We become their advocate. (Phil 2)

    Michael Frost from the book Exiles says:

    “Paul makes this point even more strongly in Philippians, in which he tells us that our “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). We often assume that this passage then commends to us Jesus’ humility, which is clearly present in the text. But Jesus’ humility is commended to us insofar as it is expressed in his commitments to identification and relinquishment. First, to follow Jesus’ example means that we should share his profoundly humble identification with sinful humankind (Phil 2:7b-8a). Second, those of us who wish to emulate Jesus should be aware of his equally humble willingness to empty himself and make himself nothing for the sake of God’s redemptive purposes (Phil 2:6-7a). . . . To embrace an incarnational ministry, then, involves a willingness to relinquish our own desires and interests in the service of others.”

    Is this dangerous language? Is this somehow inappropriate?

  • “Moruti” Lutz

    I think – like so often in theology – we need to be carefull not to take our own metaphors too literally. In my understanding, what an “incarnational” lifestyle (approach etc) has in common with the classic idea of “incarnation” (God visiting God’s people and “becomming flesh” in Jesus) would be this:
    God loved the world – not from the outside but from the inside; not as an external observer but as a participant as it were. (You might say, God is not of the world but in the world…)
    And in the same way we need to love the world from the inside, not just from the outside.
    Does that make sense?

  • Just because “dwelt among us” is in John 1:14 doesn’t mean that’s what the Incarnation was all about.

  • And Brad, I don’t know that I’m saying it’s dangerous or inappropriate language. More like empty buzz. The church version of business-speak.

  • Rick

    Brad #8-

    I understand what you are thinking, but I do think terms can cause things to get distorted as they trickle down.

    I think the “gospel-centered” term is actually a good example of how to do it. That term does not call us to be the gospel, but rather to focus on it as we live, grow, do theology, ecclesiology, etc…

    Perhaps “incarnational-centered” would be a better term, since it focuses one back on The Incarnation.

  • #12 Rick:

    Perhaps “incarnational-centered” would be a better term, since it focuses one back on The Incarnation.

    But I don’t get the sense that people mean “focused on the Incarnation” when they talk about “incarnational.”

  • Rick

    Kullervo #13-

    Shouldn’t they?

    If Christians are to live in such a fashion (and I am not arguing about what that missional concept means), should they not be focused on the one who was the actual Incarnation? I guess I am stressing a Christocentric view/focus of missional, rather than a follower-centric view/focus of missional.

  • #12 Rick:

    Shouldn’t Christians be focused on The Incarnation? Of course they should. But what I am trying to say is, as best as I can tell, when people talk about “incarnational,” they are talking about something else. Something that is (1) vague and (2) tangentally related to The Incarnation at best.

  • I love the concept of the combined term “incarnational – missional.” God the Father sent his Son to become incarnate in a specific place and time. God and Son now send us, indwelt with his Spirit into our particular time and places. Jesus was “Immanuel,” God with us, and we, as the body of Christ filled with His Spirit are to be Immanuel (metaphorically) for the sake of the people around us.

  • Rick (#1 and #5),
    Thanks for your push back regarding the unigueness of the Incarnation of the Son, and for bringing up DeYoung and Gilbert. Fitch and I engage them and others in that theological region all throughout the book.

    Central to Fitch and I is to understand what HAPPENED and IS HAPPENING through the Incarnation of the Son empowered by the Spirit (let’s not forget the Spirit in the ministry of Christ, esp. in birth and baptism). On the one hand we want to affirm the centrality and uniqueness of the Son’s presence on earth, historically. But this is not all Scripture speaks of.

    Therefore, on the other hand, the Gospel of Matthew begins by naming Jesus as “Emmanuel” (God with us) and ends with the promise that he will always be with us, to the end of the age. That this shouldn’t just be understood as the giving of the Spirit (let’s not drive a wedge between Son and Spirit), Saul is confronted by Jesus who asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting ME?” Not, “Why are you persecuting my representatives, or my Spirit-filled people?” Later, Saul turned Paul, reflects on this encounter and his own ministry and claims that the Church is the Body of Christ and Temple of God, and that not only are “we in” Him but that He is “in us.” Body and Temple speak of presence, the presence of God. If we are the body and temple then the presence of God is extended to wherever we go, i.e. we are extending the Incarnation.

    Strains of Reformed theology tend to over-emphasize the uniqueness and unrepeatability of the Son in the Incarnation so as to drive a wedge between Christ and the church, ignoring the much more intimate and mystical connection between Christ and the Church.

    So you worry that we (and other incarnational thinkers) might be “tinkering” with the incarnation or “diminishing” the Trinity. But really we are being more faithful to Trinitarian thought by drawing out the links forged by the Spirit between the life of the Son and the Son’s continuing presence in His believers (a link not given sufficient depth) in terms like “representative”.

    Therefore, we don’t actually advocate for a more “incarnational” anything, but rather to understand that the “incarnation is extended” in us, or that we “extended the incarnation” but not in a way that emphasizes the action on our part, but on God’s mission through us.

  • A beef I have with Fitch and Holsclaw (and much of the missional literature that I’ve been studying) is that “incarnational” is always spoken of as a group of Christians living in a neighborhood, as if the only application of “neighbor” is literal neighbors, and the only incarnational activity a Christian can do is while with a group of other Christians. As Derek (#6) says, “The embedded small group (or missional community, or whatever) [must] assume a posture of care and love and service and response. It listens to the neighborhood so that its prayers will have a language.”
    While I appreciate the importance of the “communitas” (Frost/Hirsch), Christians are also individuals that participate in activities that are mostly *outside* the time and place of the neighborhood missional community to which they belong. They go to work, they take their kids to soccer, they sit in PTA meetings, they are involved in city-wide organizations that work for the common good. With so much emphasis on the “embedded community” there is not enough energy given to equipping God’s people to be incarnational in EVERY facet of their lives.

  • How do you “be incarnational in every facet of your life?” What does that even mean, and what does it have to do with the Incarnation?

  • Brad Brisco

    Geoff, great word, thanks!

  • As with all language and metaphor it is useful until it is not useful.

    @Kullervo, do you really not think that using the word incarnational can help people understand that work that they do is to bring Christ into the world where they live? Is that so abstract a concept. Yes we can use other words to describe that, but that is a biblical concept and using biblical words. It has a rich meaning. Yes it can turn into ‘vague business speak’ but that can happen to anything when used inappropriately.

    @Bob, I think that literal neighbors is part of the point. I don’t think anyone would suggests that you shouldn’t at the same time support missions outside of your community, but if you are not at the same time ministering to and with people that you physically know and interact with regularly, then are you being incarnational in the sense of physically being present to those people as Christ was present on earth? I think that at least part of the reason for this type of language is to counter short term and/or remote ministry.

  • Rick

    Geoff #17-

    Thanks for the response, and for your work in this area.

    However, I still have reservations. Part of it can be seen as a slippery-slope concern (I know, that is not necessarily a valid argument much of the time, but it could be in this case). As John Starke wrote:

    “we should be careful with our language as it relates to the person of Christ. My fear is that when we center our doctrine of Christ’s incarnation on his mission and therefore something we can emulate, the doctrine of Christ’s two natures will become optional and consequentially easily abandoned. The last step may not yet be apparent, but if we assume the deity and humanity of Christ without making it central to his incarnation, then we are only one step away from losing it.”

    Furthermore, and something Starke touches on, is that the Incarnation was the fact that Christ was fully God and fully human. We can not duplicate that. We are not fully God and fully human, and neither is the church. We have a relationship with God/the Trinity, which empowers us, but does not make us God. The term incarnational would seem to be related to more than a contextualization strategy, but a deification of the person or institution (and not in the Eastern Orthodox sense).

    Finally, Kullervo brings up good questions in regards to actually implementing the strategy of incarnational. Is it just contextualization? (not that contextualization is a bad thing).

  • #21 Adam Shields: “Incarnational” is a Biblical word?

  • Marshall

    Using “incarnation” in this way seems to skirt close to the notion that all humans participate in the divine nature; that the difference between Jesus and people of today is a matter of degree rather than kind. I forget the name of this heresy, but it was popular in the Unitarianism of my youth. I think Kingdom language is more clear.

    Equating the church or the Church with the incarnation is a HUGE mistake that has often been made at great cost. The incarnation was a Word from God to humans; the church is a human response to the Word.

  • I’m on the road today, but found a wi-fi and so I just have to get a word in on this one. I am convinced this issue is one of the prime issues we must deal with if “Missional” is to land as a ecclesiological possibility. Again, I am convinced that the church is an “extension” of the incarnation. It is not merely modeling the incarnation as an idea, sentness “extends” the authority of the Kingdom. I am now sure I jave ruffled feathers on all sides including those who worry about “ecclesiocentrism” and “triumphalism.” All I can say on this is that the incarnation demands kenosis and the KIngdom requires complete submission to His reign. Both dynamics make either ecclesiocentrism or triumphalism impossible. This dynamic is essential to participating in God’s mission in Christ and we deal with it in this chapter and beyond in Prodigal Christianity. I am also working to expand this conversation extensively in a new book project on the nature of congregational formation in mission. Thanks Scot for another great post!

  • Regarding the term “incarnational”, for those who generally use it it often means something like “contextual” or “indigenous”, which I think are both great practices, but Fitch and I don’t use it that way. In fact, as I commented earlier, we more often say “extending the Incarnation”. Chapter 7 of Prodigal Christianity really spells this out.

    Now, Rick (from comment #22), Dave and I certainly hold to the two natures of Christ (human and divine). But this is to speak of systematic theology, specifically Christology. Certainly I don’t think humans can emulate that metaphysical reality. But I think there is (and must be) much more to be said of the Incarnation beyond affirming the dual nature of Jesus.

    Stark’s concern (as you quote it) is my concern: “My fear is that when we center our doctrine of Christ’s incarnation on his mission and therefore something we can emulate, the doctrine of Christ’s two natures will become optional and consequentially easily abandoned.”

    But rather than doubling down on doctrinal correctness (two natures) at the cost of emulating “his misson” we need to find a way to affirm both, and by able to do better justice the NT descriptions of Jesus, the church and the Spirit’s interaction with both. I find Reformed theology, at least expressed by Stark, DeYoung and Gilbert, unable to do this very well. Our book seeks to find this alternative between merely upholding divine uniqueness (and downplaying humanity likeness) or merely affirming human likeness (and exluding divinity). I hope that “extending the Incarnation” holds together the uniqueness of divinity and emulation of humanity.

  • @Kullervo, you are right, the word incarnation is not in scripture. The concept of the incarnation is throughout scripture and has been a common word in Christian teaching throughout Christian history. It is a biblical word in a similar way as trinity. Trinity as a word is not in scripture, but as a concept it is throughout scripture.

  • Wade Brand

    I have long sought a way to describe the new life that we have in Christ. The righteousness debate between the New Perspective and the Reformed tradition bears a little weight to this conversation. In what ways are we transformed ontologically and/or relationally. Is status the only thing that has changed or are we imputed with a life that affects moral obedience? Are we living a life that mirrors the incarnational life of Jesus now that we are relationally not guilty and calling it incarnation in order to describe what is like, or are we going to believe that we are “in Christ” (thinking especially of Ephesians) in such a way that we are actually brought into an incarnational existence similar to Christ, but without being God. I have found both of these positions (the best I can describe and understand them) hard to accept. It seems in 1 Corinthians that in some way we will be like Christ and that is part of the point. Yet, that is fully human. What many mean by incarnation is to have a dualism become a monism. If that is what they mean by incarnation of a human, then I am in better terms with that. The problem is that is not what incarnation of Jesus means because it is particular to our diety. NT Wright always says, “when we die, our software is downloaded onto his hardware until we get new hardware again.” This sounds to me a bit like there is a dualism which needs to be fixed so that we can live in monistic, “shalom”, sense. While people may call this incarnational, I prefer to say that I want to live working toward the shalom (personal and social) or abundant life. This is how I choose to talk about showing the world what is going on in my life with Christ. Personally, I think incarnational is confusing to my parisioners when I have used it. I think we need to popularize something else. Otherwise, I agree with their sentiment.

  • Chris Tenny

    I think something that is helpful in this debate and rarely mentioned is the mystical union with Christ and the role of the Spirit in the mission of the church. Some of the above comments still only gave a passing reference to the Spirit’s work. This is quite common in my estimation. Many essentially advocate imitating Christ but neglect the role of Spirit in being able to do this. It is as if we merely act like Jesus (without the power of his Spirit) the kingdom will impact the world. I don’t think this is intentional. The church cannot be connected to the ascended Christ without the Spirit and his continual presence. Hence, we must “walk in the Spirit.” Our ecclesiology has benefited from a greater emphasis on Christology but it is still lacking a more robust Pneumatology. I found Andrew Purves, “The Crucifixion of Ministry” helpful in articulating the significance of the mystical union for ministry.

  • #27 Adam Shields: Sure, but again, I’m not sure what the Incarnation of Christ has to do with what people mean when they say “incarnational.”

  • @Kullervo, does embodied make sense to you? We as Christians are the embodiment of Christ on earth today and bring the message of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit to those we are in contact with.

    Maybe we are just in different streams of Christianity and the linguistics don’t make sense. I don’t think you have to buy in and start using it. But I am unclear what is difficult to understand.

    Christ is God who came to earth as a man to make the message of God present to those around him. Clearly we are not becoming God (Jesus was already God, he was not becoming God). Instead we are working through God’s power to spread the message of Christ in a somewhat similar way. We are not trying to replace Christ’s work, we are trying to embody Christ’s message.

  • @Adam Shields: So you’re saying “incarnational” means “living out Jesus’s message” or “living out the Kingdom of God?”

    (1) If so, why not just say that? Why employ a confusing and vague buzzword to do communicative work poorly that can already be done perfectly well by existing language?

    (2) I suspect, by the way I hear people use “incarnational,” that it doesn’t just mean “living out Jesus’s message” or “living out the Kingdom of God.” And that’s my problem. It’s fuzzy. It’s vague. It’s a buzzword. And that means it doesn’t actually convey meaning very well.

  • @Kullervo, As I was saying, I think we live in different christian contexts.

    I think it actually says much more and in a richer context than saying “living out Jesus’s message” does. I think using the incarnational language moves us away form a sharing the gospel to everyone you meet, toward a more focused living out the Christian life through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a richer and more narrative description. But if you Christian background does not use similar language then it may not have similar meanings for you.

    I agree it can be misused and used inappropriately it can be fuzzy, vague and a buzzword. All I am trying to say is that it is not necessarily those things. You seem to be concerned about its use at all. I am trying to say, it can be used well in some contexts.

  • @Adam Shields: See, I strongly object to the notion that the word “says much more and in a richer context than saying ‘out Jesus’s message’ does.” I think that the vagueness behind it lends it a feeling of being more and richer without actually delivering any moreness or richness.

    How is “a more focused living out the Christian life through the power of the Holy Spirit” not the same thing as “living out Jesus’s message” or “living out the Kingdom of God?” Especially given that Jesus explicitly preached the Gospel of the Kingdom and to my knowledge didn’t preach the “Gospel of Incarnational Living.”

  • @Kullervo, I think we just disagree theologically about what Christ was doing and that comes out in our descriptions of what we should be doing in response.

    I would suggest that Christ was preaching himself as bringing about God’s Kingdom. Therefore when we live as Christians we are attempting to both reflect Christ to others and work to (in a small way and through the power of the Holy Spirit) bring about a partial fulfilling of the kingdom on earth.

    So in my understanding Christ was preaching incarnational living because he was the perfect embodiment of incarnational living.

  • @Adam Shields, to the extent that we “disagree theologically about what Christ was doing,” doesn’t that just mean we disagree about what message we are being called to live out or what living out the Kingdom actually entails? I still don’t see how newer, fuzzier language helps the conversation at all. We’re still talking about living out Jesus’s message and/or the Kingdom of God, just disagreeing (theoretically) about what Jesus’s message and the Kingdom of God actually are.

  • @Kullervo, see I am not sure if what our disagreement is about is theological or linguistic. Because to me incarnational is not fuzzy, let alone new. It has particular theological meaning that is more descriptive that just ‘living out Jesus’ message’. So I am trying to describe how that works for me other than you saying it is fuzzy and buzzwordy, I am not understanding your objection.

    I have heard incarnational language used about our work as Christians since I was a child. To me it is descriptive and a particular type of theological language that is actually more descriptive and far less fuzzy than ‘living out Jesus’ message’ is.

    So while I would like to be more helpful, I am left at a standstill because I am not sure how else to describe why incarnational is not only appropriate, but better than ‘living Jesus’ message’.

  • Marshall

    … serendipitously, from my reading today: “… , the metaphysical style of demythologizing which issued in the single Straussian dogma (man is both human and divine), … — none of this survived.” – Ben Meyer

    Well, pardon me, then.

  • JMorrow

    @Geoff #26: I think the idea of “extending the Incarnation” puts it most succinctly. In that phrase, I hear a preservation of the uniqueness of God’s incarnation in Christ, coupled with the postures of sentness, witness, and Kingdom revealing that would rightly characterize faithful Church ministry in particular contexts. The incarnation, like being “in Christ”, becomes something we participate in as humans but do not own or control.

    My biggest worry with the word incarnation are those who actually use it to mean contextual or indigenous, ironically employing the term as outsiders seeking to come into a particular place and do good. Especially among young adults, in mission settings, I hear incarnational as the buzzword. But I wonder if those who use it presume consciously or unconsciously that God was somehow absent from this broken place before they arrived. In the case of financially wealthier Christians partnering with poorer Christians in an urban neighborhood, is it only incarnational if the wealthy ones are coming to the poorer ones, or can the poorer ones also be extending the incarnation?

    All that to say when I hear young adults I work with say that word, and I want to respond in the words of Inigo Montoya: “I do not think it means what you think it means!”

  • @JMorrow, I think that you bring up one of the bigger problems with the word, the White savior syndrome. God is there before us, and will be there after us, that is it only by his grace that he allows us to be used by him.

  • Larry S

    and of course that is true (#39 + 40 – God here before we showed up) regardless how we try to describe what we are doing.

  • Something else to consider, perhaps somewhat random for some.

    We all carry a perspective into evaluating ideas that reflects the filter of our past, leaving its fingerprints on what we currently think and say. As a result, there are probably some things right and some things not-so-right in everyone’s opinion and comments. My biological filter explains the “incarnation” in terms of family genetics. When we are born from out of above and baptized within the Holy Spirit, we emerge as a New Creation with the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is the DNA of God, the same spiritual DNA that was in Jesus Christ on this earth. This DNA codes for the character of God. The expression of DNA coding is the phenotype, or external characteristics, which were perfectly expressed by Christ as a model of God in the flesh. (The image of the invisible God). Thus, we are an “incarnation” because we have same same family genes. We are all “sons” and Christ calls us “brothers.” The Holy Spirit is the power by which the genes of God are expressed, but we have to chose to submit to God and not to the natural genes of Adam which produce the works of the flesh. So, it is not just “God with us,” but “God within us.” Progressive incarnation is, in a sense, like the process of sanctification or renewal by the Holy Spirit, as we are being filled up more and more.

    That is also why we were “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:24).

    I know it’s not the highest etiquette to refer to another webpage in a comment, but it’s briefer than repeating 16 posts on “The New Creation” here.

    The church is the sum of the parts. The church is composed of members who are all in the process of sanctification, so the church is the sum of that heavenly trajectory. The body grows into the full knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 4) to the extent that the members compensate for the inevitable failings of one another because we individually express the genes of God imperfectly. But we can form “the body of Christ” by putting ourselves under His authority and work together in one mind and purpose and not argue over who has the best genes, because when we do so to one another, we denigrate the holy genes of God.

    Incarnational ministry or missional incarnation or whatever are just empty buzzwords to me to discuss as a “grooming behavior” to doing something. But too often, we don’t get around to doing something. We love one another as God through Christ loved us and, in so doing, we grow more and more to be like the true righteousness and holiness of God. Righteousness was imparted so that we could be free to grow into true righteousness. I think there is a difference.

    If we believers were unified in that journey, the world would notice (John 17), and that might even qualify as being “missional.”

    Just a different perspective, perhaps useful to 2 other people, but, oh well. BTW, I’m not the first person to think along these lines. Oswald Chambers wrote a devotional 100 years ago that captured this idea, although he didn’t use the word “gene,” because the Nobel prize winning work of Watson and Crick was 40 years into the future.

    This agrees with several comments about what the church’s mission should be.

  • Brian

    Maybe I’m a simpleton, but I get the sense that for the last 20 years we have been babbling about a “new model” that is post-modern, missional, incarnational, etc. All while we neglect actually getting to know people who are far from Christ, listening to them, helping and loving the best we know how.

    Put down the latest book and go try to befriend someone far from Jesus without your petty answers ready to answer questions they are not asking.

  • The 2 questions Scot asked are: Do you like the word “incarnational” for ministry? for something the church is and the church does, or for something the individual is or does?

    For the first question, I say YES, I like the word “incarnational.”
    For the second question, I say BOTH/AND – both the church needs to be incarnational AND the individual needs to be incarnational.

    But what I’ve noticed is that the concept is almost always used for what a GROUP of Christians are doing – being an embedded missional community, serving the needs of those in a particular neighborhood. “Incarnational,” for most of the missional folks, means being “contextual” or “indigenous” or even “extending the Incarnation” (per Geoff #26) for literal neighbors in a literal neighborhood.

    So, @Adam, #21 – When I say that the missional literature focuses primarily on “literal neighbors,” I mean that they focus primarily on “people that literally live near each other in a literal neighborhood.” So the missional literature’s only paradigm for loving our neighbors is to have Christians dedicate their lives to being “incarnational” to a particular neighborhood.

    But why are we limiting the definition of “neighbor” to that? Why are my co-workers not my neighbors? Why do I not see the people in entire community or city in which I dwell as my neighbors?

    I think it’s ironic that the “missional / incarnational” church does not put any kind of emphasis on equipping the individuals in their communities to live incarnationally in their specific contexts. The emphasis is so on Christian community living together for the sake of a specific neighborhood that they forget that most of their people’s time and energy is spent away from that place. Most of their time and energy is devoted to their work. This seems to me to create a whole new dualistic problem for the church – “What REALLY matters is what we do in our neighborhood – NOT what you do at work.”

  • @Bob, I was not limiting to physical neighbors. My intention is to limit to people we physically interact with. I include work and gym and other interactions as neighbors. What I am restant to is an idea that we can be incarnational to people that we only rarely interact with. My once a year mission trip or the people that I only know through a message board that I will never meet and only interact with occasionally through typing.

  • Dan English

    Thanks, Scot! I have been enjoying (and benefiting from) engaging the Incarnational thoughts of Fitch & Geoff (and others).

    Regarding your questions, I like the word for ministry, and church (although I am certainly understanding where Bob in #44 is coming from as it pertains to both/and). I just desire for the church to be seen, known, and identified as such (rather than just the individual).

    Bob #18 & #44 // For our family (i.e. my wife & two kids (ages 7 & 4), we have been raising questions like, “What does it look like to participate in soccer leagues, baseball leagues, pta meetings, girl scouts, etc… in our neighborhood, specifically, and our city “at large”. Even, “what does it look like to “work” in our city?

    Currently, we have taken time to identify the 3 practical spheres / categories of “neighbors”. We have our “immediate / literal” neighbors (who we share walls with in our complex) and that extends to the neighborhood we are located in, we have the organization we participate in and therefore the teammates we partner with, and I have my co-workers and customers that I serve.

    The first “sphere” is much easier for those we live and gather with to be “incarnational”. The other two are more difficult to participate in as a group b/c not everyone we incarnate with works with me 🙂 However, I see myself as an extension of my “community” when I participate in the other areas.

    At the end of the day, I feel the tension you are bringing up. But I do think it is possible (even necessary) to spend a lot of intentional time, with other Christians, making ourselves available to our literal neighbors, neighborhood, and city. I am inclined to think we spend more time there than we realize, and if we don’t, maybe we ought to consider.

    Seeking the Kingdom with you, and looking to participate as it breaks in, whenever/wherever.


  • @Adam #43. “My intention is to limit to people we physically interact with. I include work and gym and other interactions as neighbors. What I am restant to is an idea that we can be incarnational to people that we only rarely interact with.” Amen. That is exactly my point as well – we are in the lives of a whole lot more people than people in a literal neighborhood. My question to you (I really would like to know – I am researching this for my dissertation): How has your incarnational community equipped you and/or others to live incarnationally at work, etc. Or is it so focused on the neighborhood that work and other contexts get short shrift?

  • @Dan #46: Thank you for that honest reply. This is also the conversations we have in our family. I’d like to know from you and Adam (and also from David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw): How intentional is your church community’s training, equipping, or discipleship (whatever you call it) for being incarnational BOTH in the neighborhood and in the workplace (and other places where we represent Christ in relationships)? Has “missional” or “incarnational” been truncated down to just a community in a neighborhood? And then we invite people in those other contexts to that community? If that is the case, then how is that part of the church’s mode of being not “attractional” rather than “missional?”