Incarnational Ministry: Can We Really Imitate the Incarnation?
Visiting lecturer J. Todd Billings offers a critique of the popular ministry model
“Fuller was a place where I was taught to practice incarnational ministry, but also a place where I was taught to question it,” said J. Todd Billings, associate professor of reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary and Fuller alumnus, on Thursday, February 24, in a lecture offering a critical assessment of the incarnational ministry model.
“Incarnational ministry” is now a common phrase in the 21st-century church, often used as the central strategy for youth, inner city, and cross-cultural endeavors. In his talk entitled “Ministry in Union with Christ: A Constructive Critique of Incarnational Ministry,” Dr. Billings proposed that the language of incarnation might be helpfully replaced with “the more biblically faithful and theologically dynamic language of ministry as participation in Christ.”
Billings shared how, during his years at a Christian college, he learned that his “job in relating to another culture is to be incarnate in that culture.” However, as he spent a few years serving in Uganda and Ethiopia, he began to question the possibility of becoming incarnate in a culture, as well as the strategy’s underlying assumptions. “Am I assuming my own presence is redemptive in such a model?” he wondered.
Incarnational ministry, Billings suggested, “tends to conflate the unique incarnation with our process of learning a culture,” framing the incarnate Christ as an example of coming to a new culture prepared to learn from and identify totally with the ones he came to reach. “Jesus was not, in fact, the model anthropologist,” Billings remarked, pointing out that Jesus did not go home every evening to compile field notes on the day’s observations of the first-century Jewish people. “The deity is not a culture because God is not a creature,” so we cannot imitate the incarnation because it is not a human act, but a divine act—something only God can do. We must remember that Christ’s mission is not identical to ours—his was redemptive, while we can only bear witness to that redemption. Billings stated, “The power in the incarnation is precisely in its uniqueness.”
Billings is quick to acknowledge the incarnational ministry model’s “excellent instincts for faithful ministry” and the value of the many ministries that sprung from it, but wants to “disentangle” them from the idea of imitating the act of the incarnation, which he said “is not an essential assumption for the insights it conveys.”
For Billings, the Pauline language of “union with Christ” is most helpful in this task, as it makes clear that Christ lives within us, and yet, we are not Christ. In this way, Billings said, the language of union or participation with Christ “maintains realism about the impossibility of imitating the incarnation, while still encouraging identification with other cultures.” As Christians, we are called to witness God’s unique Word made flesh—sent into the world, as incarnational ministry proponents emphasize, but sent so that others might be gathered into a new humanity disclosed by the unique incarnation of Christ.
“Ultimately, our own lives are not the good news,” concluded Billings. “In the participation ministry model, we bear witness to Jesus Christ, who is the good news.”
Following Billings’s lecture, Fuller Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics Glen Stassen offered a response.