A working definition of incarnational ministry is “the immersion of one’s self into a local culture and ‘becoming Jesus’ to that culture.” Incarnational ministry seeks to dispense with ministry “from a distance” and embrace ministry “up close and personal”—the love of God and the gospel of Christ are “incarnated” or embodied by the person ministering. Just as the Son of God took on human flesh and came into our world, we should adopt the culture to which we are ministering and “become Jesus” within it. The idea that Christians should represent the incarnated gospel is called incarnational theology. A central tenet of the incarnational ministry concept is “live the good news rather than preach the good news.”
The Christian understanding of the word incarnation is that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The very cornerstone of Christian belief is that God the Son—the Word, the second Person of the Trinity—took on human flesh when He entered our world. Incarnational theology understands the term incarnation to be applicable to the ministry and mission of the church.
However, overemphasizing incarnation distorts the biblical meaning of the term. In no way can we become incarnate like Christ. Trying to extend the concept of incarnation from John 1:14 to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20) is unwarranted. Also, the instruction to “be Jesus,” as used by some incarnational ministry advocates, is not biblical. We are to be Christlike. We are followers and learners of Jesus. We are to communicate His love to the world. But the Bible never tells us to be incarnations of Jesus’ actual self.
One major concern with incarnational ministry is the implication that unbelievers should be reached exclusively on a “come follow me” basis. The Bible speaks of “the offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11), something that incarnational ministers try to avoid as they “engage” the culture and quietly “show” their faith. There is an inherent danger when personal relationships are elevated to a higher level of ministerial value than preaching the gospel. True believers follow Jesus Christ, not other believers. True believers follow God-breathed Scripture, not the teachings or lives of men (2 Timothy 3:16). The gospel message is hindered when it is associated with the human messenger instead of the Person of Jesus Christ. The relational component of ministry is extremely important, but we must never allow the gospel message to be distorted. The cross will be foolishness to some and offensive to others (1 Corinthians 1:23).
In incarnational ministry, there is an emphasis on being engaged with people and living a life of Christlikeness. These are both biblical mandates. But engaging and immersing in a culture is not the central mission of the church. Doing these things is part of the process of carrying out the central mission of the church, which is to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. The apostle Paul certainly understood cross-cultural ministry, and he was willing to be the servant of all (1 Corinthians 9:19–23), yet the gospel was always paramount: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). It is through “the foolishness of preaching” that God saves those who believe (1 Corinthians 1:21).