Is incarnational ministry biblical? What is incarnational ministry / incarnational theology?
Christians who adhere to incarnational ministry models or theology immerse themselves in a culture to represent Jesus (sometimes said "to be Jesus") to the people there. Many say they "live the good news rather than preach the good news" and "become Jesus" in the culture they minister within. This theology takes its ideas from Jesus, who took on flesh to become human and live among us (John 1:14).
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Of course, Jesus' incarnation is central to Christianity. God the Son was born of Mary and entered our world to redeem it. Incarnational Christians aim to do something of the same—to bring Jesus to a segment of people or society to effect redemption.
Living like Christ and engaging people with the truth of the gospel are both biblically mandated. We are called to share the good news of Jesus and make disciples (Matthew 28:19–20). Paul pioneered cross-cultural ministry and dedicated himself to understanding those he was preaching to in extraordinary ways. However, his focus and aim never veered from his purpose of sharing the gospel.
"For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings" (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).
Sometimes those who practice and preach incarnational ministry extend its purpose and meaning too far. We are not to become Jesus, but to be like Him—Christ-like. Only Jesus could be Immanuel—God with us (John 1:14; Matthew 1:18–23). Our desire should be for holiness and obedience, to communicate God's goodness and love to those around us, and to tell the good news of Jesus. We are not called or instructed to be Jesus, but to make disciples of Jesus.
Additionally, some criticize incarnational ministry for its emphasis, at times, of calling people to follow a specific leader or preacher. We are to point to Jesus as the One to follow, not one of His servants. Our aim as Christians should be to build His church, not our own little kingdom. In other words, we should teach the Scriptures, not another person's interpretation of them (2 Timothy 3:16). Though our relationships with those around us are important, and important to the sharing of the gospel, they should not hinder the clarity of the gospel.
Incarnational ministry also can become so attuned to the culture that it loses the potency of the gospel. In other words, the care a Christian takes to avoid offending those in the culture risks watering down the true message of Jesus. Paul writes of the "offense of the cross" (Galatians 5:11) and Peter writes of Christians being like Jesus, who was "rejected," a "a stone of stumbling," and "a rock of offense" (1 Peter 2:4–8).
Paul also wrote that what he preached sometimes become a "stumbling block" and "folly" to those he addressed (1 Corinthians 1:23). Christians should take care to include the entire gospel when ministering and sharing the good news, even when that good news is received as offensive (2 Corinthians 2:14–17; 5:16–21).
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