Incarnation or Accomodation?

In discussions about the church and culture, I often hear about how the church needs to be incarnational, meaning basically that the church should be present to the surrounding environment. Local churches should be involved and concerned with their community’s life and well-being. Christians should, as is reasonable and “biblical,” engage with the surrounding culture and even take on patterns and customs that enable them to authentically share and spread the gospel. To deny this would be to deny Christ’s incarnation. Jesus became human in order to reach humans. Since the church is the body of Christ, we should imitate Christ’s kenosis, his emptying of his divine glory to become human.

While I think this argument has a lot of merit and is right on several levels, it can be pretty easily misused, usually in the form of Christians “engaging” the wider culture or being “relevant” in the public arena. While I don’t think those are bad things in themselves, the way the questions are posed makes a lot of invalid assumptions about culture itself. For instance, it assumes culture is a static category that we can “engage” without first asking what our culture deems good or virtuous. Being “incarnational” can become an appeal to justify whatever ends we are taking to “reach” people for Christ. Another assumption is often that in order for the church to “engage” culture, it must cease to look like the church and act like the church. Are we in fact still being incarnational when our zeal to reach people for Christ becomes a naked appeal to, say, consumerism or patriotism?  When seeker churches shed every visible vestige of Christianity in order for people to feel comfortable in their services, are those churches appealing to some neutral public square? No, they’re appealing to a specific cultural arrangement that has intentionally left Christianity out of the picture. Why should we be ashamed of the church as its own cultural arrangement? However, seeker-friendly churches are kind of a baby-boomer idea and are not usually associated with “incarnational” language. Emergent churches have shed the “seeker-friendly” terminology, but I think they’re essentially doing the same thing but with more pop culture savvy. It’s like they’re extremely embarrassed of their parents’ lingo, but have dressed up their ideas to look presentable to their non-Christian peers. So all the while, they think up new ways of doing church in the name of becoming incarnational and end up accommodating themselves to a social arrangement that is self-consciously not Christian. I just don’t see how drifting further from a visually and concretely embodied tradition is beneficial to Christianity in the long run.


4 comments so far

  1. Ryan on

    Good thoughts, Jeff. I think we have to combine our understanding of modeling Christ’s incarnation (“As the Father has sent me… so I am sending you”), with his teaching of the Kingdom of God. “The Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus said.

    Now, whenever I think about the Kingdom of God, I usually have some cogent ideas in my head but when I try to express them, they usually come out sounding like this: The kingdom of God is ;lkaifaioap;kapoineinanvmoiejipwmoiwernem. I suppose that’s why Jesus explained the Kingdom in stories…

    Anyway, the church’s engagement with the must have something to do with the Kingdom of God coming near. Which brings me back to your point you are making. A faithful church engagment with the culture cannot simply be a redressing of cultural forms with Christian lingo. Nor, can it be a proclamation with no living community attached to it. But, (thank you, Mr. Newbigin) a community of faith proclaiming and living out the values of the Kingdom of God in a culture that serves all sorts of other kingdoms. This means crazy things like “loving your neighbor as yourself” using “sex, money and power” in life giving ways, praying for our enemies and doing good to those who hurt us.

    I appreciate (and miss) you, friend.


  2. nonnusjon on

    2 questions:

    1) In what sense does “being incarnational” have any merit at all today?

    2) Even though gobs of lame Christians go on about how religion is bad, I don’t think anybody is actually “ashamed of the church as its own cultural arrangement.” I just don’t think anybody knows what that would look like–so we’re scrambling. My question for you: What exactly is “church as its own cultural arrangement” or “a visually and concretely embodied tradition”? These things might not exist anymore in my opinion.

  3. jeffreimer on

    Hi Jon.

    Two replies:

    1) Being incarnational has merit in that it roots Christians to a certain place – the places where they live and where their neighbors live – and resists the fragmentation and isolation that so ubiquitously pervade North American culture. It also roots Christians to certain practices. While those practices may be different depending on context, they are practices that foster solidarity and trust among fellow human beings instead of practices that foster suspicion and malice.

    2) To your comments before your question: sic et non. Some Christians are in fact ashamed of the church as the church. As far as they are concerned, the institution of the church can sink and the world would be a better place. There are plenty of people who would rather meet in a house church than in any kind of church building, because, for them, the church is “invisible” and “spiritual.” What I’m saying is that this ecclesiology is exactly what creates the confusion you mention. Since we’re not rooted to any tradition we thrash about in every direction without any kind of measure or guide besides our various interpretations of Scripture.

    So, to your actual question, the church as its own cultural arrangement is the visible church as it is and as it has appeared in time since its beginning. And I think your intuition that this might not exist anymore is on the right track. Christendom has long been a bygone conclusion. If I’m going to start talking about tradition or a visible church, the first thing I’m going to have to account for is schism, especially as a Protestant. If we’re going to remain Protestant, we have to remember that that’s a negative position: we’re protesting certain developments in the Roman Catholic Church. So if I want to say I believe in tradition, unity and history, I have to take the fact that the unified church has splintered into … how many Protestant denominations are there? 30,000? Schism is the reality the church has to deal with, and schism is sin. But lest I fall into the trap you mentioned a few weeks ago about fallenness and sin being conversational show-stoppers, I see schism and brokenness as a theological starting point for talking about unity, visibility and tradition. But this is where the slow, hard work begins, not ends.

  4. nonnusjon on

    sic et non … is that an insult? Sorry, my Latin is sorely undernourished.

    I am well aware of the many “invisible church-goers” doing home liturgy in fleece sweaters and unseasonal cargo shorts (I was almost one of them). When I said that nobody is actually ashamed of the church as its own cultural arrangement (which I took to mean more than the church as building), I meant that while they ARE griping and moaning about the church as institution, they themselves have misdiagnosed the situation. And, yeah, I agree with you that the emergent folks (and their ilk) are not solving anything with their cliched notions of the Church Invisible and the Kingdom of God. But I couldn’t disagree with you more when you say that their ecclesiology CREATES their confusion.

    Our culture’s confusion about church and religion and tradition is deep and valid. It’s a problem that is, in my opinion, well beyond questions of sin and schism and ecumenical councils.

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