Church Without Presence?

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : September 28, 2004

People sure throw around the word “incarnational” alot these days. It may even be the word de jour when one is looking for a single word to define the church. “Missional” or “community” also rank right up there. At any rate, I don’t think people really understand the weight of the word “incarnational.” You see, incarnation implies precense. If you attend a church gathering in a particular neighborhood, but don’t really live in said neighborhood, or at least frequent that neighborhood, you aren’t really being incarnational. At least, not in a precise way in regards to whatever church you “attend.” You can’t be incarnational without presence. And in my book (which I know you don’t all read) you can’t be church the way Jesus intends without being incarnational.

I’m not trying to be a dink. I just don’t understand how a group of people meeting in an area, but without those people effectively living and engaging people in that area, qualifies as “incarnational.” Neither is it particularly “missional” for that matter. “Community” may still happen, but community is almost always better if the members of that community are in close proximity to one another.

Please. Please. Please stop using such profound words unless you understand what they mean and are prepared to use them in the right way. Throwing around words like “incarnational” causes them to lose meaning.

Church needs to be less about affinity groups gathering for an event and more like a family reaching out in their neighborhood with the love of Jesus Christ. We need to be careful not to end up looking like the former while claiming to be the latter.

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8 Responses to “Church Without Presence?”

  1. blorge on September 28th, 2004 3:10 pm

    Hmmm… I think I agree with you. However in your emphasis incarnation being missional, you haven’t spoken much about how this family can be incarnational to each of the members by promoting spiritual growth, psychological wellness and an overall healthy, well-adjusted body of believers.

    I know that you are interested in theese things, but the family can’t just be missional if it isn’t drawing people to a relatively healthy body. This is one of the major things that got me interested in the house church movement to begin with.

  2. andy gr on September 28th, 2004 3:20 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. And whatever ‘emergent’ means, it surely ought to refer to emerging from the place (neighbourhood) in which the Christian community finds itself.

  3. Trike on September 28th, 2004 9:44 pm

    Q? Does the whole idea of neighborhood really exist any longer in America? Do we really have geographic (block by block) areas that we call ‘ours’? Doesn’t the American fascination with the automobile and our tendancy to be around people who are ‘like’ us - whatever that means - trump any idea of ‘living in such and such of a neighborhood?’

    If this is possible, how in the world do we do incarnational living?

    I bring absolutely nothing to the table, but just more questions!


  4. Van S on September 29th, 2004 1:01 am

    blorge–you are most certainly correct. I agree with what you are saying, but it goes a bit beyond the scope of this particular post. Remind me to write about that sometime.

    Trike–thanks for posting! I just found out that you have a blogsite yourself. I look forward to checking it out.

    I believe there is still a sense of neighborhood for many in the city (and in smaller towns too for that matter). This is especially true among ethnic minorities. There are a number of churches in our area that were planted to reach out to a certain area, but the members commute in. This is most certainly not incarnational.

    Some churches aren’t able to be geography driven in the same way that Missio Dei can potentially be geography driven. But some sort of incarnational approach is still possible. We can still get to know our neighbors, be involved with our school district, be “strategic consumerists” at the local Caribou Coffee, etc. The main point of my post wasn’t to explain why churches ought to be incarnational, but to ask that people stop throwing around that word. If a church doesn’t have a real precense in an area, I don’t see it as an incarnational church. The people who go there might be incarnational in their own right–by sharing their faith with friends and co-workers, but this isn’t the same thing.

  5. andy gr on September 29th, 2004 2:21 am

    … and couldn’t a church have as one of its mission goals to forge a sense of community in its neighbourhood?

  6. Jeff on September 29th, 2004 1:06 pm

    When I think of incarnational ministry I think of someone like Hudson Taylor who spent years just learning the customs, language and traditions of the Chinese (and dressed like a native) before he even began his official ministry. He totally immersed himself in the culture of the people he was attempting to reach.
    Trike - I agree that the concept of neighborhood is disintegrating in America by and large but that does not mean that it should be that way and we just have to accept it. Relationships are central to the Gospel and geographical proximity is central to relationships. Jesus calls us to create an alternative parrellel culture to the mainstream popular culture in which his sanctifying work builds bridges between.

  7. gordon on September 29th, 2004 2:44 pm

    Mark - thanks for this thread of thought, it has got be thinking about is incarnation by presence enough…

    I’ve come across lots of new expressions of church that major on incarnation in terms of presence but not in attitude. (ok this is largely in the UK)

    They live on the same estates, neighbourhoods etc… but their attitudes are to seek the like-minded - get others to move onto the estates with them etc… which is lovely but for me that is incarnation in presence and not attitude- it’s not enough!

    Incarnation in terms of mission for me is more of soaking up of the issues and problems which means if any expression of church claims to be incarnational but continues to be pre-occupied with designer people and is not moulded by the locality - I’m suspicious.

    Unfortuntely many of new expression churches struggle with the marginalised and with those that largely are hard work and are defined by their status of not being wanted.

  8. Van S on September 29th, 2004 4:10 pm

    Good comments, Gordon. It is simply much easier to focus on affinity groups rather than dealing with the messiness of people from different cultures and economic status within one community. But if we take the New Testament seriously–which tells us that the division between Jews and Gentiles has been healed on the Cross–then we ought to seriously consider the way in which our communities reinforce division and worldly patterns, rather than being a sign to the world of the inbreaking Kingdom. In the Kingdom, such divisions aren’t important. In the Kingdom, people who were enemies can become brothers. In the Kingdom, we can cling to Jesus Christ to teach us to love one another. In the Kingdom, the marginalized are princes of the earth.

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