There is No Discipleship Without Mission: A Response to Mike Breen

Mike Breen, an English author and clergyman, recently wrote a two-part article entitled: "Why the Missional Movement Will Fail." Despite the title, Breen doesn't really talk much about the missional church. He never articulates his understanding of it and doesn't site any leading author on the topic. It's really a piece about discipleship, and Breen argues that the missional church will fail because of the lack of a focus on discipleship. While Breen is correct about the importance of discipleship, what he misses is the fact that mission is the very catalyst of true, transformational discipleship.

In Part 1, he uses the analogy of a car to argue that "missional" is simply the wheel on a vehicle whose engine is discipleship.
A missional church or a missional community or a missional small group is the new car that everyone is talking about right now, but no matter how beautiful or shiny the vehicle, without an engine, it won’t go anywhere.
He argues that anything a church does that is "missional" will lead to nowhere without successful discipleship. "The reason the missional movement may fail is because most people/communities in the Western church are pretty bad at making disciples." He writes that discipleship must be front and center because, if you do mission without it, you're sending people out into a "war zone" unprepared. "When we don’t disciple people the way Jesus and the New Testament talked about, we are sending them out without armor, weapons or training."

In Part 2, after an apparent fury of responses, he attempts to clarify what he means by "discipleship." He says that it can be boiled down to the two words "character and competency." He writes, "A disciple is someone who, with increased intentionality and passing time, has a life and ministry that looks more and more like the life and ministry of Jesus."

But wasn't the life and ministry of Jesus all about mission? Here's Breen's problem: he clearly assumes that discipleship happens within the confines of the faith community; that transformation happens independent of and before mission. This is precisely the kind of thinking that the recent missional conversation has called into question. While Breen is correct that many churches have adopted an empty focus on the community that is devoid of a concern for making disciples, mission is one of the best vehicles we have for making disciples. Even if many churches have neglected the mandate of discipleship, the literature on the missional church has not. As Craig Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile point out, the idea of "every believer growing as a disciple by engaging in mission" is one of the major themes that have emerged in the literature (The Missional Church in Perspective, 2011).

Breen's approach is this: we become better and more mature followers of Christ in our Christian cocoons, and then when we're thoroughly cooked, we can go out and engage the world. Church leaders thought this way for a long time. Only recently have we begun to realize that it just isn't true. Experience teaches us it's not true, research teaches us it's not true, and, most importantly, Jesus taught us it's not true.

Peter Rollins once wrote: "Theology is the aftermath of God." It is only after we experience God that we begin to understand God. If you think about it, this is just how humans function and learn. Take language as an example. As children, we use language long before we learn its rules and construction. When we finally do crack open the grammar book, we gain a whole new understanding of what we've been doing all along, but without first learning and using language experientially, the grammar book would be useless. We see and learn things first, and name them later. Take love: Do parents sit their infant down in their lap and philosophically explain what love is, or do they simply love the child and connect the dots by saying, "I love you"? As someone who grew up in church, I could have quoted you chapter and verse where the Bible said, "Do not judge," but it wasn't until a friend called me on a judgmental attitude, saying, "I didn't think Christians acted that way," and until I formed relationships with non-judgmental people that its truth was activated in my life.

Some of the staunchest supporters of slavery in the 19th century were well-oiled Sunday School graduates. We could go on and on about atrocities and evils committed by religious people throughout history who were not in any way lacking in biblical knowledge or training. Mike Breen and I would probably both agree that, in such cases, they weren't "true disciples." But the question is, what would have made them such? George Barna conducted an interesting study in which he tried to categorize Christ-like attitudes vs. Pharisaic attitudes and, based on a survey, found that a majority of Christians hold attitudes similar to that for which Jesus criticized the Pharisees in the Gospels. What is it that makes us more Christ-like? I've read many books and articles by people who talk about how they came to let go of their hatred or suspicion of a certain people group and became more loving and accepting Christians. What was it that transformed these people? Do you not think they had heard and read countless times the words, "Love thy neighbor?" It's not within our faith community that we learn to love our neighbor. As Jesus pointed out, that's too easy (Luke 6:32-33). Every time, whenever you read these stories, the catalyst of the transformation was a personal, real life encounter with someone of the hated group. And it is mission--our calling to engage the world--that is the doorway into these transformative encounters. There's a reason that people so often come home from an international mission trip inspired and on fire. What we often miss is the follow-up and opportunity to frame and direct that fire with good biblical theology. It's here that I find a point of agreement with Breen. We neglect discipleship. But what we're neglecting is the opportunity to take these life experiences and apply them to biblical stories and theological concepts. Discipleship is not the learning of these stories and concepts in isolation, but their application in and through the experience of the "war zone" that Breen speaks of. Faith is manifest in praxis, not knowledgeTransformative discipleship is an internship, not a class. To be fair, Breen seems to understand this to a point. In his 2011 book Building a Discipling Culture, Breen acknowledges that learning does not take place through classroom/book learning only. But when he talks about the need for things like "immersion," what he means is immersion in effective faith communities, not the world at large. He is right that the church is facing a discipleship crisis, but I would argue that this is true precisely because of incubation approaches to spiritual growth. It's immersion in the non-Christian world that the church is missing.

In fact, the incubator approach to discipleship actually makes us LESS equipped to engage the world. For example, recent studies have revealed that all of the apologetics training we try to pump into high school students before they graduate and go off to college has actually made it MORE likely that they will reject Christianity (at least the ready-made-answer version of it, because they go out and experience a world that is more complicated than the ready-made answers). Or I consider how many times I've watched people question their faith upon having a life crisis, having been told again and again in church that "God is in control." The crisis of faith would have never happened if not for this non-contextual theology.

(You might want to let that those last two sentences cook for a minute or two).

I'm not sure how we've missed it, but this is how Jesus operated. As we read about the calling of his disciples, their journeys all started with the simple phrase: "Follow me." (Matt 4:19, 8:22, 9:9, etc.). How much do you think they understood about who Jesus was? How well could they have explained justification vs. sanctification or explained all the spiritual disciplines? In fact, in so many of the biblical stories in which God calls someone, their main objection is that they are ill-equipped, and God more or less promises that he will give them on the job training (see, for example, Jeremiah 1:4-8). It was always throughout and after the concrete experience of Jesus that people came to understand Him, not before or independent of. It wasn't until post-resurrection that Jesus took his disciples and "opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). It wasn't until after walking, talking, and eating with Jesus that the men on the way to Emmaus recognized Jesus for who he was (Luke 24:30-31). Whether it was Nicodemus (John 3:2), the woman at the well (John 4:19), or the guard at the cross (Matthew 27:54), it was only after experiencing Jesus in real life that they were able to utter a theological affirmation.

It is the missional conversation that has brought us to realize we can most strongly experience this Jesus today on mission, outside our faith communities. Although the term “missional church” came into common usage just a few decades ago, the idea of Christ’s church being on mission is 2000 years old. David Bosch argues in his seminal work Transforming Mission that a “people on mission” was one of the primary self-understandings of the first century church; a revolutionary community based on the sense of mission demonstrated by Christ himself. R. Geoffrey Harris, in his book Mission in the Gospels, argues that the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and purpose can only be adequately understood if interpreted through the lens of mission. How else does one understand passages like Luke 10:1-9 where Jesus sends the 70/72 into the communities--totally unequiped and unprotected--as strangers who are to assimilate into the family life of their hosts? Jesus was often criticized by the religious elite for being out among the people and hanging with "the wrong crowd" (Luke 7:34). So if we are, as Breen says, to become like Christ, then one of the primary markers of that identity is to "go unto..." “Missional church”—no matter how the term has been used or understood, is in essence a return to the church’s origins and purpose. But the reason the church is missionary by its very nature is because it serves a God who is missionary in nature. Karl Barth was one of the first theologians to articulate mission as being first and foremost an activity of God. The term missio Dei (Latin for "mission of God") seems to have first been used by Karl Hartenstein in 1934 in a response to Barth. In the last half of the 20th century, the phrase began to see regular usage in theological works on mission. This understanding of God effectively made the church grapple with a disorienting shift in self-understanding. “In particular, we have begun to see that the church of Jesus Christ is not the purpose or goal of the gospel, but rather its instrument and witness," writes Darrell L. Guder in Missional Church.

God is on mission; we simply choose whether or not to join him. It is only mission--or a missional approach, if you will--that summons us out of our comfort zones, out of the social circles in which we are comfortable and can self-vindicate--to encounter the other. It is only in this encounter with the other that we have a real life encounter with the God on mission who is bigger than our community of faith. The reason Breen doesn't see this is because he is working from within another old model: the subject/object distinction of Christian mission.1 Based on his language and conclusions, it is clear that for him--as with many Western Christians--the church is the subject of God's mission and the rest of the world is the object. In other words, we are the givers or doers of mission, and others are the recipients. It is seen as a one way street. But the missional conversation has brought a serious theological challenge to this. If God's mission reaches beyond the walls of the church, and if the Holy Spirit is like the wind that blows wherever it pleases (John 3:8), then anyone is potentially the subject OR object of God's mission. If the church were to embrace this, a whole new world would open up not just in the realm of discipleship but also evangelism. What a transformative difference it makes in the lives of everyone involved when we are willing to "serve with" rather than "do for." Author and community developer Wendy McCaig tells the story of a woman named Via who was one of many people to come to a soup line at a local church. As Via came up to the table, she asked if she could help serve. She "came around to the other side of the table." Thus began Via's transformation, because she was finally involved in the work of the church rather than being its 102nd hungry mouth to feed.

So, no Mr. Breen, the missional movement will not fail, because mission belongs to God. It is therefore not a movement, nor will it ever fail. And if discipleship is important to you, you don't want it to fail.

1 Credit to Ron Carlson, Missional Church Strategist for American Baptist Churches, USA


Do We See Our Own Cracks?

Last week, we heard about the devastating factory collapse in Bangladesh, killing hundreds. Reports are that workers saw a large crack in the building and tried to tell their supervisors, but were ignored and told to go to work under threat of losing a month's pay (which one woman said is $55/month) and according to other reports were also threatened with violence. Clear evidence has been presented that clothing for Walmart and other stores are made there, but the companies have hid behind a beguiling ignorance, saying, "We're looking into [whether our products are made there]."

As we continue our prayers for these victims and wonder how to help the situation over there, I fear that we will miss an important lesson for us here. Look again at the pictures of death and destruction. Consider the long hours people work under hazardous conditions getting paid an amount that's insufficient to support their families. This is what things look like when there is no representation of workers, no right to organize, no employee protection laws, and when big business gets to make all the rules.

Now, for some reason, when you say that, people will immediately point to the faults and drawbacks of things like labor unions and will have a handy anecdote about some unintended consequence for employers. Or the other thing you're likely to hear brought up is the compulsory union membership controversy, which I believe has been intentionally muddled by lawmakers. Court rulings have actually been pretty clear:
A worker could be compelled to pay only that portion of union dues and initiation fees used for collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance procedures. No worker can be compelled to pay dues for such things as politics, lobbying, and union organizing...Any union member paying full dues can resign at will and become a partial-dues, financial-core represented worker.1
To say that things are necessary is not to say they are perfect. I prefer that people judge something based on its essence or purpose rather than examples of its faulty application (like I especially wish people would do with religion). How else do workers have any power to negotiate with extreme wealth that wants to exploit them? Consider the many employee protections now in place in the U.S. that we apparently take for granted: overtime pay, health benefits, workers' compensation, minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, and more. Do you think such things were thought of by business executives? Do you think employers, who didn't have to provide such things before, wanted to do it? Do you think they thought they could afford it? Every time, big business gets people on their side by saying that such practices would rupture the economy and shut down their business. Business has one goal: profit. Employees, in that framework, are a means to an end. It's abuse waiting to happen. I recently traveled internationally, and the staff at our hotel told us they work 90 hour weeks.

Oh sure, we hear those interviews on TV every once in a while where Mr. Goodnature from a local mom-and-pop business treats the employees like gold, but that is unfortunately the exception, and Mr. Goodnature is not the one getting tax breaks from Congress to "create jobs." Even with companies like Costco, known for higher employee satisfaction, it's still ultimately seen as "better for business."

American exceptionalism is once again the culprit for blinding us to something that is right in front of our face. We're used to hearing about this kind of thing from other countries, but we don't think it can happen here. We have a hard time accepting the fact that the achievers of the "American Dream" now holding top positions in companies could actually be part of a system that is fundamentally flawed. Successful business men and women are role models in our society. We think that U.S. entrepreneurship is automatically moral and that our businesses are going to do the right thing. After all, this is America, right? Consequently, many Americans have fallen for a massive lie told by politicians who have lobbyists in their ear and money in their hands. The lie goes like this: we have to give these wealthy individuals and corporations more tax breaks because they are the job creators, and our economy will grow when they create more jobs.

As someone once observed, "The bigger lie, the more it will be believed." What you're asking me to believe is that wealthy individuals and corporations, when they have extra cash on hand, sit at their board meetings thinking of poor, struggling families and say, "We need to hire more employees so we can help our citizens and the economy." Anyone with any business background can tell you this is bogus. When businesses create jobs, it's because they need them, not because they have more cash on hand and want to help the working poor. If that were true, we wouldn't be seeing all these part-time positions that offer no benefits. Employees are expensive. Businessman Nick Hanauer was very candid in explaining this during a recent TED talk: "Anyone who has ever run a business knows that hiring more people is a course of last resort for capitalists. It's what we do if and only if rising consumer demand requires it." In other words, even a loving, caring CEO is not going to add jobs just because he/she got a tax break. Consumer demand is the only thing that drives job growth. That's it. Nothing else. The very best case scenario is a moral business executive using the money they're not paying in taxes to further invest in their business; for example, a technology upgrade. But what normally happens is they take the money--the money we gave them to create jobs at the bottom--and give their executives an extra bonus (or plane).

The Bible has nothing comforting to say about these kinds of practices. "Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil..." (1 Timothy 6:9-10). The truly unjust part is that the "ruin and destruction" stemming from the love of money almost always falls to the working poor. In 2009, at the height of the recession, while working Americans lost their jobs, homes, and retirement funds, the top executives who were cutting their jobs were doing just fine. This is the kind of justice issue that comes with stark warnings in scripture: "Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice..."  (Jeremiah 22:13). We have very clear and graphic warnings, right in front of our face, that there must be a sufficiently powerful counterbalance to business interests. Things like safety and benefits are expensive and do not contribute to the bottom line. We're talking about the kind of people who believe that everything should be a commodity and have market value. Social Darwinism: survival of the fittest. If even American citizens are treated this way by American companies, how much do you think we care about workers in Bangladesh?

If that's the kind of world you want, go ahead and keep listening to the grumblings from businesses about how they "can't afford it." Keep believing the politicians when they tell you what's "better for the economy." One of my Facebook friends posted an article that praised the business practices of Walmart and said that our country's economy and policies should mirror what they do. Tell it to the people of Bangladesh. At least they saw their own cracks.


Taking on Flesh: An Incarnational Theology for the Missional Church

The following was originally written for a doctoral level theology class. Consider yourself warned. :)


“Protestant churches, by and large, have an underdeveloped theology of the incarnation.”[1] So says David J. Bosch at the beginning of a mere three-paragraph treatment of the relationship between incarnational theology and the church’s mission. According to Bosch, it had theretofore only been liberation theologians who had given any treatment to this.[2] A rich understanding of God’s movement and the church’s identity is there for the taking in incarnational theology. Often, the closest the missional conversation comes to this is its concern for “contextual ministry,” translating “the truth of the gospel as good news for the society to which it is sent.”[3] This is not incorrect, but is theologically vacuous.

The word “incarnate” shares a virtually identical spelling with its Latin root that means “in flesh,” but we need not, except in the case of Jesus, insist on the word’s most elementary meaning; i.e., muscular and fatty tissue. Incarnation can and should be understood more broadly to mean the act of one particular entity infusing, taking on, or indwelling the tangible form of another while maintaining its essence. To use the wording of Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, “[Incarnation is] any person or thing serving as the type or embodiment of a quality or concept.”[4] Incarnation or indwelling is something God has been up to since the beginning of time and now calls the church to do as the body of Christ. The movement can be seen in a chiastic structure:

A. God in Creation
     B. God Among a People
          C. God in Christ
     B'. Christ in the Church
A'. The Church in the World

God in Creation

In the book of Romans, Paul makes a significant observation about God, humans, and the created world:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Rom 1:18-21)
Here Paul claims that the power and nature of the invisible God are so deeply embedded in creation itself that it is “plain” who God is, and that “people are without excuse.” Paul also affirms that creation itself is in the “already, not yet”[5] state, and “will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).

These passages in Romans are as Paul’s commentary on the Spirit of God in the act of creation, when God breathed God’s ruah (breath/wind/Spirit) into the adamah to form adam. Even before giving shape to a formless earth, the first creation story tells us that “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2, KJV). These references to the “breath of God” in scripture are many and the ruah is seen as foundational to life itself. “Breath meant life, and it is God who lends breath to all creatures, thus granting a share in God’s Spirit.”[6] Sallie McFague even argues that the created world should be seen as God’s body, and that human life is bookended by two breaths: “…Our first when we emerge from our mother’s womb and our last when we ‘give up the ghost’ (spirit).”[7] Pastor and author Rob Bell cites one branch of Jewish scholarship which argues that the venerated Hebrew name of God—YHWH—was thought to mimic the sound of breathing when the letters are spoken one by one: “yod – hey – vah – hey.” Bell asks rhetorically, “Is the name of God the sound of breathing?”[8] The ancient prayers contained in the Psalms express the all-encompassing nature of God’s presence in creation (e.g., Ps 139:7) and its display of God’s creative nature (Ps 33:6).

The Spirit of God “takes on the flesh of” creation which, though imperfect, displays God’s power and nature. This was only the first part of a compelling movement that we see throughout the narratives of scripture.

God Among a People

It doesn’t take long after creation for the biblical narrative to move toward the rebelliousness of humans and their ever-in-flux relationship with God. Nonetheless, God seems determined to remain in relationship with people. Terence E. Fretheim argues in his commentary on the Noahic covenant that this determination is quite radical:
For God to promise never to do something again…entails self-limitation regarding the exercise of divine freedom and power...God decides to go with this world, come what may in the way of human wickedness. God makes this promise, not simply in spite of human failure, but because human beings are sinful.[9]
We begin to see a movement through the OT narrative following the manifestation of God’s Spirit in more and more specific contexts. “The narratives of Scripture move beyond an impersonal and generalized sense of Spirit and speak of the mission of the Spirit in gathering a people.”[10]

In the biblical narratives, God establishes God’s covenant, communicating it through one particular chosen mediator. Marshall observes that there is a certain tension between the one (a leader) and the many (a people), and that whether it be Saul, Deborah, Samson, etc., there is no predictability or formula to the people God chooses.[11] Through chosen messengers, God communicates the choice to be present to a people:
I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. (Ex 6:7) 
I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. (Lev 26:11-12)
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors… (Deut 7:6-8a)

In the Leviticus passage above, the phrase “dwelling place” is translating the Hebrew word mishkan, which has been traditionally rendered “tabernacle” and is often used synonymously with the Tent of Meeting (ohel mo’ed). In the Exodus narratives, this was the portable structure which was to be set up as a special place in which God’s presence could dwell and meet with chosen leaders. The Torah implies that this sacred space would have no such importance or power if separated from God’s covenant community, formed around and entrusted with God’s teaching. The later covenant language reinforces the idea of God’s presence being infused into a gathered people. “I will make a covenant of peace with them…I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Ezek 37:26-27).

However, God’s choosing and covenant-making was not just for its own sake, or even solely for the sake of the recipients. We see this first in the Abrahamic covenant: “…I will bless you…and you will be a blessing…all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3). This is the first of many indications that God intends for Israel to be the conduit of God’s blessing, message, and reign. “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). Parts of the Torah envision Israel living out God’s commands as an example that will draw the envy of others:
Observe [my commands and decrees] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws…” (Deut 4:6-8)
The Spirit of God in the Old Testament is not always a benevolent force, however. There is an undeniable piece of the OT narrative in which God uses the “purify and drive out” method, and such things may very well help us keep in check our assumption that God is always on our side. However, as we follow the later prophetic literature all the way to the life of Jesus, we see that the “draw to and redeem” model wins the day over “purify and drive out.” “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established…and all nations will stream to it” (Isa 2:2). “…[I] am about to come and gather the people of all nations and languages, and they will come and see my glory” (Isa 66:18). Israel is called “a light to the Gentiles” (Isa 42:6, 49:6). As Deuteronomy 4:6-8 suggests, God’s ultimate desire is peace and justice—achieved through Israel and extended to all. The law codes delivered through Moses are reinterpreted as ritual signs of covenant faithfulness and not the be-all, end-all: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and…to set the oppressed free…” (Isaiah 58:5-6). This was a sign of things to come. It is not until this movement arrives at its most specific/focused point that God ultimately unites with humanity in a powerful and mysterious way: the Word become flesh.

God in the Person of Jesus Christ

“Jesus is the one in whom God’s relationship with us attains perfection.”[12] In Jesus Christ, the movement of God’s indwelling finds its highest and most consequential—yet most local—point. It also finds its most literal manifestation. In Jesus, we believe that the Word of God becomes literally manifest in flesh and bone. As Tanner implies, the Johannine image of the Word (logos) becoming flesh is the most helpful and powerful when discussing THE incarnation. Logos appears in the NT 330 times. Its usage was widely varied but its definition fairly simple: “word,” as in communication, something said, or an expression of thought.[13] We need not go far beyond this to glean a powerful implication: Jesus was God’s Word in flesh and bone; the living summary of God’s message. That all things were created through this Logos of God (John 1:3; Col 1:16) draws our attention back to Genesis 1 where creation comes into being through the spoken word of God.

God has been incarnate in creation—in some way or another—since the beginning of time. With Jesus, however, there is a significant distinction to be made from all previous incarnational activity.
Jesus does not just get his existence from God, as we do; he exists in God; his very existence is God’s existence[14]…The assumption of humanity by the Son produces a co-inherence of divinity and humanity that better imitates the co-inherence enjoyed by members of the Trinity than does God’s containing and pervading creation generally.[15]
So part of what it means to call oneself a Christian is to say that the life of Jesus was the best and most complete tangible representation we have of what God is like. “In becoming flesh, Jesus Christ as the living Word became understandable, knowable, and accessible for all time and to all persons.”[16] Jesus was and is that tangible representation because “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col 2:9). It is also because of God’s uniting with humanity in this way that reconciliation between God and humans can be fully realized (Rom 5:11; 2 Cor 5:19). Andrew Sung Park makes an intriguing observation on this union: “Since only a human being ought to make satisfaction and only God is able to do the job, it was necessary to have a God-human reconcile God and human beings.”[17] Thus Jesus is referred to as both “son of man” and “son of God.”

God not only took on literal flesh, but also took on the “flesh”—the form, language, culture—of 1st century Palestine. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” This making of a dwelling is the Greek correlate of the tabernacle. It carries a sense of “pitching a tent” or “setting up camp.” In Jesus, God was not just among the people but one of the people of that area. Jesus was raised in Jewish customs. He spoke the language. He dressed like them. His parables reflected images and concepts that his listeners would have understood (wineskins, seeds, grapevines, fish, etc.). Jesus was the full cultural immersion of God’s message. “Jesus as the incarnate Good News took on the particularity of his context.”[18] “He came in a very particular way to a particular people at a particular time in history. He moved into the neighborhood of Galilee and demonstrated there who God is.”[19] In the OT, the Israelites experienced the trauma of being forced to adapt to another culture, and asked questions like, “How can we sing the Lord’s song while in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:4). In Jesus, this question was answered. The Word in the flesh inaugurated a new call on God’s people to be incarnational.

Christ in the Church

The Gospel of Matthew reports Jesus saying to Peter, “…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt 16:18). Jesus communicated to his disciples that his time with them was not for its own sake, but that he was preparing them to continue living and proclaiming the kingdom through the Spirit. Jesus instructs them to go make disciples, baptize, and teach (Matt 28:19-20). He entrusts with them the “keys of the kingdom,” and tells them, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:19). Jesus promises his abiding presence through the Spirit for this task: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17). Clearly, the church after Jesus is entrusted with a great task, and as Paul explains, it also has a great identity: the Body of Christ. Paul affirms diversity in the body and the essential nature of having each part connected to the whole. “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor 12:27; see also Rom 12:4-5). Through the Spirit, the church is the incarnate presence of Christ in the world. The church is Christ’s body, and therefore the manifestation of Christ in its context. As Marshall observes, this is more than just a representation. Through a new and pervading presence of God’s Spirit that was inaugurated at Pentecost (Acts 2), the church does not merely represent Christ but actually participates in the life of Christ through baptism. “…The Spirit plunges the believer into the very life of Christ…The Spirit draws believers into the paschal rhythms of Christ.”[20] Paul puts it this way: “God…has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:9). Ethno-religious boundaries give way to inclusivity: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph 3:6). “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor 12:13).

Another important piece of the identity of the church is its collective nature. In 21st century America, individualism reigns supreme, and more and more people are taking a rogue approach to religion. In a personal conversation, one gentleman put it this way: “I do church by myself.” While I understand what he was trying to say, doing church by oneself is theologically impossible. Paul’s analogy of a body points us to its interconnectedness. The church is not even a gathering of individuals but a collective whole, made possible only by a humble and self-sacrificial approach to the other that Paul stresses over and over (see Rom 12:10; Gal 5:13; Eph 2:4-6; Phil 2:1-4; etc.). The Greek New Testament word ekklesia, translated as “church,” literally means “the ones called out,” and has an irrevocable communal aspect. Another word, koinonia, is often translated as “fellowship.” Paul uses this word to describe our koinonia with Christ (1 Cor 1:9), but its more common usage refers to the believers. This is not just a gathering at a certain place and time, but the melding of lives and souls. “A fellowship of believers shares more than common beliefs and core values; they display a profound regard for one another's spiritual and physical well-being as a community of friends.”[21] The living Christ is seen in the church when it functions as a body.

In sending the church, the incarnational movement of God flows back out among people. The church serves as the NT cognate of the chosen people of the OT, but with several key differences. One is that the chosen community is now radically inclusive and knows no cultural or religious boundaries. Peter said to Cornelius, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). The other, more key difference is that, now, God’s presence and work in the world flows through the same Spirit and Word that was present in Jesus, who was the ultimate union of God and humankind. When God’s power and nature were incarnate in creation and his message incarnate in a people, it was still necessary for humans to “seek and find.” Now, we can be “found in.” The only prerequisite of salvation is God’s grace; our faith is the conduit (Eph 2:8). The church as the body of Christ has a noble role to play. “The church is God’s personal presence in the world through the Spirit.”[22]

The Church in the World

Through our baptism into the body of Christ, we take on and become participants in this incarnational nature of God. We are being transformed into the image and likeness of Christ (Rom 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18). So if the church is Christ’s body, being made like him, and in Christ, God “took on the flesh” of the context, what does this mean? The church’s call is to live and proclaim the reign of God in the flesh of its context. What we see in Jesus is that the gospel is not something abstract that can be plugged in anywhere. God’s most clear and powerful self-revelation was also the most local and contextual, as we must be.

This is not new. Paul seems to grasp this reality in 1 Corinthians: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews…To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:20-22). However, perhaps the most intriguing scriptural model for our incarnational mission is the sending of the 70/72 in Luke 10. Roxburgh expounds the implications of this passage in which these appointed pairs are sent out with the message of the kingdom into different communities as dependent strangers.
Luke 10:1-12 uses the language of a stranger who receives hospitality. It’s important here that those who go two by two are the ones who receive hospitality and the gracious goodness of those who live in the towns and villages. Luke repeats the injunction to enter and stay, along with the parallel injunction of eating what is set before them, indicating this entering and eating lie at the heart of his message…This is not, it would seem, a hit-and-run event…these disciples stayed with the people for quite some time.[23]
They were sent with no resources and were told to go and assimilate with these families and villages as their guest, twice being told to “eat whatever is placed before you” (Luke 10:7, 8), something that would have produced anxiety for any faithful Jew. Living the gospel incarnationally sends us into the world as the stranger. Today, in the attractional model, the church expects the opposite. We program and advertise and try to do just the right thing that will compel others to come to us as the stranger on our turf. It is the church that is to go, however, taking on the flesh of its local context. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “If the gospel is to be understood…it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed.”[24]

This is not a utopian vision, free of conflict and risks. “Compassion does not try to heal or comfort from a distance; rather, its willingness to wade into the thick of it with others means putting the self at risk. This Jesus does, without regard for the looming crisis.”[25] A crisis it is. Many churches are in survival mode, and the last thing such a church would instinctively do is put itself and its preconceived notions at risk. But this is exactly what happens whenever we deeply engage with another reality: we must also undergo change. We see this in the book of Acts as new realities forced the early Jewish followers of Jesus to reinterpret God’s message for their time. It produced conflict (Acts 15:36-41; Gal 2:11ff) and necessitated serious conversations about identity and priorities (Acts 15:1-21). “Luke is helping his readers understand that opposition is the norm when the Spirit breaks the boundaries of expectations and predictable ways of relating to people.”[26] Craig Van Gelder refers to these dynamics between church and culture as forming and reforming.
This reinforces the logic that the church always needs to be both confessional (claiming and reclaiming its identity in relation to the historic Christian faith) and missional (engaging its context and continuously recontextualizing its ministry)…This means that congregations seek to become contextual even while they seek to maintain the historic Christian faith…The ministry of the Spirit helps congregations engage in both processes simultaneously.[27]
Guder observes that this is a call for the church to enter a space that is full of ambiguities. “Such a calling never leaves the church in a finished, settled, or permanent incarnation. Its vocation to live faithfully to the gospel in a fully contextual manner means that it can sometimes find itself either unfaithful or uncontextual.”[28] Could it be that the primary way God transforms people—both Christians and the world to which we are sent—is through an encounter with the other?


The wind/Spirit of God blows wherever it pleases (John 3:8), and the incarnational nature of God is inevitably going to be part of the life of the church because we participate in the life of God through Christ. It is time for the church to live incarnationally. “If you want to discover and discern what God is up to in the world just now, stop trying to answer this question from within the walls of your churches.”[29] The missio Dei does not begin and end with us, and it is within this framework that we see how any person can be both the subject or object of God’s mission. The church often sees itself as the subject of God’s mission, the sole distributor of divine resources. Most churches, when they seek to articulate an understanding of their mission, do so behind closed doors and only afterward take that decided upon agenda into the community. This is backwards.
Our habit has been to ask these questions in the exact [wrong] way. First we ask about the nature and purpose of the church in some abstract or idealist way…Then we develop strategies to make this kind of church relevant to the places where we live. A missional understanding moves in a different direction, beginning with questions about the gospel and the context and then moving to the church so that the shape and life of the latter comes out of the interactions of the first two.[30]
A notable aspect of the early church as described in Acts 2:42-47 is that they were not actively trying to grow. We’re told of their devotion to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer. We’re told of their radical unity and the way they shared their resources. “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47, emphasis added). Growth was not their primary goal but merely a byproduct of faithful witness in their context. Being “missional” carries no guarantee of numerical growth in a given congregation, but if such growth is to happen, we need to realize that actively pursuing such growth may very well be the least effective way to achieve it.

The church is called to “seek first the kingdom” and lose its life for the sake of Christ in order to find it. The church must enter its context incarnationally, with no purse, bag, or sandals (so to speak), and see “what God is up to in the neighborhood.”[31] The heart of God—the missio Dei—is in the community.


[1] Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 512.
[2] Ibid., 513
[3] Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North Amierca (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 18.
[4] Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 38.
[5] Geerhardus Vos, Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1979).
[6] Molly T. Marshall, Joining the Dance: A Theology of the Spirit (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003), 21.
[7] Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 143.
[8] Rob Bell, Breathe (NOOMA 014), DVD (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).
[9] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck et. al., Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 396, emphasis added.
[10] Marshall, Joining the Dance, 38.
[11] Ibid., 38-39.
[12] Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 9.
[13] James Strong, ed., “3056: Logos,” “The New Strong’s Expanded Dictionary of the Words in the Greek New Testament” in The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 152.
[14] Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, 25.
[15] Ibid., 48.
[16] Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 61.
[17] Andrew Sung Park, Triune Atonement (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, Kindle Edition), Location 258.
[18] Ibid., 62.
[19] Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 94.
[20] Marshall, Joining the Dance, 79.
[21] Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck, et. al., Vol. 10 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 71-72.
[22] Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 25.
[23] Alan J. Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 139.
[24] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 141.
[25] Marshall, Joining the Dance, 68.
[26] Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, 122.
[27] Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church, 54-55.
[28] Guder, Missional Church, 14.
[29] Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, 134.
[30] Roxburgh and Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, 72.
[31] Roxburgh, Missional.