Rethinking mission: Incarnational presence

By Brad Brisco

The last post examined the missionary nature of God and the “sentness” of the church. God is a missionary God who sends a missionary church. However, being sent is only part of the story. The language of “incarnational presence” represents the rooting of our lives and the gospel into the places we live. If the essence of missional living is sending, then the heart of incarnational presence is staying.

The incarnation

The word ‘incarnation’ comes from a Latin word that literally means “in the flesh.” It refers to the act whereby God took on human flesh and entered into our world to bring about reconciliation between himself and humanity. The incarnation is God’s ultimate missional participation in creation (John 3:16-17). When God entered into our world in and through the person of Jesus, He came to live among us (eskenosen— literally, “set up a tent”): “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message).

Incarnational mission

The Incarnation not only qualifies God’s acts in the world, but also must qualify ours. If God’s central way of reaching His world was to incarnate himself in Jesus, then our way of reaching the world should likewise be incarnational. Now it is important to recognize that the incarnation of Jesus was a special, unrepeatable event. Further, as we enter into the world of others, we certainly cannot take on another’s identity in the fully integrated way that Jesus did. But we can make a distinction between the Incarnation with a capital “I” and incarnational ministry.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with inviting believers to model their lives after the life of Jesus. The apostles encouraged Christians to imitate Christ as a way of identifying with Him. Both Peter (1 Pet. 2:21) and Paul (1 Cor. 11:1) insisted that Jesus is to be the model for Christian living.

Peter makes clear that Jesus’ life is to be our example. And Paul simply states that we can follow his way of life because he is so closely following the way of Jesus. Missiologist Michael Frost elaborates on the theme of following Christ’s example from the book of Philippians:

“Paul makes this point even more strongly in Philippians, in which he tells us that our ‘attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 2:5). We often assume that this passage then commends to us Jesus’ humility, which is clearly present in the text. But Jesus’ humility is commended to us insofar as it is expressed in his commitments to identification and relinquishment. First, to follow Jesus’ example means that we should share his profoundly humble identification with sinful humankind (Phil. 2:7b-8a). Second, those of us who wish to emulate Jesus should be aware of his equally humble willingness to empty himself and make himself nothing for the sake of God’s redemptive purposes (Phil. 2:6-7a). … To embrace an incarnational ministry, then, involves a willingness to relinquish our own desires and interests in the service of others.” [1]

Frost’s examination of the Philippians passage speaks to two very important ideas related to incarnational mission — the concepts of proximity and presence.

Incarnational mission must involve living in close proximity with others. We cannot love and serve those God has sent us to from a distance. Just as Jesus took on flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood, we must do likewise. This may require moving geographically to be closer to those to whom God has sent us. At the very least, it will demand creating time and space to be directly and actively involved in the lives of people we are seeking to reach.

The concept of presence moves beyond mere proximity to identification and surrender. Jesus identified with and advocated for those to whom He was called. As the Philippians passage makes clear, He humbled Himself. He literally emptied Himself for the sake of others. This realization suggests an incarnational approach that calls us to relational identification with our neighbors that will lead to tangible acts of love and sacrifice.

In an excellent book titled The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness, theologian Darrell Guder provides a very helpful summary on the incarnation of Jesus and its relationship to what it means to be a Christian:

“We arrive at the concept of incarnational witness as one way of expounding on the character of our missionary vocation. In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God revealed himself as the One who is with and forhis creation. Now, as the Risen Lord sends his Spirit to empower the church, we are called to become God’s people present in the world, with and for the world, like St. John pointing always to Christ. The most incarnational dimension of our witness is defined by the cross itself, as we experience with Jesus that bearing his cross transforms our suffering into witness. Incarnational witness is, therefore, a way of describing Christian vocation in terms of Jesus Christ as the messenger, the message, and the model for all who follow after him. To speak of the incarnation missionally is to link who Jesus was, what Jesus did, and how he did it, in one great event that defines all that it means to be Christian.” [2]

Nuts and bolts

So, what does all this talk of identification, proximity, and presence have to do with daily living? It may sound like a cliché, but it really is all about relationships. It’s about getting close enough to people to listen, understand their hopes and dreams, and actually come to like and love them. What will it take for you to incarnate the life of Jesus, living through you in your local community? What will it take for you to really move into your neighborhood, perhaps for the very first time?

Action / Reflection

  1. Ask yourself: Am I in close proximity to those to whom God has called me? What will I do this week to encourage proximity? Identify one way to experience greater proximity and act upon it.
  2. Ask yourself: Am I experiencing incarnational “presence” with those I live near? Do I identify and understand the fears and concerns of those around me? Identify one way to experience a greater level of presence and act upon it.

[1] Michael Frost, Exiles (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2006), 54.

[2] Darrell Guder, The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 9.

Published April 23, 2018

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Brad Brisco

Brad is currently the Director of Bivocational Church Planting for the North American Mission Board. He holds a doctorate in the area of missional ecclesiology; his doctoral thesis was on assisting existing congregations in transitioning in a missional direction. Brad is the co-author of Missional Essentials, a twelve-week small group study guide, The Missional Quest: Becoming a Church of the Long Run, and Next Door As It Is In Heaven. He and his wife have three children and have been foster parents to more than fifty other kids.