Urban Ministry Must Be Incarnational
In John 20:21, at one of the resurrection appearances with the disciples, Jesus said “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” There is much that can be said about how the Father sent Jesus and how we are to go in a similar manner. God sent our Lord to preach, to be persecuted, to suffer, to make known his will, and to offer salvation to mankind. But the divine plan of the incarnation also carries significant information as to the mode in which God sent his son to the earth.
In John 1:14 the gospel writer tells how Jesus’ penetration into society serves as an example of true contextualization. He tells us, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” As Charles Lyons, Senior Pastor of Armitage Baptist Church in Chicago states it, “Jesus Christ moved into the neighborhood.” He literally became one with the people; born as a Jewish child, having grown up in the Galilean town of Nazareth, raised “on the other side of the tracks” as it were, a town of poor reputation, indicated by Nathaniel’s question to Philip: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
It is astounding to think of the God of the universe invading earth and being incarnated as a helpless child, setting aside his divinity and becoming a baby. When he was hungry or when his diaper needed changing, his only recourse was to cry. He couldn’t even swat mosquitoes from his body. He became a helpless infant, part of the Middle Eastern culture. As he grew, he had to develop as all other children. Luke tells us, “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). He had to grow in wisdom because he emptied himself (Phil 2:6–7) of his knowledge of the Law and the Prophets. He had to learn as every other young Jewish boy. He had to grow in stature as his body grew physically, and he had to grow in favor with God and man. His growth “in favor with God” indicates a spiritual growth, not becoming sinless but seeking a deeper understanding, appreciation, and relationship with his Father. His growth “in favor with man” requires a social growth, which indicates that Jesus was well liked by those he knew. As a man he spoke the dialect of a Galilean, he ate the food that neighbors ate, he loved the customs that other Jewish men loved. He could have possessed another human body as demons do. He could have created a temporary body to indwell, a Christophany, as we see numerous times in the Old Testament. He didn’t choose these methods but instead incarnated and became a real man, immersing himself into the culture of that day.
There was no aerial banner proclaiming God’s plan of salvation. He didn’t drop gospel tracts from the sky or blitz the world with Scripture portions. He studied the language, people, and culture for thirty years before he began his ministry. There were no shouts from heaven: “I love you!” There were no weekend evangelistic trips to the hood to share the gospel. Jesus did not commute from heaven. “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). As Charles Lyons has said, “He came to the worst neighborhood in his universe, the neighborhood called Earth where his life would be taken.” Jesus became part of this culture, and he came for the long haul, which lasted for thirty-three years until his death.
How should the example of Jesus and his incarnation impact our ministry? Jesus said, “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (John 20:21 KJV). God expects us to incarnate, as it were, in our neighborhood of the city. Of course, we are not able to attain a literal incarnation, but we can, to the best of our ability, become part of the people we came to reach. That means several things:
First of all, that the missionary or pastor should move into the general area of the people he serves. In urban ministry we cannot commute.
For too long, men and women have lived in some comfortable neighborhood or suburb, commuting to the city or their target neighborhood for ministry. There may be some who make true salvation decisions as a result, but few of these converts will ever be discipled. Most will never attend a Bible-believing church and if they grow at all, it may take years before they get the very basics of how to be a follower of Jesus. Those that commute will not have a real sense of appreciation and understanding of the people they are serving, and they will not have the credibility they need to effectively reach and disciple them.
Second, to be incarnate means that we will become a part of the people, studying the culture and language of the inhabitants we are trying to reach. This culture may not only be different ethnically, but there is also the urban culture as well as social and economic elements that make each person unique. To truly understand the people one must rub shoulders day in and day out, to share in their culture, living where they live.
Third, being incarnate means that we will plant our roots and plan to stay for the long haul. By doing this we will develop love for the people, and the people will begin to love us as we grow “in favor” with the people we are serving.
(This article comes from Chapter 3, Urban Impact)