“Incarnational”: More Christ in our ministries, and ourselves.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 December 2021
INCARNATIONAL ɪn.kɑr'neɪ.ʃən.əl adjective. Relating to being put in a body.
2. Embodying Christ Jesus in some way.
[Incarnate ɪn'kɑr.nət adjective, incarnation ɪn.kɑr'neɪ.ʃən noun.]

“Incarnational” is a word that’s been flung around American Christianity more and more frequently over the past decade. Not everybody knows what it means, but it’s a trendy word, and they wanna be trendy, so they use it. Or the word missional, which either means they consider themselves to have a mission from God, or they’re really dedicated to their organization’s mission statement.

For the most part, Christians use “incarnational” to describe ministries, churches, and institutions whose leaders don’t want them to be quite so… institutional, I suppose. They want their groups to come across as far more friendly, warm, helpful, loving, practical, and joyful. They wanna be like Jesus.

They use “incarnational” to describe the sort of group they hope to be: One which acts as Jesus’s hands and feet to the world. One which loves like he does, helps like he does, heals like he does. One which makes it crystal clear this is Jesus’s organization: It’s run just as if he literally sits in the CEO’s office, or runs the boardroom.

Or, y’know, not. Because only some of these organizations understand what it really means to be like Jesus.

Honestly, all some of them are going for is the Jesus-vibe. They want their organizations to feel like Jesus—and who doesn’t love Jesus? (Other than antichrists.) Jesus is loving, forgiving, accepting, draws everybody to him, turns no one away, is kind, is gracious; he’s better than Santa Claus because he’s real. These groups want people to love them the same as they love Jesus, so if they claim they’re like Jesus, maybe they can get in on some of that love and devotion.

No I’m not just being cynical. I knew a Christian bookstore owner who loved to talk about being incarnational. It was his favorite buzzword. He was gonna be Jesus to his community by selling bibles, books, CDs, and Christian tchotchkes.

But if a needy person came to his store to beg for food, money, medical help, or even a job? Oh, that wasn’t his problem. That needy person should go to one of the churches. Or the Food Bank. Or some homeless shelter which our town doesn’t have. But not the county government; he didn’t want his taxes paying for such things.

He wasn’t running a charity, y’see. It wasn’t a not-for-profit bookstore. He was trying to make enough money to keep his store open, pay his employees (although barely; pay them minimum wage, and keep ’em part-time so he wouldn’t have to pay benefits), and make himself some money. It’s a business. A “Christian business,” ostensibly there to grow God’s kingdom, but really there to grow his bank account; which is why he may have claimed to abide by biblical principles… but didn’t pay his employees at the end of every day like the bible commands. Dt 24.15

But he sure loved to claim everything he did was incarnational. And I’m sure there’s a joke there about how when his business collapsed during the recession, it was just like how Jesus died… but that’s where the analogy all falls apart, and isn’t funny anyway.

See, whether an organization does act like Jesus is a whole other thing. It all depends on how well the people who run the organization, know and follow Jesus. Some of ’em don’t know him as well as they imagine. But as long as their customers think they’re a “Christian business”, they’ll keep up the façade, and use all the appropriate trendy Christian buzzwords to keep the customers happy. The instant they detect another word has become popular, they’ll ditch “incarnational” for that. It’s not about following Jesus so much as staying fresh.

Non-incarnational organizations.

Ministries frequently fling “incarnational” around. Sometimes because they get it; sometimes not. A ministry director might’ve heard it at a conference somewhere, loved the idea behind it, and wants her ministry to be incarnational. What Christian minister wouldn’t wanna be part of an organization which strives to work for Jesus?

But sometimes they’re not properly incarnational… because they honestly can’t be. For good reason: The ministry specializes in doing one thing. Like raise money for foreign missions. That’s a valuable service! But it doesn’t make them like the whole body of Christ; just a body part. They’re a really well-functioning large intestine! It’s something the body most definitely needs. But it’s hardly the whole body. To be the body, a ministry has to do more than specialize; but to do the ministry, and do it well, they gotta specialize.

And sometimes they don’t really mean it. Yep, it’s good ol’ hypocrisy. Years ago I visited an “incarnational” church where the pastor talked about being Jesus to everybody, and about how the church has to be this very sort of ministry. Right on; it should. A month later I tried to make an appointment with him… and found out you had to get through several layers of “armor-bearers” (i.e. unpaid interns) first. Unlike Jesus, he wasn’t easily accessible. Nor a very good listener, but that’s another discussion.

But here’s a more relevant point: Leaders might claim they have an incarnational church, and preach about it till their faces turn red and necks turn blue. But leaders aren’t the church. The people are. If the people of that church do nothing—if they’re takers not givers, if they only attend Sunday services but are pagans the rest of the week, if they don’t care about the lost and needy and don’t want such people in their congregation: It’s not an incarnational church. It’s a well-intentioned pastor dragging a dead dog on a leash.

It may be some other spirit incarnate, but t’ain’t Jesus.

What does Jesus do?

The “What would Jesus do?” slogan is in the wrong verb tense. He’s not dead! It should be “What does Jesus do?”—and if he’s doing it, do that. And if he’s doing it through your church or ministry, or even you personally, you’re incarnational. Simple as that.

Any so-called “incarnational” ministry which doesn’t do as Jesus does, isn’t. Also simple as that. Yeah, they can argue they do some things as he would, ’cause they specialize. Which is fine. Again, I’m not knocking specialization, ’cause some ministries absolutely should do one thing really well, and stick to the one thing. But when this is how they work, they need to quit using the word “incarnational,” for it’s not what they are. They serve Christ, but the particular way they serve isn’t to be Christ.

And as an individual Christian, each of us can be incarnational. And should be. It’s exactly what the word “Christian” implies. So let’s be that.