J. Todd Billings, “The Problem of ‘Incarnational Ministry,” Christianity Today (July/August 2012)
In recent decades, scores of books, manuals, and websites advocating “incarnational ministry” have encouraged Christians to move beyond ministry at a distance and to “incarnate” and immerse themselves into local cultures. Some give a step-by-step “incarnation process” for Christians crossing cultures. Some call us to become incarnate by “being Jesus” to those around us. Indeed, many of these resources display valuable insights into relational and cross-cultural ministry. But there are serious problems at the core of most approaches to “incarnational ministry”—problems with biblical, theological, and practical implications.
Distortions of the Incarnation Model for Ministry
Viewing the Incarnation as a model for ministry leads to a dangerous imbalance in two ways. The problem is not the doctrine of the Incarnation, which is central to Christian faith. Rather, the problem results from a distortion of that belief—turning the uniquely divine act of the Word becoming incarnate in Christ into a “method for ministry” that is repeated in our own lives.
The Importance of ‘Union with Christ’
Regrettably, “incarnational ministry” approaches fail to recognize key New Testament passages about union with Christ. The New Testament makes strong claims about the “missions” of the Son and Spirit in the world. This makes the “sending” of the church fundamentally derivative and subordinate. We are adopted into Christ by the Spirit; we do not have a divine nature, like the incarnate Christ, but only a human nature. The Spirit brings us into the benefits of Christ as ones who belong to him; fundamentally, the church is sent as witnesses to Christ and ambassadors of reconciliation in Him. We are always to point beyond ourselves, as witnesses.
The Work of the Spirit in Creating a New Community
Approaching cross-cultural ministry in light of the Bible’s teaching about union with Christ draws our attention anew to the work of the Spirit in community. Unlike the often individualistic “incarnation” model, ministry in union with Christ points to the final purpose of all cross-cultural ministry: to participate in the Spirit’s work of creating a new humanity in Christ, in which a culturally diverse people gathers to worship the triune God.
Conclusion: The Fact and Uniqueness of the Incarnation and the Dynamic Reality of ‘Union with Christ’
The time is ripe for evangelicals to rediscover the many implications of the astonishing fact of the Incarnation. We often evince a gnostic attitude toward our bodies and the material world, acting as if physical things don’t really matter if you are a “spiritual” person. But in the Incarnation, we see how God acts in and through the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Because of this unique action, the location of being “in Christ” is one of communion with God and fellowship in the body of Christ, the church. We need to champion the uniqueness of the Incarnation, and see how it leads to a dynamic theology of union with Christ—where the Spirit gathers us for worship and service as an embodied, culturally diverse, yet unified new humanity in Christ.