By Chris Beard
John 1 is by far my favorite Christmas story. With all due respect to mangers, angels, and magi, John’s account of the Christmas event overflows with the epic proclamation and fanfare that such an earth-shattering moment deserves. Before the foundation of the world, One existed who shared in God’s presence and identity. This eternal being was the chief executor of creation; nothing was made without him. On a day that would redefine history, this all-powerful, eternal being became flesh and made his dwelling among us!
This majestic juncture when God collided with human history is known as the incarnation. The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14, The Message). The incarnation is a picture of God’s love, sovereignty, and purpose; for that the church should celebrate. But the incarnation is also a picture showing the church today how God’s mission is to be carried out. The Word not only became flesh, he also made his dwelling among us. God’s Son became Jesus of Nazareth, his life woven like a thread into the fabric of Judean society. Jesus stepped out of Heaven from the presence of the Father and the Holy Spirit in all of their glory, might, and holiness, into earth and the presence of people in all of their brokenness, weakness, and sin—and that’s exactly how he wanted it!
We understand the incarnation started with the Word becoming flesh, but we also see the tangibility of the Savior throughout his life and ministry. As Darrell Guder wrote in The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness, “That event begins at Christmas and leads all the way to Pentecost. Every chapter in the earthly life and ministry of Jesus is essential to his sending, and to ours.”
The link between the sending of Jesus and the sending of Jesus’ disciples was confirmed by the Savior himself. In John 20:21, Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” The disciples’ time with Jesus was both descriptive and prescriptive; they witnessed Jesus in action and, in turn, learned how they were to be witnesses as partners in God’s redemptive mission.
We can learn from him too. If we are to be true followers of Jesus, then how he ministered should inform how we minister as partners in God’s redemptive mission.
Up Close and Personal
Jesus enveloped his message in his association with people, up close and personal.
Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him. He pursued people in their element with no regard for reputation or social standing. In John 4, Jesus struck up a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a location the woman likely visited every day—the local well. In John 9, Jesus encountered a blind man on a road where the man surely “set up shop” every day to beg.
Even when Jesus drew a crowd, he didn’t retreat to some central location, but remained accessible in public places. Jesus engaged people in homes and at the temple. He healed people on roads where he met them and in their own neighborhoods. He exhibited love and power in the cities and in the countryside. Discipleship was both information and experience.
And when he came close, Jesus also related personally. In John 11, Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, yet when he encountered Lazarus’s mourning sisters, something incredible happened—Jesus wept. Jesus so loved these people that even when he knew their mourning would soon turn to rejoicing, he still mourned with them.
Other Gospel accounts report that Jesus was called a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). Consider the circumstances required to gain that type of reputation! Sure, those critical of Jesus were looking to discredit him, but the labels of “glutton” and “drunkard” stuck because Jesus was a fixture at social gatherings of many kinds.
Jesus moved beyond shallow affiliation and intentionally made a deep, personal connection with those he came to save. Even the most marginalized of Jesus’ time could call him “friend.”
Jesus used presence and proximity as the vehicle for proclamation. Jesus didn’t establish a “holy headquarters.” He didn’t employ marketing efforts inviting people to come hear his message; he took his message (wrapped in love, service, and power) to the people. Jesus didn’t set up weekly classes to teach followers how to be disciples; making disciples was a life-on-life endeavor where Jesus would instill knowledge and invite disciples to witness and participate in his activity in the real world. Jesus didn’t avoid the messiness of this broken world; he jumped right into the muck and mire, the brokenness and sin, to shine a light in the darkness and offer hope to the hopeless.
This begs the question for the church today: Does our ministry look like Jesus? This is not a question of methodological effectiveness; various approaches of mission have worked with varying degrees of success in various contexts. But the crux of the issue is whether churches who claim Jesus as the ultimate example are making disciples incarnationally as Jesus did.
Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Therefore, as God’s chosen instrument for his redemptive mission (Ephesians 3:10, 11) and as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), the church must “move into the neighborhood.” We must get up close and personal with the world we live in and associate with the brokenness of humanity for the sake of Christ. We must meet people where they are, and be friends of sinners as Christ was.
The mission of the body of Christ should reflect the mission Christ embodied. God’s central way of saving the world, the incarnation of Jesus, should be our central way of reaching the world for Jesus: incarnational life and mission.
Pictures of Incarnation
So what would that look like? There is no “one-size-fits-all” model of incarnational ministry; “up close and personal” requires adapting to our own unique environments.
Perhaps we start with those already near us. Ryan and Laura Hairston realized living sent lives meant being missionaries where they lived, in a suburban neighborhood outside of Dallas, Texas. Though they had lived in the neighborhood for two years, they really didn’t know their neighbors, so they started reaching out, apologized for being isolated, and initiated friendships with those around them.
Before long, neighbors became friends, and the entire neighborhood gained an increased sense of community. Neighbors gathered regularly and began meeting one another’s needs, and Laura seized an opportunity to lead a Bible study for the neighborhood’s middle school and high school girls. The building of community made space for opportunities to talk about Jesus.
“It’s becoming shared life. It’s not just community for me, but it’s ‘what can I bring to the community?’” Laura said. “You’re sharing life with people because that’s when those moments happen that you can have your conversations. It really is casting that seed and allowing the Lord to grow it.”
Perhaps living incarnationally is simply seeing opportunities before us. Carolyn Gaston starts each day with this prayer: “Let my time be your time, Lord. Let me serve those around me.” As an ESL (English as a Second Language) coordinator in a southeast Texas school, Carolyn discovered many students’ families struggle with low income and subpar living conditions. Carolyn saw the opportunity to love and serve as Jesus would, and sprang into action.
Carolyn’s ability to communicate with families in their own language opened doors for her to discover and meet needs. Some families needed school supplies, others needed food, and one family needed moldy carpet replaced.
Carolyn brought others to help as well; her efforts became a partnership of several Christians from multiple churches. “When the need is there and I can’t meet it, I ask for help and find someone who can,” Carolyn said. This love in action made Carolyn an integral part of the neighborhood, which led to neighborhood youth groups and Bible studies where Christ is proclaimed.
Perhaps living incarnationally means changing how we serve others. Like many organizations, Catalyst Ministry in northern Ohio provides for kids who cannot afford school clothes, but with one important nuance: Christian volunteers personally take families shopping for clothes. Many volunteers share a meal with the family after the shopping trip, and each encounter includes prayer with the family. Not only are needs met, but relationships are built.
Neal Nelson, executive administrator for Catalyst Ministry said, “We believe you need to show people God’s love to help them understand God’s love. We believe building relationships with people is a key component to effectively sharing your faith with people.”
Living incarnationally is intentional. Institute for Community sends teams of Christians into apartment complexes in the Chicagoland area for the purpose of building community. Apartment managers invite teams because they see value in community among residents.
Bill Barton, a leader in these efforts, said, “You’re really just trying to be a positive relational force responsible for helping the residents build relationships with each other.” By design, the team responsible for building community becomes an integral part of the community, and it just so happens they are Christ followers!
Kimberly Culbertson and her husband are part of a team; she explained, “We throw parties, make welcome visits, send out newsletters and social media stuff related to getting connected in our complex and in our town, and just generally serve as a resource for people who live here. Though we see ourselves as missionaries, we have to be careful about being too overt in our approach. So we depend on actions rather than words, and pray that the inbreaking of the kingdom will prompt organic conversation around spiritual stuff.”
These are a few examples of how the body of Christ can be Jesus “in the flesh” to the world around us. God’s people corporately and individually can discern the specifics of how the Holy Spirit would have us join him in God’s redemptive mission.
Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be” (John 12:26). What began at Christmas continues now through Jesus’ church: as God’s people follow Christ into our neighborhoods and communities; as we get up close and personal with humanity as Jesus did; as we become incarnational in life and mission.
Chris Beard serves as lead minister with Christ’s Covenant Church in Beaumont, Texas. He is a PhD candidate in leadership studies with a focus on missional leadership at Johnson University, Knoxville, Tennessee.