Defining Incarnational

In other words, a missional church is incarnational in that it views itself as sent into the world rather than trying to attract the world into its programs and meetings…. But from the opening chapters of God’s Story in Genesis and especially in the climactic revelation of Jesus, participating in God’s mission requires doing so in his character.

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Being “incarnational” is an important concept in the discussion of being “missional.” A missional church is incarnational. But what does that mean? In many of the blog discussions I read, incarnational simply seems to mean “sent” (as opposed to “attract”). In other words, a missional church is incarnational in that it views itself as sent into the world rather than trying to attract the world into its programs and meetings.

However, I think this is a truncated and perhaps even a distorted view of incarnational. To incarnate means to embody. Jesus was the incarnation of Yahweh, the fullness of Yahweh in a real human life. If you want to know what Yahweh would look like if he were human, then you have to look at Jesus. He embodied Yahweh.

I agree that an essential facet to missional is incarnational. God is a missional God. He moves constantly toward the good of his creation. The Church’s missional nature is an expression of the Missio Dei. But from the opening chapters of God’s Story in Genesis and especially in the climactic revelation of Jesus, participating in God’s mission requires doing so in his character. God’s mission is carried forward by his stewards as we embody his character.

In my opinion, any discussion of missional and incarnational without dealing with spiritual formation into Christ’s likeness completely misses the point. We cannot bear God’s salvation to the world if we are not working out God’s salvation in our lives (Phil 2:12-13). (And please, when you read “salvation”, don’t misinterpret that as God’s forgiveness of sins so we can go to heaven.) Growing into the likeness of Christ is the core of our participation in God’s mission. Without that, missional activity is simply activity — certainly good activity, but without the proper character, it is ultimately misplaced activity. And in many cases, that good activity becomes a distraction from what is truly needed, concentrated focus on spiritual formation.

We are created in God’s image to be the caring stewards over his creation. But in order to adequately implement that vocation, we are to be formed into God’s likeness inwardly. As Adam and Eve learned, attempting a shortcut only brings about crisis and brokenness to who we are as people and to our vocation as God’s image-bearers.

Jesus corrects and clarifies our vocation, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” We cannot miss the first word. Yes, we are sent. But we are sent AS Jesus was sent — to embody the fullness of Yahweh. That is what incarnational means and again, it is the core of being missional.

3 thoughts on “Defining Incarnational

  1. Jason,
    I did some recent writing about the redemptive process of restoration in our personal lives, the working out of our salvation, as an aspect of being missional. However, after reading this, I believe it would be more accurate to say that personal transformation is a process of incarnation. In that sense, it then contributes to being missional. I think this is an important distinction that you have made.

  2. Jason, wonder if you can help: I’ve been looking for readable discussions of embodiment — as in our living out an embodied faith as believers, not a faith that’s cut off from our humanness or physicality and hence over- intellectual, over-institutional, or overly abstract… Very early days in my thinking about this, but I’d consider the Incarnation to be something like the archetype of embodiment because it represents the complete union of the spiritual/eternal and the human/finite, a union that didn’t diminish either of those things. So I’m trying to work out how embodiment would look in my own life. Do you have any suggestions for things I can read? Any online communities you know of that talk about it?
    Peace, KM.

  3. Hi KM. At the moment, I can’t think of any specific writers that discuss what embodiment looks like in a lot of detail. However, I am inspired by Eastern Orthodox writers such as Timothy Ware and Alexander Schmemann as they talk about theosis and the sacramental aspect of life. I find generally that those with a solid sacramental theology are better able to envision what embodiment looks like because sacramental theology is intimately connected to incarnational theology. N.T. Wright also has a great lecture series called Creation and New Creation (http://christianaudio.com/product_info.php?products_id=308) that discusses what a life embodying the New Creation looks like. I hope this helps.

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