A Call to Release People for Incarnational Ministry
I think the church is stuck.
We are stuck in a model of church that is based on attracting people to programs. To complicate matters even more, we often hire staff to plan and implement ministry programs but fail to equip the whole people of God for the work of ministry.
Before you click away from this page because I’ve touched a nerve, please allow me to explain.
Do Attractional Models Work?
Attractional models work when mainstream culture is moving in a unified direction. The church, by its very nature, has a unique purpose and DNA. As a result, we cannot expect to attract people to worship, church programs, and special events apart from people.
While I have participated in sending postcards with glossy pictures to thousands of homes, I now wonder, “What were we thinking?” While I have sent many emails and made phone calls, I have the same response. Yes, I confess, I’ve even purchased Facebook ads.
Here’s the thing: it is not reasonable to expect to attract people to be the church in the same way as businesses attract people to products and services. Sure we can learn from businesses and entertainment. However, we need to adapt the learning to the specific context and purpose of the church.
Attractional models work in other ways, too. We take a “build it and they will come” mentality and hope for the best when our new buildings and programs are open to the public. Often, however, the people we want to reach are not invited to help create the program. Often, “the public” has no idea something on the inside of the building has changed.
Attractional Models Can Work in Relationships
Here’s one way to think about it: attractional models can work in relationships, too. What might happen if we give up the idea of attracting people to programs at the church building and begin focusing on attracting people to the love of God we know in Jesus? In your community, neighborhood, workplace, and/or school, show people God’s love. Start by being kind. Continue by being curious, thoughtful, and loving. Show people what God’s love looks like in the flesh – today.
If we are to embrace the unique challenges of today, we need to embrace new skills and new ways of thinking. John’s Gospel begins with a wonderful reminder of incarnational ministry. Peterson offers this paraphrase, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14)
Here’s how you can start embracing incarnational ministry:
Fall in love with your context…again.
Walk the streets, visit the businesses, and get to know people. To nurture relationships in the community, be an interpreter of culture. Learn the “language” of your community. For example, “Do you drink soda, pop, or Coke?” Your answer will tell us where you are from and/or where you are living.
Interpreting what is happening around you through the eyes of faith takes practice. Begin by simply asking yourself at the end of the day, “Where did I witness Christ’s presence?” and “What did I experience that God’s love can embrace?
For example, yesterday I was driving on the interstate to Cincinnati. When I finally came to the city, the multiple bridges that cross the river remind me of the way God walks with us on this crazy journey we call life. The city also reminds me of the challenges of urban living, where poverty tends to be high and homelessness is visible.
One reminder was the way I witnessed God’s presence and the other reminder was to ask God to embrace the city through her people. Together, interpreting culture and attentiveness to the movement of God can lead you and the church toward loving the people in your community.
Build relationships with people in your community.
Think for a minute about the relationships you have: friends, neighbors, and acquaintances from work. Statistics tell us that there are between 20-50% of people who do not have a church home. There are people around you who do not know and have not experienced the love of Jesus. Get to know them. Perhaps you have family members who are not in a relationship with Christ and the church.
If we are going to employ attractional models, let it be in our relationships.
Let’s live in such a way that people are attracted to our lifestyle of generosity, our character of compassion, our love, and our care for every person. What would happen if we live in a way that sparks questions of our motivation the way we love others? Let’s live in such a way that attracts people to say, “I want to get to know _____.” Then, as we build relationships, don’t shy away from being a follower of Jesus. Yes, all of this means focusing more on relationships with people beyond our church than on programs. That’s a way to begin embracing incarnational ministry.
Help people live their faith in daily life.
To value the whole people of God we must begin to help people live their faith in daily life. As we gather on Sunday and scatter on Monday, we’re sending missionaries into businesses, schools, and day care centers. We’re sending missionaries into police cruisers, delivery trucks, and courtrooms. The list is as long as there are places in the world.
Wherever you go on Monday, it’s your mission field. As you go, look with the eyes of Christ, listen with the heart of Christ, and speak with the love of Christ. No, it’s not how “the working world” behaves one hundred percent of the time. But who is saying you can’t?
We need to help one another pay attention to God’s movement in our lives. Maybe you’ll set your cell phone alarm to go off at a specific time of the day, covenant to pray at lunchtime for your co-workers, bless one person every week. Or maybe you’ll simply ask at the end of every day, “Where did I see God’s presence today?” Then, give God thanks for what you experienced and ask God to “do it again!”
Over time, you’ll begin to see ways to live out your faith at work. Ask yourself how to be a blessing in these situations: when a co-worker receives a cancer diagnosis and needs a ride to their chemo treatments, or your team leader is caring for aging parents. Perhaps a baby will be born, or someone will move. You might simply bring an extra lunch for someone who often eats at their desk. Or invite a co-worker to go for a lunchtime walk. Whatever you do, the point is to embody the love we know in Jesus Christ. Then, you’ll be well on your way to embracing the challenges of the missional church.
As you start falling in love with your context (all over again), building relationships with people in your community, and living your faith in daily life, expect to be challenged. More importantly, expect to encounter the living God we know in Jesus Christ. Then you’ll know you’re embracing the challenge, and the blessings, of incarnational ministry.