Incarnational Practices on Next Wave

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : October 3, 2005

Hey, just thought you’d all like to take a gander at the latest issue of Next-Wave.  I converted some recent posts about "Incarnational Practices" into an article…it is the coverstory of October’s issue.

I’m including the article in it’s entirety below, because it hasn’t ever been in one place before, and because I want people who migrate over from Next-Wave to be able to comment somewhere.


You are church before you do church.
This is one of the fueling insights of the missional church movement.
This isn?t a new idea…but it is pretty provocative, especially when one
considers its implications. If we take Jesus at his word when he says
(as recorded in John 20:21) “as the Father has sent me, I am sending
you,” then we realize that our being sent is the basis of our “doing”
church. In other words, missiology precedes ecclesiology.

If this is true, then why does modern church planting amount to “service starting?”  This
is putting the cart before the horse, ecclesiology before missiology.
We decide how we are going to “do” church before we have built
missional relationships. Putting missiology first changes how we think
of ourselves as the church. (If you find this stuff confusing, I
encourage you to check out this article on Andrew “Hamo” Hamilton’s blog, Backyard Missionaries).

Just to prime the pump on how we might move forward to engage our neighborhoods missionally,
I?d like to suggest to you 6 incarnational practices. These are the
sort of things that a group of Christians can do out of their existing
church, but I think it is better for a group of Christian friends to
practice these sorts of things BEFORE a church is established. As they
engage in these practices, they’ll begin to meet people and know people
and as those people need to be discipled and grow in their faith, an
ecclesiology for that context should begin to emerge.

So, these practices are written with church planters in mind, but should be helpful for the rest of y’all as well.

Practice 1: Move and Observe

If you want to minister in a neighborhood that you don’t live in, you
should move into that neighborhood, or at least very close to that
neighborhood. It is difficult to be incarnational if you are a
commuter. You need to cultivate similar life patterns and center your
life on the same sort of places and institutions as those you want to

Once you move into the area (or if you already live in the area), spend time just observing.
Don’t get frenetic. Don’t start doing things until you understand the
ethos of the neighborhood. Let the spirit of the place make its
impression. Fall in love with the little things. Get to know the
people. If you start "doing your thing" before you are familiar with
the place, then you’re forcing things to much. Ministry should fit with
how God is already working in a place. If you start pushing your agenda
before you start making friends with the neighbors and finding out
about their lives, then you’re a salesman, not a minister of
reconciliation. And throughout it all, pray. Pray for spiritual
eyesight. It is the Spirit’s job to reveal Christ…not just to "them"
but also to "you." Pray that you can see Christ’s fingerprints in your
neighborhood. Pray to see the face of Christ in the face of those who
live around you. Pray for the Spirit to show you what is wrong in your area, and also what is right.  Seek to understand.

Practice 2: “Intentional Friend-Making”

Yes, I know it sounds lame. Extremely lame. But “intentional
friend-making” is helpfully descriptive. I’m willing to use a different
phrase if you have any suggestions.

“Intentional friend-making” is different than "friendship evangelism" because
the goal of friendship evangelism is to share your faith with your
existing friends. I highly encourage that. That is a great thing. But
the problem is that if we stop there, we never move beyond our (usually
homogenous) circle of friends.

Here’s the basic idea:

Pay attention to where people congregate and hang out.
It could be a coffee shop, it could be a bar, it could be the park, or
the library, or a cruddy diner, or the local YWCA, or community center.
We should try to spend our time more and more where neighborhood people
spend their time. This won’t work as well in suburbs, because people
don’t center their lives in "third places" in the suburbs-though many do in urban and rural places.

It isn’t enough to spend time there, though.
You must engage people there. This is where it gets sticky for people.
We don’t naturally make friends in public places like that, though it
is socially acceptable to do so. Many people hang out in "third places"
because they want to connect with a neighborhood and their neighbors.
These are the general rules of social interaction that I have discerned:

1. If you see someone at your favorite place a few times, you have
permission to give them the "nod" of recognition (or subtle wave).
2. If you’ve recognized their presence a couple times, it is socially ok to say "hello."
3. Once you’ve said hello to someone once or twice, it is ok to make
comments like "hey, it sure is nice today" or "is that book you’re
reading interesting?" [if someone is deep into reading their book, it
may be rude to interrupt them, but if they look up on occasion, it is
probably ok to talk to them].
4. After you’ve broken the ice, you can introduce yourself.
5. Once you’re on a first-name basis. You have social permission to
have normal conversations with them, and things develop from there.

Here’s the thing: most of us follow this sort of interaction in
settings like school or at church, and it is perfectly normal there.
Just realize that it is ok to do those sorts of things at third places
too. If you are a bolder person, you can skip steps. It isn’t offensive
to have polite chit-chat with strangers. It is only rude if you do it
when they are in the middle of something that requires attention. Even
then, most people won’t decide you are a jerk, they’ll probably just
think you?re a ditz. And that is better than not knowing them at all.
Those of us who make connections with people in this way will be able
to graft them into our network of friends. So in a healthy church, only
a handful of people need to be doing this well for the whole church to
be making new friends.

Practice 3: Gather in 3rd Places and Homes

Being incarnational means that the Gospel should come to people where they are.
When we build special buildings just for fellowship, and then center
ministry and community in that place, we are asking people to come to
us. Sure, you can do incarnational ministry out of a church building.
But I think the edifice complex that afflicts many churches is contrary
to their missional calling. The energy and resources tied up into
buildings should be used elsewhere. The amount of time spent in church
buildings should be spent elsewhere. Church should be done where life
is lived–not the other way around. The early church gathered in homes
and the apostles preached in the markets because those were the centers
of society. What are the centers of our lives? Be the church in those
places, rather than making your own place.

If you are
involved with a church that meets in a church building, I’m not
suggesting that you leave. Many churches use their buildings well. But
most don’t. If we are going to be faithful in the future, we need to
rethink how we gather.

Practice 4: Mobilize Discipleship

When Jesus trained his disciples, he didn’t take them into the wilderness for 3 years.
He didn’t take them to Jerusalem Seminary for 3 years. Nope. He took
them with him for 3 years. The way you do training and discipleship
should fit the form of your church. The University system developed out
of a medieval ecclesiology. The current Seminary system is roughly
based upon the university system. And most in-church discipleship
training is often loosely based upon seminary training. We need to
re-orient our methods of discipleship to fit an incarnational church.

I’ve alluded to this recently on my blog-though
many others have suggested it as well: we need to get more "monastic"
in the way we do discipleship. Monks take vows (they agree with a
certain pattern of Christian life), and the entire brotherhood (or
sisterhood) centers around these shared vows. Postulants (newbies)
spend a trial time with the community. If it seems as though they are
ready to continue in this path, they become novices. A monk is usually
a novice for 3-5 years, which is the length of their training. The
Mendicant (begging) orders–like the Franciscans–are not cloistered
away. They are very active in service to the world. But their vows make
them distinct. They engage the world from a place of distinction. We
need to move from membership to discipleship-from a gathering of
interested people to a mobile order. Sure, a monasticized church will
still gather, but their gathering will be an expression of who they
are. Gatherings will develop out of missional, discipled,
incarnational, ministry.

I think we can learn something from this approach.
The Mendicants remain very serious about discipleship, and they do it
on their feet. We need to find intense and rich ways of training people
on their feet. It may involve some coursework, but coursework done in a
missional way. But mostly it would involve lots of one-on-one
conversations between "novices" and those who have gone before them.

Practice 5: Volunteering (instead of starting new programs)
Most urban areas have social service organizations in place.
I suggest you volunteer with them instead of starting church
programs–at least early on in the life of your church. In the West
Bank, there are over a dozen organizations that will take volunteers.
When we started, we tried to do our own ESL program. It didn’t work
like we wanted. I’m realizing now that it would have been better to put
our energy towards volunteering at existing ESL courses. When we
volunteer, we submit to the service organizations–yielding to their
agenda instead of forcing our own. In that place, we can begin to make
relationships with people. As we meet people and get to know them, we
have the opportunity to take that friendship outside of the volunteer
organization. As we find out more of their needs, then we may try to
serve them as a church.

The basic idea is this: utilize existing structures.
Build relationships within the existing systems. Social services
provide a great way for you to meet people (both volunteers and those
with needs) without having to put a lot of time and energy into
planning. You get the benefit of meeting people by simply volunteering.
And you will grow in your understanding of the people you want to
serve. Plus, you are helping people. And too many churches don’t do
enough of that.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that a church should never start programs.
A church may be obligated to do so because there is a profoundly unmet
need. Or you may be led to do so; these are simply suggestions to help
you think through being incarnational, not hard-and-fast rules.

Practice 6: Limit Your Attractiveness

These practices are merely illustrative. Take them for what they are. I
think if everyone did more things like this, the church would be
healthier. However, they aren’t meant to be straight-jackets. They are
supposed to open up new possibilities.

In their book The Shaping of Things to Come,
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch suggest that many churches follow an
“attractional” ecclesiology rather than an “incarnational”
ecclesiology. Basically, attractional churches try to make it very easy
for seekers to visit them. They attract seekers to come to the church,
where they will experience God. Incarnational churches go to people where they are instead of spending a lot of energy on attracting people to come to a service.

This final practice challenges those who want to cultivate
incarnational ministry while still maintaining an attractional style.
The attractional approach and the incarnational approach aren?t two
complementary approaches: they are two different foundations for doing
church. Incarnational churches start with the assumption that they must
go to where people are at. Attractional churches may do some
incarnational things, but they are ultimately trying to bring people
in. You can not have a church effectively built upon both approaches.

And so, if you want to be incarnational, you have to limit the attractional things you do.
This is our sixth practice. It is easier to have more people if you are
attractional. But if you get a lot of people who come without being
incarnational, your church may loose its incarnational flavor.
Furthermore, if you are building relationships with cynical people who
have been neglected and abandoned in the past, the worst thing is to
get a bunch of people moving in and out of attendance, building
relationships with folks, and then breaking it off when they no longer
find the church attractive. And so, you have to decide that you won’t
"grow" your church by attracting people from all over to come to your
funky service. You need to decide that you’re going to "grow" your
church incarnationally.

You may do some seemingly
attractional things (like community announcements of events). But be
careful. Keep your incarnational focus. Make sure that you are engaging
people where they are…and build your church as you build new
relationships. Don?t fall into the attractional trap. Attracting a
crowd may seem like the best course of action now, but it is
reinforcing a deadly habit in the American Church.

for further reading . . .

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9 Responses to “Incarnational Practices on Next Wave”

  1. Mike on October 3rd, 2005 6:10 pm

    I agree totally. But now for the real question, how do we influence the practise of the established church?

  2. gordon on October 4th, 2005 2:50 am

    great - thanks. Here’s what I am working through - is it possible to be incarnational from a fixed point?

    We offer space to our community but in doing so we try to live out incarnational values rather than try and attract them to an hour on sunday.

    Good thoughts really well presented - thanks

  3. Van S on October 4th, 2005 11:05 am

    Good questions…

    Mike, I think the best thing we can do to influence the established church is to do these sorts of things while still attending established churches. I blogged about this sort of thing previously:

    Gordon, I guess I think we can do church incarnationally WITH a fixed point, but not entirely THROUGH a fixed point. I think having a building can be a great tool for incarnational ministry, but I tend to think stuff has to happen outside of the building too.

  4. todd h on October 4th, 2005 2:45 pm

    It’s tough work to go from idealized thoughts about the missional church to what it could look like in actual situations. I think your ideas for incarnational practices flow nicely from your missional convictions and help to further the discussion of realizing missional churches in existing contexts.

  5. len on October 4th, 2005 7:10 pm

    Very helpful stuff..and already making for good learning.. I wonder if I can combine this with the concept of “portfolio” church…

  6. Van S on October 4th, 2005 11:13 pm

    Len, could you elaborate more on the concept of “portfolio” church?

  7. gordon on October 5th, 2005 9:50 am

    perhaps the mark of incarnational ministry could be seen in the level of transformation seen in the said community?

    Just thinking that some emerging concepts of church model themselves as being incarnational because they meet in public places - but the their motive is to ‘attract’people to their alternative means of doing church - which still seems pretty attractional to me?

    Sorry I am thinking as I type! I think I’ll pursue this further over at URBANarmy :o)

  8. Jeff on October 6th, 2005 10:47 am

    This is great stuff, Mark. It would be a great workshop at the conference.

  9. Johnny Brooks on October 27th, 2005 4:04 am

    I read this on Next-Wave’s site and thought it was great. I especially appreciated the point about using existing structures. I am working in Kenya, and attempting to influence already established churches. It is hard work, but worth it.

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