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.
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.” 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 of what incarnationalism looks like. 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.” 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.” 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.
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.
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.”
In the next post, I will seek to describe several critiques of incarnational ministry.
 David Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 145.
 Hesselgrave, 145-148.
 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).
 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.
 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, ReJesus: A WILD Messiah for a Missional Church. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2009), 5-6.
 Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 133.
 Hirsch, 133-134.
 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.