The Incarnation As Contextual Ministry
by Parker Haynes, pastor of St. Timothy’s UMC in Brevard, NC.
During one of my RIOM retreats as I was on my way to ordination, the facilitator asked an incredibly unoriginal, but nevertheless important question: “How would you describe the kind of ministry Jesus embodied?” Unable to stop myself, I blurted out, “Incarnational ministry,” followed by a long pause, “But I have no idea what that means.”
Incarnational ministry is the catchphrase of the day. If you want to sound like a leader who knows what she’s doing or someone in the church who can “actually” connect with young people, it’s a must-have in your vocabulary toolkit. Sadly, we’ve taken a serious theological concept from the vault of orthodoxy that Sts. Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus once defended and turned it into a marketing strategy that helps the Church appeal to millennials looking for authenticity.
But all of our attempts to practice incarnational and contextual ministry, embody a church that actually bears witness to an alternative kingdom, and preaches news that is truly good to the poor, the disenfranchised, and the oppressed, are in vain unless we ground them in the real Incarnation -- the miraculous birth of the God-man on Christmas. There is not some method or guideline for how to practice the incarnational ministry to which Jesus himself ascribed as if he was some pragmatic, free-market believing CEO of a huge corporation simply “doing what works.” No, the Incarnation is not a tool Jesus used to practice effective ministry. The Incarnation reveals the very nature of God.
The birth of Jesus Christ and his life in Nazareth not only offer a guide to understanding how to practice incarnational ministry, but they also represent God’s true self. Whoever God is, God is one who could not exist without us, without being with us, without living among us. While it’s true that without Easter, Christmas would not be what it is, it’s also true that God did not become incarnate on the cross, on Good Friday, skipping over all the mundane details of ordinary life. Jesus was conceived in Mary’s belly surrounded by amniotic fluid, born in a dirty, damp cave alongside smelly animals, raised in an insignificant agrarian village in the backwaters of Galilee, and worked with his hands in Joseph’s masonry shop. For the thirty years before Jesus ever practiced ministry, he lived with and among, those he came to serve. For those of us who want to understand and lead in the context in which we serve, that’s what it looks like.
The Incarnation teaches us that God cares about context. When God took on flesh, God became a first-century Jewish baby born of a teenage virgin and laid in a manger. God knows what it is to be counted among the marginalized, the insignificant, and the poor. And when the angels announce his birth with trumpets of proclamation and joy, those in solidarity with the poor, excluded, soon-to-be refugee Christ Child receive that same heavenly blessing. That is the context in which God was born. That is the particular time, place and culture God entered into, spent time understanding, and where eventually, after many years, he started his ministry. When the Liberation theologians claim that the context of the poor and oppressed is the lens through which we should view the world, they substantiate that claim from the Incarnation. Jesus did not only care about the poor or do ministry for them, but he himself also became poor, and through his assumption of our humanity, the poor we now call “blessed.”
Doing contextual ministry is also about learning to be with the people we serve. As Sam Wells has exquisitely noted in his A Nazareth Manifesto, and many other places, the incarnation is so central in Christian theology because God is more about with than for. Everything God has done and is doing for us, whether the creation of the world or the cross or the resurrection of our bodies, God does it to be with us. For is about power, thinking you are above someone or stronger than them or able to do for them what they cannot do for themselves. With is about simply enjoying and delighting in the presence of the other. No agenda, not using someone to get something for yourself, just offering yourself to another human being.
Understanding and serving in the contexts in which we lead is more about doing the kind of ministry that happened in between Matthew 2-3 than the ministry than happened in Matthew 27. That kind of ministry is long, exhausting and usually without recognition. That kind of ministry took Jesus 30 years. As ministry leaders, we prefer doing the kind of ministry that bears low hanging fruit, produces constantly growing numbers and success stories, and gives us clear boxes we can check when we’re finished. We prefer "for" over "with". But we make a mistake when we think that for is more important, more fundamental or more crucial to ministry than with. After all, offering yourself by being with another person doesn’t really change their reality or do anything to help them in their situation, does it? We think with is simply not pragmatic.
But I’m willing to bet that if there is one Christian message that will speak to “nones,” it’s the message of the with of the Incarnation. If the West today is “Post-Christian,” then we are closer to the pre-Christian world Jesus lived in than ever before. In Jesus’ world, most did not think the gods cared about the details of their life. God was one who did something for them or against them, an act of tremendous power, a sacrifice in a temple or a terrible sea storm. Looking for that kind of power, the world missed the beauty of our God who was more interested in with than for. Today, because of our progressive D.C. lobbying, or our abortion clinic picketing, or even most of our missional attempts to end hunger or poverty, the world expects Christians to be more interested in for than with. But what Jesus demonstrates in his incarnation and life on earth is the profound impact with can have. Many who experienced the radical nature of the with that characterized Jesus’ ministry, experienced something new that transformed their lives and reflected the deepest depths of the heart of the Triune God.
Just like the world two thousand years ago, in our Post-Christendom context today, people long for a God who loves them so much that He created the world, sent His son Jesus, and makes eternal life possible all so He can exist with us. But the world can also spot the difference between with and for and will call B.S. if we turn the Incarnation into anything other than “God is with us.”