EDITOR'S NOTE:  For more on the subject of "incarnational ministry," see the blog of Biblical's President David Dunbar tomorrow {January 10}.

Among urban mission circles, there has been a history of utilizing the phrase “incarnational ministry” to speak of re-neighboring as a mission strategy. Christians who have sought to serve impoverished inner city neighborhoods would move into those communities to not only minister to those communities, but also to become a neighbor in every sense of the word, and minister with the community. Christian community developer Robert Lupton has termed this re-neighboring strategy: “return flight.”

The theological impetus was found in the Incarnation--the central Christian teaching that the eternal Word of God, the second Person of the Trinity, became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. God the Son took on the human condition fully by fully becoming human yet still remaining fully God. By the time you read this, Christians worldwide will have recently celebrated the Incarnation at Christmastime. And thus, as Christians, we follow Jesus, the eternal Word, who “became flesh and blood, and moved into our neighborhood” (as Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14 in The Message).

But is such language legitimate? After all, the Incarnation is a never-to-be-repeated event centered around the one and only God-man Jesus Christ. We declare that there is no other name under heaven by which we are saved. We believe in the utter uniqueness of the one Mediator between God and humanity. Who could be like him, and who could do what he has done? If we talk about “incarnational ministry,” doesn’t it take away from the once-and-for-all nature of Christ’s Incarnation and his utterly unique nature as God-man (his hypostatic union, in the language of the creeds)?

A very good question, and one that needs to be answered much more fully than a blog post is able. But let me offer just a couple of beginnings and sketches of ideas in response which deserve much further treatment.

One, the nature of the church is unique in a way that is analogous to the unique nature of Christ. New Testament at various places calls the church “the body of Christ.” This is more than a figure of speech--it speaks of the unique nature of the church as the bodily presence of Christ in the world now. Christ, the Head of the church, resides physically in heaven, but his body, the church, imbued with his Spirit, lives and acts as Christ in the world. That’s why Luke can say as he begins the Book of Acts,“In my former book [the Gospel of Luke], Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.”

The implication, of course, is that the subject matter of Acts is what Jesus continued to do and teach. But Jesus doesn’t make a physical appearance in Acts save in a few short paragraphs here and there. What could Luke mean? He is referring to what Jesus continued to do and teach through the church and through his Spirit who descended on the church at Pentecost and continues to indwell his body of believers now. The creation of the church, it could be said, is the whole point of Jesus’ work of redemption--so much so that Paul in Eph 3:8-10 declares that the work God is doing in and through the church is the mystery which has been hidden in the ages past but is now being revealed.

The church is indeed a marvelous creation. It is a group of fallen and fallible sinners, marred image-bearers, that is nevertheless indwelt by the very Spirit of God. It could even be said that the church has these two natures in hypostatic union, in much the same way Jesus was both fully God and fully man. The church is, in other words, a mystery that elicits the same kind of wonder and awe that Paul demonstrated in the Scriptures.

Two, the church is commissioned and sent into the world in the same way that Christ was commissioned and sent into our world. In John 20:21, the resurrected Christ breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples (the church) and declares, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” The mission of Christ continues in the ongoing mission of the church. And the way he was sent is to be Immanuel, God’s very presence with us--in other words, Incarnation. There is an analogy here for the church’s own sentness. As Jesus was the Word of God made flesh among us, so the church is Christ made flesh in the world.

To be sure, the church is not Christ himself... but we represent him; we are his ambassadors; we mediate the Lord and his revelation to those who need his redemptive work to be operational in their midst. So we cannot to carry out our mission in the ways that seem best to us. Rather, we are to carry out our mission in a way that is analogous to how Christ carried out his mission while he was bodily present on earth. In other words, we are to be incarnational. Thus we do not broadcast words only; in order to proclaim the gospel, we move in and get close to those we seek to serve and reach. We establish friendships and we participate in the life condition of those we have been sent to. We establish solidarity. We weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. We become all things to all men so that by all possible means we might save some (1 Cor 9:22). That’s incarnational language.

One of the implications is that the church is commissioned to practice contextual theology. Because the God of the Scriptures is not a God who dictated his revelation from his heavenly throne room but rather a God who revealed himself in the most intimate way, by becoming one of us and embodying his revelation in the person of Christ, we as Christ’s body must go to the world and seek to theologize from within the cultures and neighborhoods and social groups, not dictate what God is like from the outside.

Much more needs to be said--the implications are tremendous!--and hopefully I will have more opportunities to do so in the future. But for now I hope I have demonstrated grounds for the legitimacy of “incarnational ministry.” And more than that, I hope I have whet our appetites for the manifestations of such wonderful theological treasures becoming enfleshed in our own churches and in our own lives, so that the mission of God may be realized among us to his glory. 

Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as a lecturer of Urban Mission at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission (http://jofum.com).



0 # Bethany Thompson 2012-05-12 21:48
Thank you for this post. Do you have any other articles or books that you would recommend on this topic? I am working with a group of recent college grads who will be living intentionally within specific neighborhoods. I would like to pass along to them some good reading material on this topic.
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0 # Kyuboem Lee 2012-05-17 16:32
Thank you for your interest and comment, Bethany. Bob Lupton's book, Return Flight, is a good one, though it's dated now. He also has a collection of meditations on incarnational ministry in the urban community called Theirs is the Kingdom. John Perkins as well as his Christian Community Development Association have been putting out good books for a while now. For a more theological treatment, I recommend Mark Gornik's To Live in Peace.
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0 # Jeremy Chen 2013-07-23 18:22
Is this a response to Todd Billings' stuff about moving away from "incarnational ministry" language towards more "union with Christ" language?

I just finished reading his book "Union with Christ" on a friend's recommendation, and I like the way he describes Union with Christ as the center of Calvin's theology, rather than TULIP.

But I wasn't so sure about his criticism of incarnational language. It's always made sense to me since when I first heard it, though I also do get that the Incarnation is unrepeatable and only something Christ could do...but I like your point that we are Christ's body in the world. When we are faithfully walking by the Spirit carrying out God's will in a contextually sensitive way that reflects the manner in which Jesus carried out his ministry, are we then being incarnational, since we are joined in Christ to the incarnated God?

random thoughts. Cool blog entries!
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+1 # Kyuboem Lee 2013-07-24 11:36
Jeremy: Thanks for your thoughts; they are good ones that teases out some of the implications of the incarnational language. This post wasn't a response to Todd Billings per se, but there is a skepticism in some quarters regarding the incarnational language. It may open the door to too many novel theological ideas, perhaps. The emphasis on union with Christ is a needed one; I couldn't agree more. But that direction seems to strengthen the incarnational language argument, not counter it, so I am a bit puzzled.
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