Incarnational or Missional?

Incarnational or Missional? December 19, 2011

During this season of Advent, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the idea of incarnation — specifically, these words from author and activist Parker Palmer:

“The Christmas story is … about God taking the risk of showing up in the flesh, and all that comes with it. I think that’s a risk that we’re all called to — the risk of incarnation, the risk of embodying our values and beliefs, the risk of manifesting our identity and integrity in the world, the risk of being fully human. And it’s a risk that we shy away from. So the Christmas story for me is a constant reminder that the calling is really to be born and born and re-born again and again and again in the shape of my own true self …”

Those words are from this recent interview Palmer did with Travis Reed of Alter Video Magazine:

The idea of incarnation is central to the missional shift in the Church and in Christianity. “The risk of incarnation,” as Palmer puts it, is one very beautiful (and biblical) way of describing the invitation we have been given — to join God in the renewal of all things, to participate in the dream of God, to be a part of what God is doing in the world.

It’s not something we have to do. It’s, as Tripp Fuller puts it, something we get to do, it’s a privilege, a golden opportunity, if you will.

The problem is: our churches do not always look like this. In his chapter on incarnation in Signs of Emergence, Kester Brewin describes the problem this way, “God came all the way to us — yet we now expect people to come so far toward us in church.”

In her book Down We Go, Kathy Escobar advocates for using the term “incarnational” instead of “missional” for the kind of church and faith/religious community that she describes. I think it’s a powerful word, but I’m still a fan of “missional.” (Emergent Village, for example, has often been described as “a generative friendship of missional Christians.”)

Tonight, Kathy and I will be participating in a one-hour Twitter chat (9-10pm ET) to discuss and debate (in 140 character bites) this question of “incarnational” vs. “missional,” and I hope others will join in the conversation and/or follow along online (#missionalchat).

I’m planning to record a Skype videochat with Kathy during that time, as well, which I’ll be posting for my next edition of Missional Conversations. If all goes well, I hope to do this again on a monthly basis. Third Monday of the month = missional Monday / #missionalchat? We’ll see how it goes …

What are your thoughts on incarnation? Is “incarnational” a better than word than “missional”? Why? Or why not?

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  • I like them both. 🙂 “Missional” describes our going out (outward focus) and “incarnational” is all about joining in/becoming part of the lives of others. No need for either/or here, as far as I’m concerned.

  • ‘Incarnational Crusaders may have had a more friendly welcome than ‘Missional’ Crusaders!

  • Two thousand years ago the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Today I see the flesh becoming Word. The incarnation of Christ’s love within us is becoming the missional love that we spread through relationships that become sacred because Christ’s image is reflected from both ends. Another vote for both-and not either-or. (Click on my name for the longer version of my thoughts on this).

  • Calistus Fernandes

    True incarnation will change the face of the Earth The challenge is to let go as God did when He incarnated. Not to cling to any Culture, language and system that blocks is from moving further.Let the church emerge where were it is planted taking in the food and water from the place.