In recent decades, scores of books, manuals, and websites advocating “incarnational ministry” have encouraged Christians to move beyond ministry at a distance and to “incarnate” and immerse themselves into local cultures. Some give a step-by-step “incarnation process” for Christians crossing cultures. Some call us to become incarnate by “being Jesus” to those around us. Indeed, many of these resources display valuable insights into relational and cross-cultural ministry. But there are serious problems at the core of most approaches to “incarnational ministry”—problems with biblical, theological, and practical implications.
I encountered these problems myself as a practitioner of “incarnational ministry.” At a Christian college, I was told that just as God became flesh in a particular culture 2,000 years ago, my job was to become “incarnate” in another culture. Eight months later, equipped with training in cultural anthropology, I set about learning the language and culture in Uganda. But I quickly ran into doubts about the “incarnational” method. Would the Ugandans necessarily “see Jesus” as a result of my efforts at cultural identification? Was I assuming that my own presence—rather than that of Christ—was redemptive? Is the eternal Word’s act of incarnation really an appropriate model for ministry?
My questions multiplied as I continued my theological education. Biblical scholars and theologians assured me that the Bible and orthodox Christian theology taught nothing about us “becoming incarnate.” Going back to my professors of missiology and ministry, I heard a quite practical response: If not the Incarnation, what is the alternative model for culture-crossing ministries? Over the past decade, I have come to see that incarnational ministry actually obscures the much richer theology of servant-witness and cross-cultural ministry in the New Testament: ministry in union with Christ by the Spirit.
Viewing the Incarnation as a model for ministry leads to a dangerous imbalance in two ways. The problem is not the doctrine of the Incarnation, which is central to Christian faith. Rather, the problem results from a distortion of that belief—turning the uniquely divine act of the Word becoming incarnate in Christ into a “method for ministry” that is repeated in our own lives. Let me offer two examples of this distortion—one more common in mainline Christian circles, the other more common among conservative evangelicals.
At a two-hour workshop on urban ministry, leaders began by quoting Eugene Peterson’s artful rendering of John 1:14, which describes the incarnation of Jesus Christ: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” If moving into the neighborhood and immersing oneself among the people is God’s strategy for ministry, I was told, then certainly it must be ours. Throughout the workshop, I heard many techniques for adopting a second culture, listening to others, and immersing myself in an urban neighborhood. But there was apparently no need to mention Jesus any further. Jesus provided the model for how to immerse oneself in another culture, but the specific content of his life and teaching, and his death and resurrection, were beside the point.
The workshop’s approach—seen in other segments of the church—reduced “incarnational ministry” to its core metaphor: The point is to identify with another culture rather than to testify to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, at a recent missions conference for a mainline denomination, missionaries claimed they did not need to bear witness to Christ. Instead, they were simply called to become “incarnate” in the second culture. The slogan in these circles is to “live the Good News rather than preach the Good News.” Surely it’s important to offer a ministry of presence to those in need. But when the gospel is reduced to identifying with others, the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation becomes an afterthought, and the Good News becomes merely a personal ethic.
In contrast, on the conservative evangelical side, advocates of “incarnational ministry” bear witness to Christ without hesitation. Whether in youth culture, urban culture, or any other environment, the ultimate goal of immersion is witnessing to Christ. This approach rightly recognizes that, as Jesus said before his Ascension, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). To be Christ’s witnesses goes beyond “witnessing” by handing out tracts to people we don’t know. But by using the Incarnation as a model, they miss the implications of what comes earlier in the passage: that the commissioning depends not on a second incarnation, but on receiving power from the Holy Spirit.
In the same way, these evangelicals often quote John 20:21, where Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” They assume this means imitating the act of becoming incarnate. But they leave out the next verse: “And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” It is not our own “incarnation,” then, but the Holy Spirit who makes Christ present in us and beyond us. The Spirit makes our witness effective.
Yet because they take the Incarnation as their “model” of ministry, these evangelicals often assume that they—rather than the Holy Spirit—make Christ present in the world. In these circles, one often hears the slogan that “you and I may be the only Jesus that others will ever meet.” Youth leaders are admonished to go out and “be Jesus” to youth, wherever they are. Church planters are told to “be Christ” to the people they meet. The burden of incarnation—and revelation—is on the shoulders of the individuals. Such a theology often leads to burnout. In spite of its motive to be relational and evangelistic, this approach functionally denies the adequacy of Christ’s unique incarnation and the Spirit’s work as the supreme witness to Christ (John 15:26). We forget that we are not equipped to represent Christ to the world without being united, as a community, to Christ through the Spirit.
United to Christ
Union with Christ is one of the most widespread and comprehensive images the New Testament uses to describe salvation, the Christian life, and ministry. Christians do not simply believe in Christ or imitate Christ from a distance; we have been united to Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. We are united to Christ as branches are united to the vine (John 15), and we are “in Christ” as ones united to the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus (Rom. 6:3-11; Eph. 2:6). We have already died to sin, yet we are called to put to death the old self (Rom. 6:6; 8:13). All of this happens through the Spirit, for “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ” (Rom. 8:9).
The theme of union with Christ relates to the forgiveness of sins, new life by the Spirit, our identity as adopted children of the Father, the church as a body of diverse people made one in Christ, the practical life of witnessing to Christ, loving our neighbor, and walking by the Spirit. And that is just the beginning. It’s no wonder that biblical theologians in many traditions have boldly declared the centrality of union with Christ. For example, while commenting on Paul’s letters, Richard Longenecker exclaims, “Being ‘in Christ’ is the essence of Christian proclamation and experience.”
Regrettably, “incarnational ministry” approaches fail to recognize key New Testament passages about union with Christ. The New Testament makes strong claims about the “missions” of the Son and Spirit in the world. This makes the “sending” of the church fundamentally derivative and subordinate. We are adopted into Christ by the Spirit; we do not have a divine nature, like the incarnate Christ, but only a human nature. The Spirit brings us into the benefits of Christ as ones who belong to him; fundamentally, the church is sent as witnesses to Christ and ambassadors of reconciliation in him. We are always to point beyond ourselves, as witnesses.
Christ lives in us by the Spirit. But a biblical account of union with Christ is clear that we are not Christ; we are not an “ongoing incarnation” in the world. While John’s gospel speaks about how we are sent into the world (John 20:21), the gospel uses different language for the sending of the Son. As New Testament scholar Andreas Köstenberger points out, terms such as “ ‘coming into the world’ or ‘descending’ or ‘ascending’ “ are “reserved for Jesus.” The way we are sent, he writes, is “not the way in which Jesus came into the world (i.e. the Incarnation), but the nature of Jesus’ relationship with his sender (i.e., one of obedience and utter dependence).” We are not sent into the world to perform another incarnation, but as disciples who bear witness to Christ and his reign by the Spirit.
The New Testament considers God’s act of becoming incarnate in Christ to be utterly unique. Thus, it calls us to follow Jesus Christ, the God-man—not the preincarnate divine Word. This is particularly pertinent in interpreting Philippians 2:5-7, the scriptural text used most frequently to support the idea of imitating the action of becoming incarnate: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” This passage might seem to say that we should become incarnate just as Christ took on a “human likeness.” Such a reading, however, moves against the larger context of the passage. In Philippians 2:1-4, Paul has just admonished believers to be “of one mind,” acting toward one another with humility and harmony, exhorting them to look not “to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Then, in verse 5, Paul says to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” Paul is concerned with the attitude or disposition of believers. He wants them to serve each other with Christlike humility, not to imitate every detail of Christ’s uniquely redemptive life and work.
Must we somehow imitate the act of being exalted and receiving a “name that is above every name,” so that “every knee should bow” to us (Phil. 2:9-10)? Surely not—exaltation as an object of worship is reserved for Christ alone, just as God’s taking on “human likeness” occurs in Christ alone. Having the “mindset” of Christ, as Philippians 2:1-11 spells out, means displaying a life of service, obedience, and harmony in Christ—not imitating the act of incarnation. All major streams of biblical scholarship agree on this: Paul does not ask us to imitate the act of becoming incarnate.
Only in light of our union with Christ—the servant who lives a life of self-sacrificial obedience—does Paul write about his missionary strategy in 1 Corinthians 9:22: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Advocates of incarnational ministry often claim that Paul’s cultural identification imitates the Incarnation. But scholars such as Richard Hays have pointed out that the passage is framed in the context of union with the incarnate Christ, the self-sacrificial servant.
In the end, not one New Testament passage suggests that we should imitate the divine act of becoming incarnate. Instead, the passages used to support “incarnational ministry” illustrate the pervasive New Testament theme of union with Christ by the Spirit. We actually become united to Christ the Lord by the Spirit’s power.
A New Humanity
Approaching cross-cultural ministry in light of the Bible’s teaching about union with Christ draws our attention anew to the work of the Spirit in community. Unlike the often individualistic “incarnation” model, ministry in union with Christ points to the final purpose of all cross-cultural ministry: to participate in the Spirit’s work of creating a new humanity in Christ, in which a culturally diverse people gathers to worship the triune God.
In engaging other cultures, the New Testament church did not draw on a theology of “incarnational ministry,” but instead responded to the Spirit’s work of creating a new people in Christ. This began at Pentecost, when the Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus and gave them the ability “to speak in other tongues” about the powerful deeds of God (Acts 2:4-12). Not only does the Spirit overcome linguistic divisions among the Jews; the same Spirit gives visions to both Peter and Cornelius, a Gentile, that lead to their meeting and the disclosure that the Good News is for Gentile as well as Jew (10:1-33). At the council of Jerusalem, Peter points to God’s “giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us,” for in this God “did not discriminate between us and them” (15:8-9). In light of this revelation, the council makes significant cultural concessions to allow for the united fellowship of Jew and Gentile (15:22-29). Early Jewish followers of Jesus were asked to honor the cultures of the Gentile followers (and vice versa) because the Spirit had made them one people in union with Christ.
Given this, it’s no surprise that Revelation’s final vision of redemption involves a culturally diverse gathering of humanity worshiping Jesus, the crucified Lamb. “And they sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation’?” (Rev. 5:9). But this vision is not limited to the future. In Ephesians 2:13-18, Paul indicates that the present reality of union with Christ anticipates the final oneness of God’s people by breaking down the dividing walls between people groups. For “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Given this key context—of being “in Christ Jesus”—Paul continues in verses 14-18:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
This is what the Spirit’s corporate work in union with Christ looks like: Christ is the peace who breaks down the dividing walls between hostile groups, reconciles them into one body through the Cross, and by one Spirit gathers those far and near to serve the Father. God adopts them into a new family, a “new humanity,” in which dividing walls are broken down in Christ.
What are the implications of being sent as Christ’s witnesses to discover and participate in the Spirit’s work of creating a new humanity? It means that while evangelism is essential, it cannot be done simply by delivering a message from a distant missionary compound, or setting up a new “program” at church for youth. It means we are sent into the diverse cultures of the world to bear witness to Christ in a way that discloses the new, united humanity. Thus, we do need to be learners of other cultures, with patience enough to listen, be present, and display love with our actions. Yet, in contrast to “incarnational ministry,” we need not pretend to “incarnate” into that culture or to “be Jesus” to that culture, for this displays a lack of trust in the Spirit’s work, which mediates the presence of our living, ascended Lord. Theologian Andrew Purves warns us to “beware of all teachings that suggest it is your job to incarnate Jesus,” for that is to “render Jesus an absent mythic Lord” rather than recognize that Christ is the living Lord who acts in and through the Spirit.
Moreover, the church is not only sent but also gathered by the Spirit to worship the Father. This is a weakness of many “incarnational ministries”—individuals reach out to youth, city-dwellers, or foreign cultures, but because the metaphor of “incarnation” is about sending, there is little emphasis on gathering. Many youth reached through incarnational ministry do not join a multigenerational community in worship; indeed, some advocates of incarnational ministry treat corporate worship as a distraction from real ministry—which is to walk alongside individuals in their various contexts. While this relational emphasis has value, focusing only on the dispersed church ends up promoting individualism and devaluing the ways in which Jesus presents himself by the Spirit through word and sacrament in corporate worship.
The eschatological image in Revelation 5:9 is of people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” in corporate worship. The Spirit unites peoples of many cultures and tribes precisely so that they might “have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph. 2:18). Communal worship is essential if the church is to display its reconciled yet differentiated oneness as a witness to the world (John 17:23).
Rediscovering the Incarnation
At the center of the Christian faith is a bold affirmation: that in Jesus Christ, the Word became flesh. Many people may live lives of service—and some even die self-sacrificing deaths. But Jesus is not the first of many incarnations. Jesus alone is God incarnate—and apart from this unique divine act, Jesus’ work on our behalf would have no saving value.
The time is ripe for evangelicals to rediscover the many implications of the astonishing fact of the Incarnation. We often evince a gnostic attitude toward our bodies and the material world, acting as if physical things don't really matter if you are a “spiritual” person. But in the Incarnation, we see how God acts in and through the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Because of this unique action, the location of being “in Christ” is one of communion with God and fellowship in the body of Christ, the church. We need to champion the uniqueness of the Incarnation, and see how it leads to a dynamic theology of union with Christ—where the Spirit gathers us for worship and service as an embodied, culturally diverse, yet unified new humanity in Christ.
J. Todd Billings is associate professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary and the author of Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Baker Academic), from which this article is adapted.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.