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Incarnational Ministry and the Unique, Incarnate Christ

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The term "incarnational ministry," like "missional" or "Emergent Church," is used in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes "incarnational ministry" means ministry that crosses cultural barriers to be an embodied presence to people in need. At other times, it's used to talk about culturally relevant analogies for the gospel. In still other contexts, "incarnational ministry" has become shorthand for affirming that intellectual assent to faith is not enough-faith needs to become embodied and "incarnate" in acts of love and service, as in the earthly ministry of Jesus. It is understandable if you find these different uses of the phrase puzzling. For in its common evangelical usage, "incarnational ministry" often has surprisingly little to do with the unique Incarnation of the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. For instance, surely Muslim, Jewish and other religious practitioners would affirm that faith should be made manifest in concrete, physical acts of love and service. But these persons would not affirm the Incarnation of the eternal Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

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1 [ Back ] See
2 [ Back ] Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003). Lingenfelter also uses the analogy in Teaching Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Teaching and Learning, coauthored with Judith Lingenfelter (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003).
3 [ Back ] Lingenfelter and Mayers, 17.
4 [ Back ] For further analysis of the biblical and christological issues raised in proposals such as Lingenfelter's, see my article, "'Incarnational Ministry': A Christological Evaluation and Proposal," Missiology: An International Review 32:2 (April 2004), 187-201.
5 [ Back ] Augustine of Hippo, quoted from "On Rebuke and Grace" in Theological Anthropology, ed. and trans. J. Patout Burns (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1981), 101.

J. Todd Billings (Th.D., Harvard University) is assistant professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is the 2008 winner of the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise for his book, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Belivers in Union with Christ (Changing Paradigms in Historical and Systematic Theology) (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Issue: "The Imitation of Christ" March/April 2009 Vol. 18 No. 2 Page number(s): 19-22

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