By Ethan Magness
Both in my life and in the larger ministry of Mountain Christian Church, we are making strides to embody the incarnation as an intentional ministry strategy. We are seeing new modes of ministry emerging at the level of churchwide strategy, group engagement, and individual action.
As we look around, we see pictures of Jesus enfleshed in the world he loves. Don’t be confused by how simple these strategies may be. Incarnational ministry is pretty simple. We just show up and live where Christ’s presence is needed.
We see a picture of the incarnation when . . .
1. A man gives up his treadmill habit to instead walk in his neighborhood—mapping every home. He learns at first the names, and then the stories of the strangers he has lived beside for eight years. He prays as he walks, and over time, these strangers are becoming friends. His simple act of knowing them—their names, needs, and gifts—opens up dozens of new opportunities to love them and invite them into community.
He used to live in a neighborhood and wonder if he should go to the mission field. Now he lives on a mission field in his neighborhood.
2. Church leaders meet to discuss new metrics. No longer content to measure what’s happening inside their walls, they ask, “How can we measure the difference we are making in our community?” What we measure will become what matters, so we work to measure the right things.
(For an article on this topic that will lead you to further useful resources, try http://leadnet.org/blog/post/new_missional_metrics/.)
3. Comfortable small groups of contented Christians transform themselves for the sake of others. One group dissolves completely with each member inviting his or her neighbors into community with them. Another group gives up one meeting a month and replaces it with a cookout. They contact people they know who are disconnected from God and community and invite them to share their food, their home, and their lives.
A new and ongoing community is forming around these monthly cookouts. This group has become incarnate to their neighbors and friends who do not know Christ.
4. “Ministry” is redefined throughout the church as people understand that the soccer field is a mission field, many of our neighbors are an unreached people group, and our workplace is a mission outpost. A new definition emerges for what “counts” as ministry. We still have programs to staff and leaders to recruit, but we are convinced that if our church is going to embody the incarnation as much as we believe the incarnation, we must invite our people to go pitch their tent (John 1:14) in the world to which God has called them.
5. A young mom teaches a young teen girl next door how to make cupcakes, and soon a new club is formed of girls who might never have gone to church but now have met Jesus. To their surprise, Jesus looks like an exhausted mother with three children under age 4, who teaches them how to make cupcakes, be a woman, and most importantly, teaches them about Christ.
6. A leadership team meets to plan programs of community engagement with an under-resourced neighborhood. Team members have accepted Philippians 2 and the incarnation as their model, so they do not look to their own interests but to the real interests of the community. They engage as listeners and learners. They show up to stay as partners for the long haul, and many of them move to the neighborhood and truly become “one of” those they are serving. They don’t bring solutions from outside the neighborhood; they become the solution as a part of the community.
(To learn more about this highly effective posture of community engagement, visit www.neighborhoodtransformation.net.)
7. A church member calls the church looking for a place to serve. He is directed not only to those ministries that serve people through the church’s programs, but also connected with school-sponsored tutoring agencies, community homeless shelters, and public after-school programs.
In light of our call to be embodied in our neighborhood, there is no competition between serving “in the church” and serving “in the community,” because we as a church exist not for ourselves but for our community.
8. A mission team leaves their hometown knowing “the best thing we will build on this trip is relationships.” They leave their “get it done” agenda behind and instead commit to be the presence of Christ.
As people see how simple, basic, and profound this is, we start interacting with the people we encounter, having no other agenda than an appreciation for them as human beings created in God’s image. And as they return, we intentionally blur the line between global and local mission. There is one mission field, and it is as far away as your outstretched arm.
9. In restaurants all over town, Christian individuals and Christian groups are becoming regulars—being known and getting to know those who work and eat with them. As they are known, Christ in them is also known, and soon through natural embodied relationships, people are finding the church and finding faith in Christ.
10. We stop before we build a new program to see where we can partner in the community with existing programs. New programs will still need to be built, but more and more often we shift our energy from saying to others, “Come and see” what we are doing for them, to instead calling ourselves to “go and be” with them in what they are already doing.
11. A couple who have sponsored children and led short-term mission trips finally sell their condo and move to Africa to be enfleshed with the people they have come to love. And as they
prepare to move, they remind everyone they know that they are not “going” to the mission field. They are merely moving from one mission field to another.
12. A family decides to adopt kids or care for foster children, and the whole church rises up to support them in a long-term commitment to raising the next generation together.
We see a picture of the incarnation whenever Christians, who once were huddled together guarding their holiness, instead, meet their neighbors and serve them. They get connected to the community, settling in and building long-term relationships. They serve where they live or move to live where they are called to serve.
There are so many different pictures of the incarnation, but they have the same common reality. Jesus Christ left Heaven to join us in our lives so that we might be free. In the same way, we are called to enter the world around us, and to share our best selves with those Jesus loves.
Ethan Magness serves as pastor of spiritual formation with Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland.