Guest commentary by Merwyn S. Johnson
I seek to navigate through the rocky shoals of being Presbyterian and Christian today. By all accounts, we are engulfed in an epochal paradigm shift from one era of church-and-culture to another. Our challenge is to go from the old era to the new one without foundering. That will take an authentically new message of grace and truth, centered in Jesus Christ. The widespread language of “incarnational ministry,” however, confines us to the old paradigm.
I started thinking more deeply about this after reading a review of Samuel Wells’ book “Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church” in the Outlook. For the record, I am not criticizing the book’s author or the book itself, which I affirm contains helpful tips for ministry. The title illustrates how important the catchphrase “incarnational ministry” has become in church literature, like “embodying forgiveness” before it (see L. Gregory Jones’ 1995 book). In my experience with D.Min. programs for over 40 years, ministers today most often see themselves as embodied instruments of God, to be measured by their usefulness in doing the Lord’s work of mission or advancing the kingdom of God. The same expectations shape church members about their leaders and about themselves.
The language of “incarnational ministry” really reflects the previous paradigm, the era of Modernism-Pietism (1650-1965) — not to be confused with the Reformation era, which ended in 1650. John Calvin, Phillip Melanchthon and other Protestant reformers recognized that the idea of embodying God would seriously undermine the Reformation message. In 1550, they vigorously opposed Andreas Osiander on this very issue (see Calvin vs. Osiander in “The Institutes”). One hundred years later, Osiander’s views resurfaced in Pietism and intensified during the Modernist-Pietist era. The modern Christian church has never resolved the problems posed by Osiander.
During the Modernist-Pietist era the Christian movement grew exponentially in raw numbers, worldwide expanse and cultural impact. Having reached a pinnacle of success in the mid-to-late-20th century, the era itself now presses home the question: Where do we go from here? The paradigm shift now hitting the church like a tidal wave clearly signals that we cannot continue further down the same path.
In short, the catchphrase incarnational ministry raises the following questions:
- Does “incarnational ministry” mean that when we are saved, Christ is incarnate in us as God was incarnate in Jesus Christ, Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith?
- If Christ is thus incarnate in us, are we then:
- Actually good and moral as he is good and moral?
- Perfectly human as he was perfectly human, the image of God restored?
- Divine as he is divine, able to do the things he did?
- All of the above or some combination of them?
- If we make such claims as Christians, whether members or ministers, can we avoid the dangers of:
- Thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought (with self-righteousness)?
- Making Christ essentially an example of what we are to become (regarding equality with God as a thing to be grasped)?
- Using ourselves as divine instruments to transform the world in God’s name (doing God’s work for God as extensions of God)?
- Blurring the lines between ourselves and God (assuming that what we do is identical with what God is doing, God in us working through us)?
These dangers have become plain in modern American Christianity, both liberal and conservative. Hence, the claims no longer work the way they once did. As used today, the phrase “incarnational ministry” simply restates the incarnation in terms of us (“Christ in us”) so we humans can manage and dispense it. But the language keeps the Christian church in a rut, holding on tightly to the old paradigm.
Recognizing the dangers, church youth have been rejecting the claims for some time, since 1966 for Presbyterians. Those numbers are growing with the swiftly rising percentage of “nones” and “dones” in the United States, most of whom are former church members. The modern cultural world, has taken on a life of its own apart from the church. Christians will not regain their footing in this situation merely by reasserting the old paradigm claims.
The paradigm shift now in progress drives us back to bedrock. For Christ-ianity, the bedrock is surely Jesus Christ, as the Scriptures bear witness to Christ. The real point of the incarnation is God uniquely as the human Jesus Christ, the loving, life-giving reality of God with us (Emmanuel) at all times, as his own person here and now in the power of the Spirit. The distinctive feature of the Modernist-Pietist era is its unsustainable, incarnational focus on “Christ in us,” largely to the exclusion of “us in Christ.” In fact, the New Testament rarely (if ever) talks about Christ in us without also talking more substantially about us in Christ. Try tracking the two phrases side-by-side through any single chapter of a Pauline letter, or reflecting on John’s use of the language of “abiding” with “God in us” and “us in God.” God abides in us because first and foremost we abide in God, not the other way around; the point is communion with God, not incarnation. Being and abiding in Christ, we look for Christ’s ongoing, active ministry among us and the exciting adventure of participating in that action wherever it happens!
Using the language of “incarnational ministry,” many Christians who trumpet a new paradigm today are simply repeating the old paradigm accent on Christ in us, with attached angles and strategies. Vital, alternative language, however, lies close at hand — as close as being and abiding in Christ, in the power of the Spirit. With fresh language and a fresh accent on Christ, maybe we are close to a new message of truth and grace for the coming paradigm.
Merwyn S. Johnson is professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina.