Unfortunately the word incarnation sounds religious. But it is a great concept. It means the flesh and bones appearance of a spiritual being. In Christianity Jesus was the incarnation of God, who ate, slept, talked, had friends, went to the toilet, washed feet, confronted injustice and died a real, agonising death. God knew we humans would have no idea what he was really like unless he became one of us and showed us the way back into intimate relationship with him. This is why the term is so important when we Christians think about our own call to spread this good news. Unfortunately the word mission usually conjures up images of someone rich, white and badly dressed going to somewhere poor, half dressed and black and telling them all how to behave. Wrong!!! This is why I have to use the word incarnational before the word mission. Jesus modelled and expects from all of his followers a wholly different way of bringing His love to the world.
The incarnational approach to mission works every time. The reason why is that it simply requires us to live amongst the people in our communities, serve them, love them, share the good news of intimate relationship with the Father both in action and in speech, and then as people go “wow” and follow Christ, to form up indigenous communities of faith that reflect the specific cultural context they live in. This requires no great resources or buildings, no slick marketing plans and no highly talented people. In incarnational mission, the gatherings exist to support the believers as they move out into mission rather than being a place to bring people to.
2. THE INCARNATIONAL MISSION OF JESUS
Jesus entered our world and embraced totally our human condition. It was a sublime act of love and identification. It was supreme humility in action. This “enfleshing” of God was so radical it became the pinnacle of world history. It was from inside the human condition that God fulfilled His own requirements for the salvation of the human race. We must understand four aspects of the incarnation if we are to correctly understand and embrace the Christian mission:
The incarnation involved total identification with humans. The medium became the message. Jesus took upon Himself all our limitations, struggles and doubts (Phil 2:6-8). We now know God loves us and is for us because He identified with us. Message: The incarnational church identifies with its host community and its culture.
The incarnation involved locality and geography. Jesus lived in a real country among real people from a ridiculed district in the backblocks of an occupied Middle Eastern country. To be totally human Jesus had to get close enough to us to be changed himself by His daily encounters with the destitute and suffering, with the Jew and gentile, with the poor and rich. He felt what we feel because He was close enough to see the tears in our eyes and the scars of sin in our lives. Message: The incarnational church thinks locally and engages local issues. It lives with the people close enough to feel their hurts.
The incarnation involved amazing humility. The creator of the universe, the eternal and all-powerful transcendent God was here in Martha’s house and in Peter’s boat. The potter lowered himself to the level of His pots. Personal relationships were now possible with the God of heaven. Message: The incarnational church is not about power but about serving the lost with acts of love. It does not demand, it “washes” feet.
The incarnation gave us a human image of God. From now on to understand the father was as simple as looking at the life of this man (John 1:18). Jesus became the reference point for knowing, loving and following God. Humanity could see God by looking at a man. Message: The incarnational church knows that people will first see God by seeing him in our action and attitude toward them.
Jesus modelled an intimate relationship with his Father. In fact he said more than once that he did no ministry unless his Father first told him what to do. He modelled a life of prayerful intimacy with the creator of the universe and from this he received his marching orders. Message: When we walk intimately with Jesus people will instinctively know. The power of God will flow and hard rocky lives like the apostle Paul’s will crack wide open.
The incarnation of Jesus is the foundation of the Christian faith. It energises our understanding of mission because it gives us the pattern we are to follow as well. We are to identify with those we seek to win. We are to live and work closely with them, as Jesus did. We are to serve our neighbours with acts of love and let them see Jesus in us. This mission is the purpose of the Christian walk. This is exactly what Jesus meant when He commanded us to go into the whole world and make disciples of all the nations. When we incarnate ourselves into the culture and community then the wisdom of Matthew 5:16 will come alive. People will see our good deeds and God will be praised by our unbelieving neighbours, even before we even open our mouth.
Jesus radically altered the world’s understanding of its relationship with God. He totally removed the system of Old Testament priests who stood between humans and God (Hebrews Chapters 7, 8, 9). Everyone could now be a priest before God. Condemned were the high priests who were self-seeking and egotistical (Matthew 5:20, 16:6). Expelled were those who sought to financially profit from the house of God (John 2:12-16). Mocked were the religious hierarchy who deliberately made it hard for people to know their creator (Matthew 23). Every person was now a temple of the living God, there was no need for any more religious buildings (Ephesians 2:21-22). In Jesus, there were no longer any institutional barriers between God and humanity.
Our western theology tells us that in Christ complete forgiveness from shame and guilt, and a loving intimate friendship with God were won for us as a free-gift through the cross. But did you know that Jesus was also a religious radical who began a social revolution of the “little” people. He was a threat to the political and economic elite of the day. That is exactly the reason why they executed him (Luke 22:1-6). He was also an astute social observer who saw through the rotten fabric of society. He was bent on rebuilding that fabric, or wineskin, starting with the spirit and working His way into every part of life. In addition He was a champion of justice for the oppressed (Luke 13:10-13, 17:11-14, 18:35-43). He lived in a tight-knit, itinerant community of followers. He travelled the land doing deliberate acts of miraculous kindness to His fellow Jews (Acts 10:38). People knew the Kingdom was near (Luke 10:9) because they saw the miracles, they heard the words of justice and they felt the authority of God whispering to their hearts.
In the process Jesus upset nearly all of Israel’s political, religious and economic elite. This was a spirituality of engagement with culture in order to transform it into the Kingdom of God. This is the genius of the incarnation. When the church truly identifies with its surrounding culture, humbles itself as a servant, lives and operates shoulder to shoulder with others and lets people read its genuineness before preaching to them, then it becomes a truly revolutionary force. Kingdom change becomes inevitable when we totally embrace the message of the incarnation.
Jesus also turned the ordinary events of life into sacred messages about the Kingdom of God. There was no dualism or sacred-secular thinking in His Kingdom. It was to encompass all of life. Trips through wheat crops, fishing expeditions, meals at weddings, drinking from a well, these were all sacred events because Jesus was present. His followers saw that the Kingdom does not need sacred spaces like the glorious temple in Jerusalem. The human heart was now God’s sacred space. All action offered to God as a sacrifice was sacred. This created a distinct social justice agenda in the DNA of early Christianity that was largely lost with the advent of Christendom (Acts 3:1-10, 4:32, 6:1, 2 Corinthians 8:1-7)
So in summary; God is a missionary. He became one of us, entered our lives, our world and our history with a ground-breaking agenda that spoke to the heart of human suffering and questioning. This is the gospel. It is not some stale four point prayer said at the front of a church altar call. The call to surrender your life to Jesus is the call to spiritual revolution that will travel the length and breadth of the planet, just as extensively as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). It is about salt and light (Matthew 5). It is about His Kingdom coming, and His will being done (Matthew 6:10). This is the message that will turn the world upside down. It is a new and revolutionary love.
3. INCARNATIONAL MISSION TODAY
A Living Building
The modern incarnational community creates a church that primarily exists as a dynamic set of relationships, friendships and acquaintances. It exists to enhance and flavour its local social fabric. It sees small groups of Christians as missionary commandos infiltrating their friends, fellow workers, family and acquaintances. For that reason it sees investments in sacred buildings and spaces as mostly a waste of resources. Christendom model churches currently consume 50-85% of their finances on buildings and professional wages. Church buildings declare five things about us to our host community. They announce to all that we are immobile, inflexible, divisive, self-protective and superior. The incarnational church redirects this vast resource into mission. We are the “building” that God is interested in (Eph 2:19-22). Cultural fences are out, however, webs of community (Acts 2:42-47), wells of life (John 4:13), and fishing nets of evangelism are in (Mark 1:17).
The incarnational church sees each profession and social role as a vital means of kingdom extension. Mothers and businessmen, teachers and villagers, politicians and public servants are encouraged to see their social roles through the lens of radical mission. The role of missional church leaders is to find ways to support their soldier’s frontline efforts, rather than force them to support artificial top-down attractional evangelistic decisions.
Fellow Travellers Growing into Jesus
Christendom places many barriers between those “in” and “outside” of the church such as smoking, drinking, defacto relationships, denomination or different theology. It can sometimes be a proud and judgmental position that assumes we have all the answers and live on the high moral ground. The incarnational community sees all of us as sinners, with some of us saved by grace (Luke 18:9-14). It acknowledges that we are all in the same fallen condition, the only difference being that the Christian has taken up the offer of mercy and entered into a journey toward Jesus. Some members of an incarnational community are yet to ignite an interest in Jesus. They are simply friends we are attempting to influence. Others are feeling challenged by our acts of love and kindness. Some have begun the journey but with a heavy load and some are walking very close to Jesus. This is a much more humble position and intuitively more attractive to the unsaved. The whole community is on a journey together. Becoming more Christ-like is the key community goal.
Everyone loves a good story. That is why God elected to connect with the unfolding story of humanity and the result is the Bible. On the other hand, the key legacy of Greek influence on Western civilization and the church is the artificial division of life into sacred and secular spheres of influence, with the spiritual sphere of life subject to endless intellectual critique and scrutiny. By the Third and Fourth Centuries, we see this glaring problem in the structure of the creeds of Christianity developed by church fathers. They almost universally deal with intellectualising the nature of God to the neglect of the issues of human life and ethics. Modern theology follows this tradition. The Bible, on the other hand, is Hebraic and is far more interested in the here and now and the interface between the human condition and our ethical decisions (1 Timothy 3:1-13). Its interest is in our stories of failure, forgiveness and success. Greeks saw daily human life as secular and dirty, so they sought to spiritualise Jesus. On the other hand, God sent Jesus to tell a story about the humanity of God. Christendom had an uneasy time with the incarnation right from the start.
The incarnational church is itself a story in the unfolding. None of these churches quite knows how things are going to pan out. Like the Bible itself, the story is unfolding and we are actors on its stage. This is a much more powerful and exciting Christianity (Revelation 12:11). Incarnational Christians tell the story of the power of God in their lives, rather than presenting an intellectually watertight case for theological truth. It should be so simple children can understand it (Matthew 18:2-3), not so complicated it burdens people (Matthew 23:13-14).
Discipleship is a much more organic and visible process in the incarnational church. Smaller groups mean more accountability and more support in the faith journey. Transparency, community, accountability and proximity are keys to growth, rather than attendance and intellectual knowledge. Discipleship is therefore a more rigorous process based on how a person lives twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Leaders naturally emerge as those who are further on this journey of discipleship toward Christ and can draw others toward Him. Leadership is also more servant-oriented in the incarnational model (John 13:2-17). This eliminates those who chase leadership positions because of ego or status. The Gospels show us it took years for Jesus’ disciples to understand this concept of service. Leaders of incarnational communities are usually lay workers or bi-vocational so they can pay their way and maintain their community links, rather than operate as religious professionals who are isolated from those they are trying to reach and must be financially supported by a large number of believers.
Leadership structures in these incarnational communities are therefore much flatter by nature. There are fewer levels above those on the front line. Actually, it would be better to say that there are fewer levels below those in the front line, as the whole purpose of leadership is to strengthen and encourage the harvest workers (Matt 9:25-38). Leadership structures are also pluralistic and relational, The New Testament talks about teams of leaders, not loners in leadership (Ephesians 4:11-13). The five-fold ministry gifts find their intended expression in the natural team nature of incarnational leadership. This model no longer neglects the prophet, evangelist and apostle in favour of the pastor and teacher. Leadership is also more fluid. New groups form frequently because of growth, so leadership structures evolve with the need and do not stagnate. Smaller groups necessitate the raising up of many leaders instead of a select few. Everyone is busy, so there are no frustrated pew warmers and no leaders who purely administrate.
What is church? It is a simple question with a tough answer. In Christendom, the “church” defines itself physically and geographically in terms of buildings and specified sacred activities. People still say; “Let’s go to church” or “Where do you go to church?” We must redefine the term “church” in New Testament terms. The Greek word “ekklesia” (church) refers to a divinely ordained gathering of believers in Christ. Acts 2: 42-47 provides a neat snapshot of a New Testament church in action.
The crucial factors for the functioning of the early church were relationship with God, relationships with each other and relationships with non-Christians, and there was obviously a lot of overlap between these three factors. This is the model of church we should be following. Another way of expressing this three-fold aspect of the church is to use the terms; Communion, Community and Commission. In such an environment a group of believers will do the following:
- Covenant to meet together regularly (and it doesn’t have to be on Sunday or even weekly) and remember the Lord’s death and resurrection through communion (Luke 22:14-20, Hebrews 10:25).
- Look after each other and foster discipleship (2 Thessalonians 1:3).
- Reach out to friends and community with the radical message of God’s love made known to us through the incarnation of Christ (Acts 11:19-21).
When we have these three functions, we have church! This definition of church frees us from many of Christendom’s cultural shackles. What we now define as a home group or cell group is really quite close to a New Testament example of a church. Churches can exist in schoolyards, in high-rise office blocks, ships, government institutions, homes, jails, villages and sporting clubs. Anywhere where “two or three” gather in Christ’s name to carry on the three objectives mentioned above can create church. Homes are the most common simply because they are spaces where we live, relax and eat.
The dynamic of all this is that most people can start a church. Money is not a problem, you do not need an expensive religious building and you do not need a professional pastor, although the Bible is clear on the need for mature elders (1 Timothy Chapters 3 and 4). Believers with passion and the fire of God in their bellies can launch gatherings wherever they live, work or relax. Incarnational churches can be as small as two or three people (Matthew 18:20). This was the formula for growth in the New Testament era. Christendom church leaders usually criticise this model with questions about lack of covering and doctrinal error. Jesus answered these questions when He said He would be the covering and builder of His church (Matthew 16:18), and the Holy Spirit would be the teacher, bringing us into all truth (John 16:13). Christendom’s body language does not trust this divinely ordained arrangement.
The prime mechanism for the creation of community is the spending of time with people. Most modern, suburban people live in three spaces: First, there is the family’s personal space, which is bounded by blood relations. The working space comes next which is bounded by hierarchy, geography and time. Finally, we live in recreational space, which is bounded by interest. This is where we relax and talk, free to be ourselves and to create meaningful relationships with like-minded people. This third space is also where we are open to new ideas and must tolerate different opinions. This is also the space where food is so important. So much of our socialising revolves around food! To be invited from a third space relationship into a first space for a meal with a family is one of the most powerful means of creating relationship and community.
Jesus, as usual, knew all this.
The original communion meal, as it is portrayed in the last supper (Luke 22:7-23), based itself directly on the Passover meal of the ancient Hebrews. Jesus asked us to break the bread and drink the wine in remembrance of His sacrifice. This was simply a meal with divine purpose and was the basis of the original First Century church service. There is a genius to this instruction that was lost when Christendom turned the elements into tokens. The incarnational church has communion together as a meal that can be eaten in the home or in any space that suits the purpose. In the one event there is time for fellowship, ministry, conversation, teaching, prayer, counselling, out-reach, missions, strategising and fun. People who would never set foot inside a church will rarely say refuse to an invitation to dinner. These churches grow quickly and are easy to multiply. They will instinctively sense the needs of the surrounding neighbourhood and have the resources to meet those needs with their gifts of time, love, proximity, humility and material goods. When questioned, Christians everywhere acknowledge they get the most out of their faith when interacting in these smaller groups.
Christianity was never supposed to become a formalised, institutional religion. The heart of God envisioned Christianity to be the opposite of formalised religion. God originally designed Christianity to be a series of precious relationships with God and with people. The revolution worked for the first 100 years. Yet, within 300 years, Christianity succeeded in becoming just like all the religions around it. It had formalised, spiritualised, compartmentalised and trivialised the mighty revolution Jesus started (Acts 17:6). This process sadly mimicked the story of the ancient Israelites who could not stand having God as their king and demanded a human king so they could be like all the other nations around them (1 Samuel Chapter 8) .
Narrowing the Cultural Gap
When we ask someone to become a Christian, we think we are asking one question but in reality, we are asking two. The obvious question deals with the spiritual state of their heart. However, the hidden question that they often recognize, and we foolishly do not notice is a request to change their culture. Christendom demands a cultural submission, as well as spiritual submission. A convert must be willing to make two jumps in one. Muslim converts to Christianity are few because of this problem. Often without realising it, we are asking them to join a Christendom culture with all its trappings and baggage. The cultural jump is just too great. This is fast becoming a major problem in Western culture as it becomes more Humanistic with each passing decade.
Intelligent Christian mission strategists are seeing much fruit in Islamic countries by using the incarnational approach to soul winning. When a person becomes a Christian, all that is good, neutral or not offensive to Biblical principles within their existing Islamic culture is left untouched, while all that is culturally and ethically offensive to God, as explained in scripture, is challenged during the discipleship process. Every culture in the world has elements and traditions that are good or neutral in God’s eyes. Incarnational outreach only requires minimal cultural change in these areas. People therefore come to Christ in much larger numbers and with strong connections to their existing way of life. They, in turn, can win others easily as there is minimal cultural change required.
While a new convert’s culture is largely untouched, their ethics are deeply challenged. Sin is exposed at salvation and rooted out during discipleship. The Christendom model, on the other hand, often demands cultural change while personal ethics are untouched after salvation. In leadership positions alone, recent Penticostal church history is littered with sad illustrations of this error.
Eschatology of Victory
Even though many leaders and practitioners of Incarnational faith currently hold to defeatist end-times thinking, their actions paradoxically speak of joining the battle for the future of Christianity and the Kingdom. Actions speak louder than words. What you do is your real message, regardless of what you say. Incarnational mission is inherently culturally aggressive. It believes we can take ground from those who oppose God’s agenda for His earth.
A good example of this phenomenon of cultural engagement is the modern Christian school movement in Australia. Hundreds of tiny Christian schools were started in the late 1970’s and 1980’s by parents and pastors frightened of the influence of Humanism on their children. The vast majority of these people were premillennialists, believing in cultural defeat and the imminent return of Christ. But when it came to their own children, they drew the line on Humanism’s advance. From a standing start 25 years ago there are now 3% of all children in Australia receiving a Christian school education, and the number is growing constantly. Half of these children are from non-Christian families, who gladly send their children to sit at the feet of Christian instructors. Interestingly, the influence of Christian schooling, with its high educational and ethical standards, has resulted in a determination by the Government education sector to lift its own standards (Matthew 5:14-16).
Education is only one institution where Christians need to engage culturally. Incarnational thinkers will find many other areas where they can lead their culture and community. When the Christians lead the culture toward Godliness, they win respect from their surrounding community. On the other hand, they are held in contempt when they withdraw. Business, economics, government, science, welfare, health, defence, law and order, and foreign affairs are but a few of the battlegrounds waiting for the launch of incarnational missionary ventures. God is longing for Christians to take seriously the section of the Lord’s Prayer that says: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9-13).
4. FEATURES OF INCARNATIONAL COMMUNITY
- It is living out the Christian faith within its cultural and sub-cultural context instead of perpetuating a Christendom framework that sits outside the culture or sub-culture.
- It is the elevation of the mission of discipleship above all other functions in Christianity.
- It is the complete submission to the orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith while completely re-examining the forms and expressions the faith takes in the world.
- It is the rejection of the “corporate” model of Church in favour of the “community” model.
- It is a re-definition of the word church from a noun to a verb.
- It is a challenge to Christianity to stop following its host culture and to start leading its host culture through a strategy of finding needs and filling them.
- It is a form of Christianity that strongly emphasises obedient action over passive theological consumerism.
- It is a belief that the lost will not be won unless we know them as friends and love them with acts of kindness.
- It is a strategy for multiplying spiritually active disciples of Jesus Christ instead of adding church attendees.
- It is a Christianity that visibly and actively participates in the life of its host community in order to transform that culture for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
- It is a Christianity that addresses all aspects of life and considers nothing secular.
5. THE EMERGENCE OF A NEW KINGDOM ERA
|Apostolic Age(32AD – 313AD)
|Christendom Age(314AD – 2050AD)
|The Kingdom Era (1950AD to?)
|No dedicated buildings, usually in the home. The church was the people.
|“Sacred” buildings central to the power structure and the meaning of the word “church”.
|Rejects need for dedicated buildings, uses them only if they will enhance incarnational mission
|Lay leadership with most training being practical and on the job.
|Professional leadership by an institutionally ordained clergy with highly intellectual training.
|Leadership embraces a pioneering missions heart for the surrounding community.
|Leadership based on the five fold ministry gifts.
|Pastoral and teaching gifts dominate while the evangelist, apostle and prophet largely disappear.
|Five fold ministry gifts seen in everyone. Those that have matured into Christlike servants become leaders.
|Grass roots decentralised movement.
|Centralised and hierarchical command structure.
|Grass-roots and decentralised.
|Services were centred on communion, which was celebrated as a highly meaningful community meal.
|Services became highly ritualised, formal and symbolic.
|Redeems the communion meal, redefines the secular and ordinary as sacred and precious to God’s Kingdom.
|A culturally adaptable (incarnational) and missionary minded movement.
|A culturally stagnant institution only interested in maintaining its central place in its host culture. It expects people to come to it. Mission was unnecessary as everyone was born a Christian.
|Church once again sees itself as a missions movement on the fringes of society havingto earn the community’s respect.
|Holistic, bringing the Kingdom of God to all aspects of life, not just “church”.
|The Church is the kingdom. All else is secular and irrelevant.
|Embraces all of life as part of the kingdom: education, law, economics and politics. Infiltrates each institution with its small group focus.
6. THE TALE OF TWO BUSINESSES
The following ideas are designed to give you an understanding of incarnational mission using the analogy of small business. As I was writing the above it seemed like a simple way of getting the idea across.
- This business has been set up as a corporation. It has a head office, a chief executive officer and a branch structure.
- Each branch sells a fantastic product. The same product is sold in every shop owned by the corporation.
- Each branch manager is put through four years of intensive training at head office.
- Their shops are quite amazing, but they are only open one or two days of the week. Their product, though invisible, is a great help in life and, if everyone bought it, their lives would be far better off.
- However, the product is sold in extremely expensive packaging, probably to make it visible. Every manager is very proud of this expensive packaging. In fact, managers spend much more time and effort working on the packaging than the invisible product.
- Sadly though, the expensive packaging has not been updated in over 50 years. The younger generation do not relate to this out-dated package.
- Customers are very loyal, however, they came to the shop when the packaging was new many years ago so they are an older demographic profile and will soon be passing on.
- Branch managers are not encouraged to open new shops in their area, as this would simply make their shop financially unviable. Their shop is their income so it would be foolish to start a new shop close by.
- Some shops do well, lots are struggling and some are starting to go under.
- It goes without saying that the corporation has experienced stagnating sales in recent years and is struggling to grow. In fact, it is going backwards financially.
- Most potential customers consider the corporation’s product great but the packaging is far too expensive and old fashioned. Many of the managers are also considered greedy for charging so much just for the packaging.
- From time to time, a manager will employ a travelling salesman to try to drum up sales. There are one or two sales and the salesman moves on.
- New customers are encouraged to spend as much time as they can in their local shop when it is open. They are encouraged by managers to promote the packaging rather than the product and to bring potential customers to the shop as that is the only place where the sale can take place.
- This business sells the same fantastic invisible product as the first business.
- However, there is no head office. Therefore there are no corporate overheads.
- There are no shop fronts and no rents to pay either.
- The sales force is mainly made up of existing customers who rave about the benefits of the product.
- Therefore there are few full time workers, and if there are, they are franchise owners not managers.
- Business two believes everyone should be able to afford this amazing product.
- So the packaging is very cheap. They just don’t see the need for expensive packaging for a product that is invisible.
- Because the packaging is simple, it can be adapted in thousands of ways to appeal to each customer.
- Most sales are made at social gatherings.
- Sales are booming.
Which business would you rather work for?