Incarnation is Not a Ministry Strategy

Incarnation is Not a Ministry Strategy April 25, 2013

One of the new buzzwords for ministry models is “incarnation” and various leaders now speak about “incarnational ministry.” But Andrew Root, in Relational Ministry, contends when “incarnation” becomes a strategy, a ministry model, something to be done or enacted, incarnation loses its meaning and ministry becomes a means to accomplishing our own interests. Root’s contention deserves our attention.

What do you think of his reshaping of what “incarnational ministry” means? 

Maybe this set of lines illustrates the problem. This is what incarnational ministry looks like as a strategy:

You — Enacted ministry/incarnational ministry –> Other –> Intended aim (salvation, transformation, etc).

In the “incarnational model” You, the ministry, do something to the Other in order to bring about a result. The incarnational moment or act then is done not for the sake of other but for the sake of a designed result.

But this confuses end with act and mistakes what incarnation is all about, so claims Root. Instead of the Person loving the person, instead of You loving the Other, or instead of You indwelling the Other — which is what God did in the Incarnation — incarnational models see through the Other to the result and so focus on the result not the Other.

I (SMcK) appeal here to the distinction made by Martin Buber in I and Thou: “The primary word[pair] I-You can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word[pair] I-It can never be spoken with the whole being.” To make incarnation a strategy is to make the entirety of the Christian faith an I-It; to make incarnation about mutual indwelling it is to make the entirety of the Christian faith an I-You. Back to Root…

The incarnation was about God’s sharing himself with humans so that humans could enjoy the presence of God and be in union with God. God loves into incarnational indwelling. Incarnation is about the indwelling. [I’m not sure Root says this but Root does not seem to deny results in incarnational indwelling but the results is not the intent, while for incarnational strategies it is.]

“Incarnation in ministry has little to do, then, with cozying up to others to convert their interest; rather it is about sharing in their life as person” (117).

If the incarnation is our “model” then it will lead to indwelling others and loving others and union with others.

This all leads Root to see ministry as a gift, a pure gift, the gift of love and personhood in relationship. To minister is to foster opportunities for others to be indwellt by God by indwelling others.

This reshapes atonement theory: “It then makes little sense to contend that God’s raging justice is what moves God to send Jesus” (128).

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  • RJS


    I really like the thoughts Root is putting up for conversation. I hope his book gets a good reading.

    As a long-time Christian I think he is really onto something important. At least in some contexts the church today has morphed into something I barely recognize. It is a utilitarian tool for conversion. Incarnation … relationship … all these are professional techniques … methods to be directed to a business purpose.

  • Kevin Ford

    What is Root’s approach to the Apostle Paul’s incarnational language when describing his own ministry and mission?

  • What are the metrics then for us determining whether or not we’re truly incarnational versus deceivingly incarnational. I get the whole, “Western Christianity has been quite annoying in the past with its handing out of the tracks and asking neighbors if they died tonight are they sure where they spend eternity,” motif. But most of us don’t do such things. And most of us do want to share the Jesus story with our friends and neighbors, and most of us do want to see them enter a Jesus / Kingdom way of living. But the angry ones are now calling that sort of notion an “agenda.” But what’s the difference in an agenda and a mission? And ins’t missional simply agenda-nal? (Since we’re all making up words now.) And when we’re told to be missional or incarnational without agenda, I get it. I believe it, actually. But is it possible? And if so, someone please tell me how. Don’t we as humans prefer people in our lives that push us in good directions as opposed to those who have no interest in our development? Are we straining a gnat?

  • Kevin raises a great question, one often overlooked. And also, perhaps it’s not anti-agenda or mission, but a new way of training leaders and congregations to want to see their neighbors enter the Jesus way of living, and to do everything they can to see that happen, but to be okay if it doesn’t. Perhaps what has happened in ministry is that we’ve seen results as a message about us. Instead we should simply go on doing what we’ve been called to do, even if nothing ever changes. Results are less-than faithfulness in this case.

  • scotmcknight

    I’m watching Root’s language and I see some “so that’s” that make me think there can be a direction to some relationships, or even better some desires or hopes on our part. Yet, that is not to determine the relationship — love or indwelling is.

  • scotmcknight

    Root has a chap, get this, #12 3/4, on this topic. I’ll look at that chp soon.

  • scotmcknight

    There’s even more powerful directional language in Paul, in 1 Cor 9, where he says he becomes all things to all men in order to win some.

  • Brian Ward

    This is a powerful word that has been hijacked by today’s westernized christianity. As a veteran of youth ministry, I confess using this word proudly to describe my philosophy of ministry. A couple of years ago I stopped using it after thinking through more thoroughly the theology of the incarnation. It was then that I realized how dreadfully shallow, although well intentioned, my, and so many others, use of “incarnational” was to describe ministry philosophy. Two things in particular reshaped my view: incarnation involves actually “dwelling among”, not just being really relational. And, most importantly, THE Incarnation ended in Death. That’s the thought that really shook me up. So, if we’re gonna claim Incarnational as descriptive of ministry, then we should expect the complete loss of ourselves in the process, even unto death. Just some thoughts…

  • Joe Canner

    I think Root is confusing methods with motives. To me, “incarnational” is a method of evangelism/mission that emphasizes living among the people you are ministering to and adopting their lifestyle and culture, rather than making occasional forays in from the outside. Based on that definition, incarnation generally seems like a preferable method, especially for cross-cultural ministry.

    Any evangelism method, incarnational or otherwise, can be done for the wrong motives, e.g., seeing people as projects and statistics. This is an entirely different, albeit important, issue which is touched upon by Derek in #3: how do we evangelize with the right motives and is it even possible to do so without some sort of agenda?

  • Jim

    If there is no purpose in indwelling another, other than the indwelling itself, then how will we know that our indwelling is ‘good’?

  • Jim, a good question.

  • When I use the word incarnational in this sense, I am usually talking about contextualization. But the former word by-passes people’s defenses because it connects it to Scripture. The latter can sometimes raise rhetoric of relativism. So the word is “useful,” if imprecise.

  • Tim Diehl

    What does Root (or you, Scot) mean by ‘indwelling others’?

  • Scott Eaton

    I think this article in CT is a helpful contribution to the discussion:

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Regarding Scot and Derek in #5

    I still trouble over something I heard at a Christian Community Development Conference two years ago. As part of a presentation on community ministry, the leader asked “Is it ever all right for a Christian to befriend someone just to be friends?” I wonder whether that might characterize Jesus’ relationships with his disciples?

    Re Brian Ward #8
    Actually “dwelling among” the people to whom we minister is one of the old “3 R’s” of John Perkins in Christian Community Development. Does dwelling among — or becoming one with them — change the conversation about incarnation? As for death, either real or metaphorical, I think that too few Christians today get beyond protecting their own safety and security.


  • Adam

    @Randy #15

    I like the question you ask. “Is it ever all right for a Christian to befriend someone just to be friends?”

    If we’re just being friends what’s the motivation to befriend someone who is different from us or even an enemy? I am not naturally a friend to my enemies, so is it even possible to “just be friends” with such a person?

  • Joe Canner

    “Is it ever all right for a Christian to befriend someone just to be friends?”

    I have a hard enough time as it is making new friends, and I hate that (thanks to all of those friendship evangelism seminars I went to in college) every time I meet someone with whom I have something (aside from Christian faith) in common, my mind immediately jumps to wondering whether such a friendship might lead to my being able to witness to them. Such thoughts usually doom the friendship from the start because I don’t feel like I would be offering genuine friendship if I have ulterior motives. Maybe I need counseling…

  • scotmcknight

    I would say Root (and I) would say this question fails to understand what it means to love someone or, to use Root’s terms, to indwell someone. What most changes someone is the impact of God’s Spirit and the grace of God experienced through mutual indwelling. When I allow someone into my life they become part of me and I of them, and we influence one another by presence. So it’s not just words, though words must be present, but mutual indwelling influence — we don’t indwell to influence (that’s Buber’s I-It) but indwelling influences.

  • I believe Jesus’ incarnation was a ministry strategy (contra Root). What hope would there be for him to dwell among us without purpose and ability to rescue and raise us up from the condition in which we find ourselves? Paul said, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” His incarnation looked through becoming like us to the result of us becoming someone different.

  • What do you think of his reshaping of what “incarnational ministry” means?
    Yes x 1,000 (or more)! Incarnation and embodiment of Christ to our neighbors and enemies – people sense Jesus’ presence, somehow, when we are fully present to them and listening with love and care. I’ve had more people ask where I go to church or minister when “all” I’ve done is spend time to hear them and their pain/fear.

    I (SMcK) appeal here to the distinction made by Martin Buber in I and Thou: “The primary word[pair] I-You can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word[pair] I-It can never be spoken with the whole being.” To make incarnation a strategy is to make the entirety of the Christian faith an I-It; to make incarnation about mutual indwelling it is to make the entirety of the Christian faith an I-You. Back to Root…

    🙂 I’m so glad you brought this gem of Buber’s into the conversation, Scot. Just as people sense our full presence when we’re with them in love, so I’ve seen people flinch when they sense a fake. If hurting folks flinch from us, we need to serve them, humble ourselves and ask “why?”.

  • Malcolm

    Is “incarnational” really “incarnational”? Because the Word became flesh, but in contrast he only indwells us. The whole of Jesus was Christ, humanity and divinity being one Person, and so directed (always in obedience to the Father). We, indwelt by His Spirit, in-grafted, branches attached to the vine, part of his metaphorical body the church; we are not so. It kind of reflects the question, “What would Jesus do?” But serious reflection on that question would forces the answer, “Probably something I could not, because I am not him.” Not only do I lack all his power, his wisdom, and his insight both man and the will of God in various issues and circumstances, but I also lack his utter and perpetual holiness. So, “incarnation” is literally only incarnational in Jesus.

    Perhaps, like me, you grow weary of hip modern terms and catch phrases adapted used in hopes of better communicating what it is to live as a Christian; a follower of Christ indwelt by his Spirit, being conformed to Christ. God is at work in me, both to will and to work his good pleasure. Our shepherd ‘are in labor until Christ is formed in us.’ So, we are “all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord,” (dimly, according to 1 Cor. 13:12). We are “being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). So, is my pastor incarnating me with his “incarnational ministry”?

    I guess if we can personally borrow the term “incarnation” to discribe our lives as Christian (living like Christ by the Spirit), there seems no reason we could not borrow on in reference to ministry. At least, we can do so as long as we define it merely as teaching and encouraging believers towards this “incarnational living” (i.e. being conformed to Christ). But then, why don’t we just say what it is straight out, and dispense with all the mystical sounding, semi-confusing lingo?

    Oh, well. We are all “in process,” right? Yeash! Great example! — How did the use of “process” as a noun suddenly become able to exist in a sentence without an article or adjective, anyway? You know, “a process,” “the process,” “my process,” etc. You can’t be “in process” unless it is a place, or a thing named “process.” Otherwise, you are “in A process of [blank],” or “in the process of [blank].”

    So, you see, it’s all about fiddling with poor uses of language for the sake of making basic things SOUND deeper, and richer, and more spiritual (as if it could be). If you really want to go for true sophistication, say these terms with some kind of foreign accent. You might prefer British or French accents. German, Canadian, North Carolinian, New York, and New Jersey accents just don’t come of quite so well.

  • Ben Zabel

    I have not had time to read all of the comments yet, so I apologize if this was already mentioned.

    This discussion seems to point to the sociology concepts derived from the German words : Gemeinschaft and Gessellschaft. The first is literally translated a “community” while the second as “society”. In sociological and relational terms, though, they are seen as relationships that are an end in themselves versus relationships that are a means to an end. I think that Gesselschaft seems to capture Roots critique of Incarnation as a strategy (means to an end), while Gemeinschaft grasps Roots view of true Incarnational living”. This seems to point to the early Christ followers, who sought to BE what Christ would have been if he was present with them in the flesh. Gemeinschaft also seems to point to our purpose to truly BE the Body of Christ in our contexts, living a Christ would in our context, loving and serving others because that’s what Christ would do.

  • Tom F.

    Okay, so I ended up picking up the book. I really like it.

    I think Root is right on in terms of evangelism: I wonder if our desire to make absolutely sure that people become kingdom followers is (at least sometimes) about our own anxiety more than about faithfulness. Our anxiety can lead us to simply not be in relationship with those who aren’t committed to Jesus (church bubble sort of stuff), or it can lead us to manage that anxiety by structuring a strategy to keep us at arm’s length from being in real relationship with people. *We* would feel so much better if they just became kingdom people, and *we* relieve our own anxiety about this by imagining that if we do enough, we will be able to say to ourselves, “well, at least I did enough”.

    On a personal note: When I did ministry with Young Life, I think there was a part of me that would alternate between being frustrated with God and frustrated with the person when I grew to love kids who weren’t Christian. It was difficult for me to understand a God who would condemn some of these kids who seemed to me to be just trying the best they could. Other times, I would get frustrated with the kid: sometimes a relationship with God would mean confronting selfish or self-destructive behavior, and they didn’t want to/weren’t ready to do that. Maybe that’s just a statement of my own maturity level at that time. I think we are often not honest in the church about the real difficulties of being in relationship with people who have fundamentally different beliefs than us.

    So Root’s conception doesn’t seem to me to simply theologically correct, it resonates with me on a personal level. Indwelling is sacrificial, and trying to influence someone’s “interests” helps keep us in control: we can look at numbers, we can say “we did our best”, but all of these strategies are about us, not about loving the person.

    *On a side note in terms of faith/science:
    The influence of Buber on Root is clear. I love Buber. Reading Buber is really more akin to reading poetry, however, and there is a reason Buber is called a mystic. I think my biggest concern so far is how this lines up with his selection of social science, biological science, and specifically evolutionary thinking. You might categorize Root’s anthropology as “mystical personalist”. As Root argues, “faith, hope, and love are uniquely human…they have no foundation in the natural (though dogmatic evolutionists may concoct one.” (p. 85) It seems therefore that Root would be disturbed by any social science that did locate these capacities in the “natural” (Root seems to use this term somewhat uncritically). On the other hand, Root loves all of the relational neuroscience stuff. Which confuses me: presumably, “neuroscience” is talking about our “natural” capacities, no? So if our neuroscience enables our relationality, and our neuroscience is part of our “natural” capacities, than why is problematic to locate “faith, hope, and love”, at least in part, in our “natural capacities”? I think that Root is occasionally a bit too concerned about reductionism, and therefore gravitates somewhat towards a mysticism of relationality. But perhaps I’m overreading him here. Great, great stuff overall though.