4 Building Blocks for a Missional Ecclesiology (Leading a Church Into Mission): #2 The Incarnational Engagement W/ Culture

Theology Alert: This post is a bit more theological/ abstract than the typical post at this blog.

For all of you not too busy with the elections today (in the U.S.), I’d like to continue thinking through the 4 building blocks of a missional ecclesiology. As I said in post #1 of this series, I have been working with a rubric for understanding the cultural shifts and theological assumptions that shape a church’s formation into Mission (and now Geoff Holsclaw and I are working together to make a book out of all this). I put forth 4 fundamental “building blocks” for shaping a church into Mission. They are theological/cultural ideas many of us are already well familiar with.  They are: 1.) The Church as part of Missio Dei, 2.) The Church’s Incarnational Engagement in the world , 3.) The Church as Witness, and 4.) The Church in Post Christendom.  I’m always revising and engaging further the implications of these “building blocks” as I teach and re-teach them. Last post we explored building block #1 missio Dei. This post I engage the idea of the Incarnation and how this impacts the way we engage culture as His church. Here we go:

The Incarnational Engagement of Culture

The doctrine of the incarnation teaches us that God, the divine creator, entered human life to inhabit the cultured worlds of His creation. God became man in Christ. He con-descended to inhabit our world so as to bring redemption. The transcendent became immanent.  The Creator encountered His creation by entering it and living among the world as “one of.”  This fundamental understanding of God in Christ determines how we engage culture as Christians. Whenever we proclaim the gospel, we “crossover” and engage culture. We must inhabit, become one among the culture so as to embody the gospel (enflesh His salvation)) in the terms of the existing culture. Out of this enfleshment we speak in word and deed the gospel, we minister the gospel wholly as part of our inhabitation.

The notion of incarnation then is a fundamental building block to missional ecclesiology. It teaches us how to follow in the way of Christ into culture. By entering culture incarnationally, we honor the fact that we are no longer a part of a pre-existing monlithic culture that possess the language to understand Christian message. We honor the fact that we do not come into the world from a presumption of power and respect. We enter humbly as Christ’s servants to the culture. We do not expect people to come to us, we go to them and be one “among” them, “with” them.

The Church as Christ’s Body – A Trinitarian Extension of God’s Mission into the World

I want to propose however that the Incarnation is more than a contextual model for ministry. It is more than a way of following Jesus among the disenfranchised.  It is a way of engaging culture as a people. The incarnation is that means by which God entered the world to be among us. God came in the sending of the Son, and in Christ, God (re-)birthed a people by the sending of His Spirit as a continuation of Himself (John 20:21-23). In this “sending of His people,” God extends His Trinitarian work into a people who engage the world. Christ’s presence, His rule is made known by the Spirit among a people. This happens in real life as we gather around the Eucharist (where His presence is made manifest and shapes us into a reconciled and renewed people). This happens in real life when we hear (in the Spirit) the Word proclaimed and respond in the Spirit as a people. This happens when we share fellowship(1 Cor 12), meet the poor (Matt 25), receive the authority in each other’s “gifts”(Eph 4) and when we gather to discern conflict (“there am I in the midst of you) (Matt 18). In all these ways, by the Spirit, God is “with us” and in us and we become his hands and feet in the world. God forms a people for Mission in the world.

It is out of this formation of a people that a multifarious local engagement with culture is made possible! As opposed to simply the church against culture or the church assimilated with culture, the incarnational community authentically engages culture in a way where God in Christ by the Spirit meets culture in a redeeming transforming work that can take different shapes. Here, out of this dynamic, we listen, engage and then discern things/activities in the world we should join in with (food pantries), things that can be completed in Christ (bringing the healing of Christ to modern medicine), things that can be renewed in Christ (marriage), or the things we must reject as in rebellion against God (pornography, corporate injustice). It is not simply the singular implementation of a strategy of either “the church against all culture” or “the church assimilating all culture.” It is a dynamic social incarnational process.

To take an example, with the “same sex relations” cultural issue of our day, we as a people do not simply unilaterally reject “same sex relations” with no prior interaction (against culture). It’s not that simple. Neither do we simply assimilate and affirm “same sex relations” (assimilate culture). It’s just not that simple. We engage on the ground in relational listening and dialogue, living the way of the cross and resurrection in terms of sexuality and its redemption in Christ. We listen, dialogue, live, and invite (not from a place of power but from humility) into the transforming way of the cross and resurrection we have been caught up in ourselves. In this process, a “converting of the church” (Guder) takes shape again and again, that looks different in each context. We bring sexual redemption in all its dimensions to the culture (lest anyone misunderstand me here, you can read this series of posts). The Kingdom of God, where God is already taking the whole world, takes shape among us as an embodied witness.

The incarnation is thereby more than a model to follow, it is a mode of being in the world that makes possible the forming of “his Body” in the world as a participant in where God is already taking the world. This pushes “incarnational” beyond the ways most often talked about in Missional literature. There are some easily anticipated objections. Does this put too much emphasis on the church as the site of Christ’s presence? His rule breaking in? Too much emphasis on the practices of Eucharist, preaching and community? How can this be humble?

What do you think?

(If you’re interested in pursuing these kind of theological/cultural issues in a concentrated course of study see here).


Allow me to thank all those responsible for putting together the Missional Learning Commons this past weekend including J R Rozko, Ben Sternke and Geoff Holsclaw. It was real good and I think we’ve settled on the weekend before Halloween (or should I say All Saint’s Eve) as the annual date (so take note of it eh?). Thanks to all who traveled and came to this gathering. I was blessed with many good times with you all.

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