Missional Church: The Need for Incarnational Ministry

51b75cf9e4b07ca6249060cdWith this post, I continue a series of reports on the recent New Room Conference sponsored by Seedbed and the Wesleyan Covenant Network.  One of the keynote presenters was Alan Hirsch, a pastor and Missiologist from South Africa who has served in ministry in Australia and California.  He is in the unique position of being a theorist and academic who is actually putting his ideas into practice, along with his wife, Debra, who is a partner in ministry and the “lead pastor” of their current congregation.

Alan pointed out the changed context in which we are currently doing ministry:

  • Most of our ecclesial habits were formed in a different time.  Most of our ideas about church were formulated in the context of Christendom in Europe.
  • Our context today is no longer Christendom, and it is becoming more diverse culturally by the day.
  • In the U.S., 18 percent of people attend church on any given Sunday (from a recent Pew report).  Forty percent of people resonate with the non-denominational evangelical model of attractional church (people come to the church to receive ministry).  We need strategies to reach the other sixty percent!
  • Within 3-5 years of becoming a Christian, a new believer loses all meaningful connections with non-believers.  Most Christians in churches today do not have any friendships with non-believers.  The result is that we are requiring the unchurched to do all the mission work of coming to our church culture.

When confronting ministry in our particular context, we need to ask two fundamental questions:

  • What is good news for these people?  (In other words, how do we frame the proclamation of the gospel for people in this particular context?)
  • What does church look like for you?  (We need to adapt our missional strategy to where the people are and the cultural context in which they live.)
  • We should ask these questions of unchurched people and listen to their answers in order to discover their cultural context.

The life and model of Jesus is key.  We are all missionaries (sent by Jesus into the world – John 20:21) to engage in incarnational ministry, just as Jesus did.  Incarnation implies going deep with people.  We need to answer the question: to whom am I called/sent?  Only then can we identify how to connect with these people.

The six P’s of incarnational ministry:

  1. Presence – identification with the people.  What do I need to change about me in order to remove barriers between me and them?  How do I need to limit myself (as Jesus limited himself, Philippians 2)?
  2. Proximity – being up close and personal with people, hanging out with them.  Where you stand determines what you see.  [We can understand their culture better when we stand where they stand.]
  3. Prevenience – knowing that God has gone before us, working in every person [a good Wesleyan doctrine!].  Our task is to connect the dots for people, help them identify and interpret God moments in their lives.
  4. Powerlessness – we must empty ourselves, not try to be a superhero.  Exhibit humility and servanthood, learn from and receive ministry from the target people.
  5. Passion – carry some of Christ’s suffering.  Make up what is lacking in the suffering of the “body” of Christ (the Church – Colossians 1:24).  Jesus suffers every day for a lost and broken humanity.  We are to be motivated by the suffering of the world to bear one another’s burdens.
  6. Proclamation – of the Gospel, needs to follow all the other steps.  We earn a hearing by being incarnational.

These thought resonate with our current emphasis on being a missional church, taking church outside the walls of the building.  We need to find ways to connect with a lost and unchurched culture, in order that we may invite people to experience the presence and power of God (or rather to understand and appropriate it when they do).  Just as Jesus became human first before he could minister to people and teach us God’s truth, we need to become “all things to all men, so that by all possible means [we] might save some” (I Corinthians 9:22).

We live in a new day, when even in our own country (perhaps the most “Christianized” on earth), we need to consider ourselves missionaries to reach our neighbors for Christ.  To be missionaries, we no longer need to go to the exotic locales of Asia, Africa, or the South Sea Islands.  We just need to be willing to go across the street!  Herein lies the rebirth of our church’s vitality, through the energizing presence and power of the Holy Spirit working through us.

3 thoughts on “Missional Church: The Need for Incarnational Ministry

  1. I think our fear of being overly conformed by the culture causes us to shy away from talk of finding a culturally relevant voice that will actually be heard by the lost.
    So what should it look like as we take the Gospel to our community – being “mission minded” as some would say? Think about it: when we’ve been in mission to Africa, we did not start out building stone cathedrals as a necessary context for witnessing or serving. Huts were most often the context and culture within which we would have a voice with those we were reaching out to. Why should we not be at least as culturally sensitive in our own cities and neighborhoods?

  2. The point about most Christians not having any unbelieving friends is a very important one. Instead of being overly busy with church activities just for us, we should have activities to which we invite unbelievers, and our ministries should be more outward focused.

    I believe John Wesley’s societies could be helpful for us here, as an “entry point” for those who “desire to flee the wrath to come”.

    We must be intentional about building relationships and earning a hearing but also about proclamation and helping friends come to a point of decision about following Jesus Christ.

    The core message of Jesus Christ was “repent and believe the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). We must call people to repentance and “teach them to observe all Christ has commanded (Mt 28:19).

    I believe people are tired cheap grace, easy believism, and a “Christianity” that does not challenge them and offer transformation into who and what we are meant to be in the image of God. Our declining membership and attendance is the painful evidence. If we challenge people to follow Christ in holy living, we will reach others with the clear message of the Gospel. If of course we are living it. And there is the challenge for us, for me.

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