As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth this Christmas, guest blogger Andy Wier offers some reflections on incarnational mission.
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood”
(John 1:14, The Message)
Over the past fifteen years, “incarnational mission” has become a buzzword in many of the church circles I’ve inhabited. Inspired by the story of the Word who became flesh, quite a few UK Christians have sought to emulate Jesus’ downward mobility by intentionally relocating to deprived urban areas. Whether through national initiatives like Eden, the church-planting strategies of congregations or the personal convictions of individuals, the incarnation has been a major motivation for Christians moving into the neighbourhood.
I myself have been part of this movement. When I was in my early twenties, I moved onto an inner city estate with a couple of friends because I was attracted by the idea of incarnational mission. Thirteen years later, I still live in the same area and have come to regard it as home. But over time, my perspective on ‘being incarnational’ has changed.
As a white middle-class southerner living in a diverse and rapidly-changing northern neighbourhood, I’ve found trying to be incarnational quite hard. Although I’m committed to my local area, I find that there’s all manner of things that draw my attention away from the immediately local: the type of work I do; having family and friends scattered around the country; and being part of a church where not everyone lives in the same area.
At times, I’ve felt guilty about this and told myself I must try harder to be ‘more incarnational’. But more recently, I’ve begun to think that it might be ok to live with ambiguity and tension. One of the things that have helped with this has been the experience of conducting a study on the way charismatic-evangelical churches engage in urban mission.
My research identified a series of six tensions that charismatic-evangelical urban churches experience. One of these was a tension between “locally indigenous and expansive horizons”. The churches I studied all tried to combine a commitment to their immediate locality with a wider field of vision that extended to other parts of their city and beyond. This was also linked to a tension between ‘middle class incomers’ and ‘indigenous locals’.
As I’ve reflected on these tensions, I’ve come to the conclusion that although Christ’s incarnation can provide a really inspiring starting point for urban mission, a ‘tunnel vision’ emphasis on ‘being incarnational’ can be really unhelpful at times. A focus on Christ’s incarnation quite rightly affirms the importance of being contextual and locally indigenous. But there are other parts of the Christian narrative that encourage us to look far beyond the immediately local. For me, this is encapsulated by the words of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”
(Acts 1:8, NIV)
So as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth this Christmas, let’s remember that the incarnation isn’t the end of story. It’s only the very beginning.
And let’s remember that the incarnation isn’t fundamentally about a principle. It’s about a person.
How can we hold incarnational insights and expansive horizons together in creative tension?