Incarnational Ministry? (moving beyond models to reality)

The Relational Pastor, part 9

For other posts in this series, click on a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 1415.

This post, the ninth in a series exploring The Relational Pastor, looks at Andrew Root's concerns about ministry models in general, and one known as "incarnational ministry" in particular. Those who advocate incarnational ministry speak of "incarnating ourselves into people's lives," and "being Jesus with skin on." Though these concepts are admirable in many ways, they reflect (likely unwittingly) a common, though flawed concept that the incarnation was a temporary strategy--a means God used toward a particular end, namely, our salvation.

But the incarnation was no mere strategy and certainly was not temporary. The reality is that the Son of God permanently added our humanity to his divinity, becoming Immanuel (God with us, Matt 1:23) forever. The personal union thus forged between God and humanity in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ was, and still is, the goal (the end or "telos")--not the means to something else. The bottom line is this: Jesus is our salvation.

To view the incarnation as a strategy or tool that God used, invariably leads to a flawed approach toward Christian ministry, where models and strategies are utilized as the means to move people step-by-step toward a certain pre-determined end (goal). But this approach, particularly when inflexibly used, risks missing out on the life--the personal encounter that is the true reality of Jesus, the incarnate one, himself. When we miss out on that, we miss the essential focus and content of authentic Christian ministry. Note Root's comment on this point:
The problem with a [ministry] model is that it doesn't live, or better, it possesses no reality of its own. It's a mere replica, a scaled-down, less dynamic simulation of the thing itself....[focusing] on details and ideas instead of the life, instead of the person. It focuses on the functions of Jesus [rather than] encountering the living Jesus as person. And pastoral ministry...should always by about helping persons encounter the dynamic incarnate person, not a cardboard reproduction. And though this is harder, it makes ministry worth doing.... To make the reproduction of a model the purpose of ministry risks cutting out the very heart of the personal; it threatens to lose the person in the reproduction of the model, to make loyalty to the model the point. When this happens we risk losing the empathetic impulse that draws person to person as embodied spirit. We can miss the other's humanity because our eyes are on reproducing the model, getting the model really humming, which can draw our attention away from the person. Based on the reproduced model, we fall into the trap of ends...setting the terms for ministry (pp112-113).
Quoting Douglas Hall, Root notes that "Jesus said 'Follow me!' not 'Follow a model-for-ministry that I am leaving behind for you'....The church does not 'extend' [the] life of the Christ into a world in and to which the Christ himself is no longer present" (p113). Once again, Root is reminding us that ministry is not about mimicking Jesus (being "incarnational" like Jesus), but about sharing in the continuing ministry of the living, forever incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Therefore, rather than looking to Scripture for a definitive, one-size-fits-all model of ministry, we should look to Scripture to help us encounter the person of Jesus who is alive and ministering through the Spirit in our world. As we do so, we are drawn into sharing in his continuing person to person ministry. Root continues:
The incarnation is not a model but the fullness of God's action to reveal the Word (the very communication of Godself) as the person of Jesus Christ; to reveal Godself through the personal actions of Jesus Christ, who become broken for us (1 Cor 11:24). This personal reality cannot be repetitively reproduced. When it is we risk that in continued reproduction it loses the dynamic of the person, becoming generic as we find ourself in the rut of doing functions to reproduce a model. In this rut we miss the mystery of the spirit of the person; we risk passing over the very place where God's action is encountered. We cleave to a model and lose the relationship--the place for divine encounter--making relationships only a stale, strategic component of the model... The relationship with people becomes disposable when it is no longer needed, or stands in opposition to the functions of the model. The point of ministry becomes successful reproduction of the model, and not encountering divine action (p114).
This is not to say that ministry models (like the one shown above) are wrong, particularly when they are used prayerfully and flexibly. However, when models (and the strategies, programs and other ministry tools associated with them) become the focus of ministry, they lose their reason for being, which is to open "spaces" and "places" wherein personal encounter may occur. God became flesh not to leave us a ministry model to emulate, but to be with us (in personal encounter) forever. Root comments:
Incarnation is fundamentally about sharing in the life of another...God takes on flesh because God desires for us to share in God's life, for us to be with God.... God becomes incarnate so that we, through Jesus' humanity, may share in the relationship of Father to Son, the relationship that makes God God... The point of the incarnation then is the union of indwelling... The church and ministry then become about a community of person that shares in each other's lives as a way of sharing in God's own [life] (pp115-116).
This person-to-person encounter/sharing is not a strategy but "an event...[by which we are] pulled into God's very presence" (p117). To share with Jesus in his encounter with other persons is thus the essence of Christian ministry. As we saw last time, this is the reason that empathy is an attribute of effective pastors, for empathy is the impulse toward incarnational action. Through empathy we "feel our way into another's person... to be empathetic is to indwell another, to encounter his or her person" (p118).

This personal/relational encounter, which is the essence of ministry, originates in the being of God who, himself, is a communion of three persons who indwell one another. Said more simply, "God is a relationship" (p119). This profound truth is the essence of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, which should shape our understanding of ministry and all our ministry actions as being our sharing in the life and love of God--sharing with him in his sharing in the lives of other human persons.

Root takes these profound insights and boils them down to this definition of ministry:
Ministry is the gift given to us by God to share in God's life, to participate in God's action as we share in the person of others. Ministry is the gift of being a person, to dwell in doubt, fear and need, inviting others to indwell us as we indwell them. Ministry is God's gift to us, the gift of leading others in sharing in the life of God (p125).
This idea of ministry as a gift will be the focus of the next post in this series. Stay tuned.