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What Does Incarnational Mean?
When we talk about the incarnation of Jesus we are referring to the event of Jesus birth and life among humans. The word “incarnation” means “in flesh and blood.” So more specifically the incarnation is when the Word of God was made human, born of a woman Mary, given the name Jesus, and moved into the neighborhood. Jesus was one of us. He was part of our human society, a citizen of his town.
Jesus took on all the strengths of being human, without the weakness of human sin. He had all the moral and representative qualities of deity while limiting his knowledge and immortality (Rom. 5:12; Phil. 2:6-11).
There were several reasons for the incarnation event. One of the purposes for the incarnation was so Jesus could redeem Israel from the curse they experienced from rebellion against God’s law. By extension his death and resurrection became the catalyst for redeeming all of humanity (Gal. 3:10-14).
Another reason for the incarnation was so we could have a more fully developed understanding of who God really is. Jesus was “God among us” and in observing God’s actions in history we not only see the beauty and attractiveness of God, but we also see a prototype of what it means to truly be human. The great German theologian Karl Barth once set “God shows himself the ultimate humanist by become a human.” Though humanity has fallen since the garden, God loves humans and displayed his love by becoming one of us.
A final reason for the incarnation was to model for us how to live in such a way as to both live as a disciple of Jesus as well as to spiritually multiple, to make other disciples of Jesus. The great commission as it is often called is for disciples to go into all the world and make disciples. This involves modeling Jesus incarnational methods as well as teaching these new disciples all that Jesus has commanded us (Matt. 28:18-20).
Key Incarnational Passages
“Incarnation and Jesus” Luke 5:27; 15:1-10; John 17:15-21
The two passages are very similar. In both passages Jesus is is being confronted by the Pharisees for eating and drinking with sinners. Jesus explains that he came into the world not for the purpose of spending time with the “righteous”, but with “sinners”. He then calls the sinners “lost” and uses the parable of the lost sheep and lost coin to illustrate that God celebrates the rescuing of “lost” over anything else. The passage in John 17 is Jesus prayer for his disciples and for the future church. In his prayer he asks that his church not be taken from the world, but protected from evil. He also prayed that through the witness of his church the world would believe in him and become one with him.
• Incarnational Perspective. Perspective is how Jesus viewed sinful people. Someone owns something of great value sheep or coins. They lose a small portion of what they own and aren’t happy to let it be gone. They rigorously pursue that lost item. When the find it they invite others to celebrated together their good fortune. By calling people “lost” he changes the narrative, he gives a term which counters the rhetoric of the Pharisees. The Pharisee saw a prostitute, or a drug dealer, or a someone not interested in religion or God. Jesus saw someone simply lost. The Pharisee saw adults making intentionally bad decisions, Jesus saw God’s children who were struggling to survive in a very dangerous and destructive world. A world full of villains, demons, exploiters.
• Incarnational Priority. Priority is how important reaching sinners was to Jesus compared to everything else. Jesus priority was to the broken and not the fixed. Essentially, before Jesus find us we are all in the “lost” category. When Jesus said I came to bring “sinners not righteous” to repentance he wasn’t saying there are good religious people and bad irreligious. He is revealing the difference between those who think they are good and don’t want Jesus, and those who recognize they are sinners in need of a Savior. Jesus loves those who have been found, but once they have been found he seeks to find more who need to be rescued.
• Incarnational Posture. Posture is how Jesus viewed himself in relation to sinful broken people. Jesus came into a culture which had all the extremes. From the self-religious religious to the pagan Greco/Roman atheist. Jesus postured himself as a Doctor among the sick. This means he loved sinners and was willing to engage with anyone who wanted help. This also meant as a doctor Jesus accepted people where they were in their spiritual sickness, but not satisfied they stay there. He enjoyed sinners but didn’t participate in their sin or condone their abuse. He was in the world, though not of the world.
• Incarnational Placement. Placement is where Jesus physically chose to be in order to help those who needed it. Although Jesus came to earth as a king, he chose not to live in a castle but to live among his people. He integrated into society, not isolate from the very people he came to reach. This wasn’t to say Jesus never went to the synagogue or religious gatherings, only that he didn’t wait for people to come into the doors of a religious gathering to get to him. He went out among the people.
“Incarnation and the Early Church” Acts 2:42-47; 17:10-34; 18:2-7; 19:9
In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus tells his disciples that he is leaving and they are to “go into all the world and make disciples”. However, the making of disciples was not primarily an individualistic endeavor, but one in which the church community was to do together. Just as Jesus incarnated to the world to ultimately rescue “sinners”, so the community of disciples as a collective was now to become Jesus presence to the world. The church is now the “body” of Christ (Col. 1:18). The church as it works in the strength of it’s collective giftedness displays the beauty and power of Christ to the world (Rom. 12:6-8; I Cor. 12:1-31). The first church in Acts was full of people committed to serving each other, sacrificial for the sake of the mission. Because of this they experience both dynamic community and missional success.
Later in Acts we see Paul launch his church planting campaign across the world. Paul did not seek to make disciples, but make communities of disciples. Paul did this by moving in and out of both religious and non-religious gatherings called in the Greek, synagogues (Acts 17:10-34).
In Corinth, Paul went to Jewish religious synagogues. When they began to be hostile, he took the converts and met next door at a Gentile’s house creating a new gathering (Acts 18:2-7). In Ephesus, he went to a secular gathering, was kicked out after 3 months of debating, then took the believers next door and met in the secular lecture hall (Acts 19:9).
Once disciples were gathered around the gospel, the apostles would form them into local churches with leadership structures, stay with them for a period of time and visit them occasionally for more training and encouragement (Acts 14:23; Acts 20:18-20; Titus 1:5). The local churches were then encouraged to live out the gospel in their church communities and in secular society (Acts 13:46-47; Eph. 2:10; Gal. 5:13).
• The more individuals committed to incarnational living, the stronger the incarnational community that is formed. The strength of community lay in the individual disciples’ commitment to service, sacrifice, and relational transparency. The passage tells us that everyone was doing their part, not a select few. So an attractive community is one in which everyone is practicing actions which make the community better
• In mobilizing the incarnational church into a diverse set of cultures and sub-cultures it will take on various forms. Paul formed Bible studies, community groups, philosophy debate groups, marketplace conversation, and formal church gatherings. Different contexts make for different methods and experimentation. The incarnational church has to develop the art of finding ways to be present in the culture and world they live.
“Incarnation and Paul” I Cor. 10:31-33
In the letter to the Corinthians Paul speaks most eloquently about the church that is given wisdom and power through the Spirit of Christ (1:4-5). Corinthians is well known for it’s emphasis on the strength of the local church. It is crucial that the local church be unified, free of sinful corruption from within, and each member is acting as the part of the spiritual body of Christ they were created to be. However, the ultimate purpose of the health of the local church is that through their community modeling the glory of God people will “be saved” (10:33). So it is the church incarnate which acts collectively as the body of Christ that is a powerful tool of evangelism of the non-beleiver.
• A church committed to the incarnate mission will build a strong internal community as a by-product. What made this community so dynamic was not the emphasis on building a community of disciples, but an emphasis on sacrifice, service, transparency, and hospitality which brought outsiders to the gospel while strengthening the community itself. Everyone was doing their part and using their God-given gifts which also made the community better.
• Outsiders to the community often must feel they belong before they believe. When the community is relationally exclusive, isolationist, or judgmental the outsider cannot see or experience it’s beauty. So hospitality and acceptance of non-believers is essential to forming a health incarnational church.
What Is The Incarnational Church?
Before Jesus left earth he gave the mandate to his disciples that the church was now to continue on his incarnational work. Jesus didn’t hand off his mission primarily to individuals, though all disciples of Christ have personal responsibility to participate in his work. Instead, Jesus said the body which is to represent him is the collective of followers called the church. When we speak of the “church” we are not referring to a weekly service or a building, but the community of the people of God as they work together to model the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Defined: The Incarnational Church is a community of disciples committed to being Jesus to a lost world.
The 4 “P’s” of the Incarnation Church
The incarnation church needs to reflect the perspective of Jesus. Perspective is how the local church views sinful people. Sinful people are “lost” and in need of a Savior. Lost people are those whom the church is sent into the culture to give the gospel and see saved by Jesus.
The incarnational church needs to reflect the priorities of Jesus. Priority is how important reaching sinners was to the local church compared to everything else. It is very important what the church says “yes” and “no” too because it reveals what we truly value. The churches priorities is to reach sinners, seekers, and doubters it is not to make the self-righteous people feel happy, safe, and religiously full. The church should never abandon their responsibility to each other, but neither should it so emphasize the needs of the family that it isolates and segregates from the very sinners it is trying to reach.
The incarnational church needs to reflect the posture of Jesus. Posture is how the church views itself in relation to sinful broken people. The church is not a citadel or fortress community seeking to protect itself from the world. The church is a hospital which welcomes sinners, seekers, and doubters. The church is an oasis which provide spiritual food and water to all who are thirsty. We are to posture ourselves in the world, but not become of it in all of it’s sin.
The incarnational church needs to reflect the placement of Jesus. Placement is where the local church physically chooses to be in order to help those who needed it. The church is the people of God who are in the world, not of it. We are to benefit not just our own people, but the city in which we live. Though there are times we gather as a collective to worship on the weekends, it is to be refreshed and equipped to scatter back into the world for the other 6 days a week. The placement of the church also means we are seeking to benefit the community we live in, not just those things which benefit our local church community. (See Appendix A)
What Is Incarnational Living?
The incarnational church is a picture of what Seed wants to become in relation to the world around us. It focuses on what we are as a collective. Incarnational living is what together we commit to in order to live out the mission to the lost, and in doing so create a more attractive and dynamic community.
In order to see transformation in our culture, we don’t need new and better events or more detailed evangelistic classes. What we need are individuals who are willing to look at the world through a kingdom perspective. We need people who are willing to be like Jesus and be in the world, but not of the world. We need people who see that a community full of missionaries can do more than individuals on their own.
Incarnational living is not going on a mission trip, though that may be a good thing to do. Incarnational living is not simply attending a mission-based group or program, though that too may foster and develop one’s missional muscles (Isa. 58, Matt. 25:31-46, Luke 4:18-19).
Defined: Incarnational living means to radically conform one’s life around practices which create an attractive and dynamic incarnational church.
Disciples of Jesus have the difficult task of trying to live between different types of community. We all wear many different hats. We are fathers, mothers, co-workers, employers, and employees. We have a place we meet for Sunday gathering that may or may not reflect the neighborhood in which we live. So the Incarnational practices are not limited to which role we are taking in the moment, but are a way of living which
Incarnational living doesn’t happen naturally; it is a fight against what is comfortable and cultural. Only when good habits replace bad ones will there be a complete lifestyle change that leads to transformation of yourself and others. Since both mission and community work together to form incarnational living, there are two sets of habits that needs to be looked at. These incarnational habits are ones that individuals choose to adjust their lives around. We need to make the distinction between the habits of incarnational living and the programs and operations of Seed Church, which may be a support for incarnational living, but not equal to it.
12 Practices of Incarnational Living
The practices of incarnational living are both for individuals and the community as a whole. Sometimes certain practices are better suited for the Christian community and other times the secular community and neighborhood. However, all practices are about who we are as disciples and how we live in whatever context or community we find ourselves in.
1. Life Together (Acts 2:44-47)
To spend quantity time with other Christians in the various rhythms of their lives. Friendships take time to develop and in our busy world we are forced to make time in order to foster those relationships. Some of the more common rhythms of our lives are eating, celebrating, grieving, and recreation.
2. Authentic Prayer (Matt. 6:5-12; Col. 4:2)
To pray like we believe God is real, that he wants to be involved, and he truly sees our hearts. Often the only time Christians pray is in a formal setting, but we should develop the habit of praying with other Christians in informal settings as well. Often when we do pray, it is dishonest. We don’t bring the real us to the real God, but instead focus on saying the right thing. Here are some questions do ask yourself concerning prayer: Does my prayer stem from an honest heart? Do I really believe that God hears me? Do I want to be involved in advancing his kingdom in the here and now?
3. Transparent Conversations (James 5:16)
To speak with others in a way that is honest about yourself so they can partner with you in helping you to change. It is very easy to wear masks in the Christian community and only say what you think others want to hear. Although it is a great temptation to be fake in the Christian church, true change can only happen in us when we are confessional and honest in our conversations.
4. Relational Safety (Matt. 7:1-6: 2 Cor. 12:20)
To recognize your own brokenness and thereby avoid the sins of self-righteousness that foster distrust in others. People are willing to expose their sins and struggles to others only when they feel it is safe to do so. Judgmentalism, gossip, and slander are unsafe, and stem from a person’s pride. People who humbly recognize that they too are sinners and in need of help are safe people to trust with personal struggles.
5. Sacrificial Support (I Pet. 4:10)
To give to others to the point that it hurts. The Christian standard of giving is Jesus, who gave his very life for us. A community that truly loves each other not just in word but in deed is an attractive community to be a part of.
6. Tough Love (Col. 3:16)
To speak the truth to others in a loving way in order to see them transformed by the gospel. When we put being liked above speaking truth, we miss opportunities to see others impacted by our words. This cowardice often forms shallow relationships among Christians who aren’t willing to talk through the tough issues, but instead stay on the surface relationally. Confrontation is never enjoyable, but could be something that changes someone’s life for the good.
7. Salty Light (Matt. 5:13-16; Col. 4:5-6)
To live in such a way that you are active in the world, but not corrupted by the culture. Holiness is not a separation out of the world, but a separate way of living deeply ensconced in the people and culture of our world. Salt and Light were both the most needed resources of that day. We are salt and light we we give people what they ultimately need. Sometimes it is the hope of the gospel and other times the condemnation of sin. Attempting to live with Christian values—while at the same time engaging and loving the non-Christians—is difficult.
8. Inviting In (I Pet. 4:9)
To show kindness to strangers by inviting them into your home and life. The home is the place of privacy and protection, so when someone is invited to someone else’s house, it sends a powerful message of acceptance. Some cultures are naturally more hospitable than others, but it is still the responsibility of Christians to force ourselves out of our comfort zone and invite others in.
9. Loving without Strings (Luke 6:31-35)
To love the non-believer without expecting something in return. When we attempt to engage non-Christians, we are dealing with people who often have very different values and morals. We should expect inappropriate language, drunkenness, or off-color jokes from those who live apart from Christ. Like Christ, we are to seek to love and accept people where they are without expecting Christian conformity, or simply loving them to get them to love us back.
10. Social Compassion (James 1:27)
To seek justice for the marginalized and oppressed in our world. We are to help widows and orphans because we are commanded to do it, but there are other benefits to seeking social justice. It is one of the easiest ways to involve non-Christians in gospel activity, and at the same time provides a very attractive and tangible picture of Jesus modeled by the Christian community.
11. Capitalize on Opportunities (Eph. 5:15-17)
To turn everyday situations into missional opportunities. The opportunities for impacting someone with the gospel are endless. It simply takes open eyes and a prayerful heart. We pray that God gives us the opportunities, then respond as God-situations are put in our path. A conversation with a waitress, a broken down car on the side of the road, or a teacher’s meeting are all seemingly mundane and daily situations. However, those same situations can be redeemed for the kingdom if we are willing to go the extra step and think of creative ways to reveal Jesus.
12. Inclusive Friendships (Matt. 13:24-30)
To include both Christians and non-Christians in your relationship circle. Most Christians have both Christian and non-Christian friends, but often they keep them separate so they never cross over. What often moves someone closer to God is when they build friendships with your other Christian friends. Instead of going to the movies with just the Christian girls from church, think about inviting your neighbor next door as well.
What Does it Take to Become and Incarnational Church?
1. It takes a change in perspective. Understanding your calling means viewing yourself as a missionary first, employee second. Your career is to be a missionary and your vocation is a way to finance your mission and link with people who need gospel transformation. It also means recognizing life isn’t separated into secular and sacred, or into common and holy. All of life is holy and sacred, not just the times you connect to Christians or church programs.
2. It takes personal sacrifice (Luke 14:26, John 12:24). Living on mission as a disciple of Jesus takes a healthy “hatred” of a life that everyone else around us chooses to love. It takes a “death” to a self-serving life in order to live to serve others. You cannot live on mission and—at the same time—sacrifice nothing. We are in a war against the values of culture such as consumerism and materialism in attempting this type of kingdom living.
3. It takes radical commitment to working as a team. Missions centered only on the work of individuals will fail. It is as a collective—as a community—using all of our gifts and resources, that success will happen. You have to be willing to commit to the mess and struggle of working in a community of like-minded people.
4. It takes creative and entrepreneurial people who are willing to try new things, think out of the box, and be unintimidated by failure. Like the Apostle Paul in order to reach non-Christians in a spiritually pagan, non-religious context, we need to develop new and unique ways to have conversations, build relationships, and invite seekers into community where they can hear and experience the gospel.
In the book, The Shape of Things to Come, the authors point out four ways the incarnational church and incarnational living can show itself in intentional structure.
1) Proximity Space. Places and events where Christians and not-yet-Christians can interact in meaningful conversation. In the example of Paul, these were the synagogue gatherings he would enter where conversation with not-yet-Christians could happen. In our culture, the place most natural for this is the college and university environment. Other than this, it is a challenge to find places that are automatically open to dialogue and multiple perspectives.
There are, however, many ways to create space which both non-Christian and Christian can meet. One example would be through music and art. A church decides to create a black box theater so that the drama community could use it for local plays. Both Christian and non-Christian benefit and join together. In certain places in the U.K., Christians meet regularly at a pub to do a podcast discussion around Christian theology and culture.
2) Shared Projects. This refers to joint projects between Christian community and host communities. Often the church supports ministries or raises money for causes only when the church benefits. However, there are many causes that both Christians and non-Christians can get behind such as the clean water crisis, sex-trafficking, or social injustice. Often these projects communicate to the culture that Christianity isn’t self-centered, but really cares about the broader issues and suffering of humanity as a whole.
3) Commercial Enterprise. Starting a business or non-profit that utilizes commerce in a way that also creates interactions and connections with employees and customers. This doesn’t have to be a non-profit, but it does take a type of perspective that sees a business as more than just a way to make money.
4) Emerging Indigenous Faith Communities. These are churches that form around these principles and eventually are planted and organized in various regions. This could refer to an emerging church plant of a brand-new congregation in a town or region. This could also refer to some type of missional community that isn’t officially a church.
“The missional-incarnational community, should be living, eating, and working closely with its surrounding community, developing strong links between Christians and not-yet-Christians. It would be best to do this in the homes of not-yet-Christians and in their preferred public spaces (the skydiving hanger, the favorite coffee shop, etc.) but also in the homes of Christians. By creating a net of deep, loving friendship, more and more people will be swept into the community, though some will be more closely connected than others (this is the socializing commitment).” The Shaping of Things to Come, pg. 57.
5) Missional Community. At Seed, this is what we call the type of community that are environments in which the gospel can be embraced, embodied, and exposed through a community centered around mission. These missional communities operate in a variety of ways. Some emphasize a home study of some kind, and are short term. Others utilize a particular need in the culture such as orphan care, youth, or single moms and form a mission around these issues. Some missional communities are project focused, and end when the project is done. Others eventually form a complete ministry of the local church.
1. The Shape of Things to Come, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, pgs. 24-28.