Evaluating Incarnational Ministry part 2

Last time, I quickly gave a description of what those who teach an incarnational approach to ministry mean by that terminology. To quote Ben Edwards, he summarizes this position well when he critiques it, saying that the incarnationalist believes that Christians are sent into the world to “imitate Christ by serving the world and identifying with them in their culture and suffering.”[1]Incarnational_2

I would like to begin evaluating this approach to ministry, starting with its foundational understanding of key Gospel texts.

Incarnational Ministry Misunderstands Key Biblical Texts

John 17 gives us an intimate glimpse into the prayer life of our Savior. There, Jesus prayed for things regarding the glorification of Himself (v1-5), continued to pray for His own disciples, eleven of whom were present (v6-19), and finally prayed for those who would believe the gospel through the ministry of the disciples (v20-26). This puts verse 18 into the context of Christ’s prayer for His own disciples when He said to the Father, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” In John 20, Jesus rose from the dead and came to where His disciples were that evening. In verse 21 He said to them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

In both of these texts we find the same progression of, “As…so I….” As the Father sent the Son, so the Son sends His followers. The question, though, remains as to the intended meaning of Christ in these words. Is Jesus intending to communicate the idea that as the Father sent the Son to be incarnated into a Jewish culture, so the Son sends His followers to be incarnated into a pagan culture? Or is Jesus seeking to emphasize the fact that just as He was sent by God, so He is sending others? In other words, is the emphasis on the incarnational aspects of Christ, or the sending aspects of Christ? Cheong dives deeply into the Greek grammar and usage of the key words of these verses and essentially concludes that while there can be some level of imitation or modeling involved, that is not the primary aspect. He says, “Missiologists and theologians can also agree that the disciples participate in Christ’s revelatory and redemptive work in a mostly secondary sense.”[2]

The emphasis of these verses is more on the sending than the modeling, though the modeling aspect may not be able to be ruled out completely. However, to the incarnationalist model of ministry, it is the modeling of Christ in His incarnation that is overemphasized beyond the intent of the text. It is read into the text by those who wish it to be there. I would argue that what the incarnationalists are doing here is more eisogesis than exegesis.

Jesus was sent into the world for the purpose of giving His life a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28) in order to save people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). His incarnation is unique, as He is God who became man. No human, by definition can be incarnated. Jesus sends His followers into the world for the purpose of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to all the world and making disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20). The purpose of Jesus and the purpose of Jesus’s followers are quite different. The incarnation of Jesus was for the salvation of mankind. Jesus sent his disciples into the world to proclaim, not to incarnate, Christ. This is a crucial distinction that must be understood. If it is not, as the incarnationalists don’t seem to understand, it leads to other problems.

[1] Ben Edwards, “Being Jesus, Missio Dei, and Kingdom Work: An Analysis, Critique, and Proposal for Modern Approaches to Holistic Ministry,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, Volume 19, (2014): 74.

[2] John Cheong, “Reassessing John Stott’s, David Hesselgrave’s, and Andreas Köstenberger’s Views of the Incarnational Model.” In Missionary Methods: Research, Reflections, and Realities, edited by Craig Ott and J.D. Payne, (William Carey, 2013), 53.


Evaluating Incarnational Ministry

In recent years, a new trend within broader evangelicalism has emerged. The notion of “incarnational ministry” has garnered much attention and adherence throughout the evangelical world. What does it mean to have an incarnational ministry? Admittedly, it is somewhat difficult to do, due to the variety of authors and perspectives of it.

Varieties of Incarnational MinistryIncarnational_2

At its basic level, an incarnational approach to ministry has at its roots the notion of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Hesselgrave says that incarnationalism “holds that the church’s mission today is, in a very real sense, a continuation of the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ on earth.”[1] However, even this broad description of incarnationalism allows for a multitude of more specific facets of what it really entails.

For instance, Hesselgrave puts forth three varying perspectives[2] of what incarnationalism looks like.[3] First, he describes Liberation-incarnationalism which favors liberating people from various forms of oppression and fighting for justice. Second, he references Holism-incarnationalism, which involves everything that a Christian does and says. Finally, he discusses Conversion-incarnationalism which emphasizes the role of the church as primarily one of propagating the gospel and seeking the conversion of the lost world, while representing Jesus Christ on the earth.

Scriptural Foundation for Incarnational Ministry

While there may be different descriptions or various facets of incarnationalism, there does seem to be a fairly united view of the Biblical basis for incarnationalism. There are two texts from the gospel of John that incarnationalists use to justify their position. In John 17:18, Jesus prays to His Father in heaven, particularly for His own disciples, and says, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” The other text is found in John 20:21, which is the closest thing to a Great Commission text in John’s gospel. There Jesus says to His disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

Each of these texts indicates that a comparison is being made. The sending of Christ by the Father is being compared to Christ’s sending of the disciples. John Stott says of these important verses, “As our Lord took on our flesh, so he calls his church to take on the…world.”[4] For the incarnationalists, these texts provide the scriptural foundation for their ministry. They truthfully hold that the Father sent the Son into the world. Building on that truth, they say that Jesus was sent to a specific culture and people. He entered into the culture of Judaism, and even more specifically, a Judaism under Roman oppression. This notion of Jesus’s incarnation gets to the heart of Christology, which Frost and Hirsch say “determines missiology.”[5] In other words, how one views Christ and His incarnation (so they argue) determines how one views missions, and, therefore, how one views the church and all it does.

Alan Hirsch is one of the key authors of the missional/incarnational movement. In his book, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, he builds upon the idea of the incarnation of Jesus and applies it to incarnational ministry:

The incarnation not only qualifies God’s acts in the world, but must also qualify ours. If God’s central way of reaching his world was to incarnate himself in Jesus, then our way of reaching the world should likewise be incarnational. To act incarnationally therefore will mean in part that in our mission to those outside of the faith we will need to exercise a genuine identification and affinity with those we are attempting to reach. At the very least, it will probably mean moving into common geography/space and so set up a real and abiding presence among the group. But the basic motive of incarnational ministry is also revelatory – that they may come to know God through Jesus.[6]

Hirsh explains that Jesus, in His incarnation, entered into the human realm in full, genuinely identifying with those whom He sought to reach. By implication he points to the idea that Jesus entered into the very core of the depths of humanity, embraced its culture, and even remained somewhat anonymous within it, at least for a time. He says,

The fact that God was in the Nazarene neighborhood for thirty years and no one noticed should be profoundly disturbing to our normal ways of engaging mission. Not only does it have implications for our affirmation of normal human living, it says something about the timing as well as the relative anonymity of incarnational ways of engaging in mission. There is a time for ‘in-your-face’ approaches to mission, but there is also a time to simply become part of the very fabric of a community and to engage in the humanity of it all.[7]


To summarize, incarnational ministry takes its very name from the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus was sent by the Father into the world as a human, as a Jewish man, as a servant, relatively incognito at least for a time, and lived among the Jewish people in their Jewish culture, doing Jewish things, underneath the Jewish religious system. This model is therefore applied to Christianity today. We are sent by Jesus to enter into the world around us, somewhat incognito as a Christian, living amongst those around us, embracing their culture, participating in their activities, serving their needs, and functioning in society as they do. Ben Edwards summarizes the incarnational position well in his critique of it. He says that the incarnationalist believes that Christians are sent into the world to “imitate Christ by serving the world and identifying with them in their culture and suffering.”[8]

In the next post, I will seek to describe several critiques of incarnational ministry.

[1] David Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 145.

[2] Hesselgrave, 145-148.

[3] Ed Stetzer references these same three perspectives in a series of three articles for Christianity Today, particularly in his second article, dated July 21, 2011. (http://www.chrisitianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2011/july /incarnational-mission-part-2.html).

[4] John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 25. Quoted by John Cheong, “Reassessing John Stott’s, David Hesselgrave’s, and Andreas Köstenberger’s Views of the Incarnational Model” In Missionary Methods: Research, Reflections, and Realities, edited by Craig Ott and J.D. Payne, (William Carey, 2013), 40.

[5] Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, ReJesus: A WILD Messiah for a Missional Church. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2009), 5-6.

[6] Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 133.

[7] Hirsch, 133-134.

[8] Ben Edwards, “Being Jesus, Missio Dei, and Kingdom Work: An Analysis, Critique, and Proposal for Modern Approaches to Holistic Ministry,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, Volume 19, (2014): 74.

Spiritual and Devoted Christians

David Brainerd, 18th century American missionary to the Native American Indians in New Jersey, wrote in his diary (The Life and Diary of David BrainerdDavid-Brainerd, 133), “Oh, that ministers and people were more spiritual and devoted to God!”

Here are two groups of people he mentions. Ministers. These are the men who stand behind the pulpits of Christ’s church and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Oh that we would be men of deep spirituality rather than carnality. People. This encompasses everyone, including ministers of the gospel. The people in our churches must also be devoted to a life of utter spirituality.

There is such a thing as a “spiritual Christian” and a “carnal Christian.” The spiritual Christian is controlled by the Spirit of God and seeks to live his life under the influence of the Spirit. The carnal Christian is controlled more by his fleshly nature than the Spirit and is influenced more by his fleshly desires than the desires of God.

Our devotion to God must be singular in nature. There are more and more pressures and allurements being thrown our way every day as Christians that detract us from our devotion to God. Whether it be money, sports, entertainment, or a host of other things, there is no shortage of ways to be distracted from our devotion to God.

Today the family is under attack; God’s word continues to be dismissed; secularism and pragmatism is eroding the church. It is time for God’s people to wake up to the reality that this world is not our home, nor our friend. We must stand vigilant for Christ, be utterly devoted to Him, and cultivate, under the control of the Holy Spirt, a life of deep spirituality.

As our spirituality and devotion grows, so will our evangelistic impact in our world. Christ will continue to shine the light of the gospel into this dark world and save those who come to Him by faith alone. May we commit ourselves to a more spiritual and devoted life to God, all for His glory.

Three simple words

The power of the tongue is obvious to anyone who can utter words. It is easy for us to hurl verbal grenades at one another for the purpose of destroying them. But it is possible for our words to encourage, strengthen, build, comfort, and show care for others as well. How important it is for us to learn to speak those kinds of words, rather than harmfi-love-youul, destructive, and bitter words.

How often do you speak positive words to your family? Your spouse? Your children? Particularly, how often do the words “I love you” come from your lips to their ears? Those three simple words can do so much. If they are spoken out of obligation and duty, they do not mean as much as when spoken from a heart of love.

Your spouse needs to hear those words regularly and often. Speaking the words to them is just as much of a choice as the love itself is. You must not assume that your spouse is assured of your love. They may be, but your vocal expression of that love should be part of your normal daily routine.

Your children need to hear these words. For their young minds, those words give affirmation, comfort, and security. Those important words should not only be the last words you say to them before they fall asleep, but words that are spoken to them throughout the day, spontaneously, and from a heart of love.

When your children hear you speak loving words to your spouse, that will also buttress them and strengthen them. They may think that your being “mushy-gushy” is gross, but they will never forget your love for each other. It will teach them about godly love as well.

How can we be loving people, even to the unlovely and unlovable? Because of God’s willing choice to set His love upon us, who are ugly, rebellious, sinful, and depraved. Yet in Jesus Christ, God demonstrated His love for us, and therefore we ought also to love one another.

While so much more could be said, let me issue a challenge. I challenge you to verbally say “I love you” to your spouse, whether you think they deserve it or not, three times a day. For some that may be easy to do, but for others it may not. I further challenge you to say those same words to your children at least three times a day, spontaneously throughout the day. Saying the words ought not be done out of mere duty. You may need to pray for God’s grace to say those difficult words to someone. But those three words are words we ought to say.

Let’s create a loving home environment. Don’t expect anything in return. Just choose to love your family, as God has chosen to love you.

Three simple words. Very important words. Who will take the challenge?

Truths for Change, Conclusion

It has taken longer to complete this discussion of our Sanctification, due to traveling and other commitments. My apologies.

Change in the Christian life is a process that every Christian is in. It is a process that takes time, that is accomplished through humility, the Word of God, and by the grace of God.Dove-pictures-2

In the last post, I mentioned 2 Corinthians 3:18 which tells us that we are changed from one degree of glory to another, through the Word of God, and that it is the Spirit of God who does this work in us.

The Spirit of God is the agent within us seeking to make us into the people that God desires us to be. God has given us His Spirit to indwell us, and to change us from the inside out, all for the glory of God. The Spirit desires to use the Word of God to change everything about us. This includes changing things regarding our minds: how we think, what we think about, our reasoning, etc. This also includes changing things regarding our wills: what we like/dislike, what we choose, what we desire, our goals, etc. This also includes changing things regarding our affections: what/how we love, what we will pursue, what we will value, etc.

Sanctification is an all-encompassing work by the Holy Spirit. He seeks to produce fruit of righteousness in us (Galatians 5). We must be filled or controlled by the Spirit of God (Ephesians 5). This command is one that tells us that we must allow the Spirit of God to control every aspect of our lives. Our responses to life must be yielded to the Spirit; our choices and decisions must be yielded to the Spirit; our relationships must be yielded to the Spirit, and so forth.

The element of walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5) is what we struggle with daily. We fail to yield ourselves to the control of the Holy Spirit, and because we snuff Him out of our daily living, by default we yield ourselves to our fleshly pursuits. When we feed our flesh, it will grow; but when we continually feed the Spirit (so to speak), the Spirit’s influence in our lives will grow as well.

In our pursuit of holiness and sanctification, we must not neglect the importance of the Holy Spirit within us. If we try to grow simply on our own terms, in our own way and time, we will fail. We must daily yield ourselves to the Holy Spirit.