Updated: Oct 1
By Jim Candy
Every few months we’re greeted by another article outlining the demise of the Church.
You’ve probably seen them.
Sheesh. We’re five sentences into this post, and I’m already depressed.
If you like to fix things rather than lament, you’re already diagnosing the problem and pondering solutions. Most pastors (I’m one of them) love the idea of quick fixes:
“Maybe if I have a better online service…”
“Maybe if I use this discipleship curriculum…”
“Maybe if I start this new missions initiative…”
“Maybe if I hire this worship leader…”
If you are part of a church but not the senior leader, you may have similar thoughts except you replace the “I” in the sentences above, with “our pastor.”
And while we are quick to chase solutions to reverse these ominous headlines, the ironic bad habit of humanity is to not seek Jesus Himself for guidance.
Let’s face it: quick fixes are failing us. Ministry is more researched, analyzed, packaged and sold than ever before, but the declining effectiveness is undeniable.
I believe, in our well-intentioned scramble to reshape the future, we’ve lost the defining ministry practice of Jesus Himself.
Incarnation: Super Fast Definition
Incarnation is a funny word. It’s not in our everyday vocabulary which makes it hard to grasp. It needs a quick definition because it’s foreign.
Simply put, incarnation means “taking on flesh.”
Jesus makes incarnation relevant as the eternal, pre-existing God who became a person (John 1:1-14).
God became one of us. That’s incarnation.
Incarnation is a Reality and Philosophy
This has a deeper impact on your life today than you realize.
Incarnation is not just the reality of what Jesus did; it is also His philosophy.
Remember, Jesus chose to become a human being when he did not have to. He could have kept sending prophets or inspiring a longer Bible or increasing the frequency of miracles. But He chose to come himself. Incarnation was His philosophical choice to reach us.
Jesus chose incarnation because all other options left an intolerable distance between Himself and us.
Incarnation is Exhibit A in the lineup of evidence for God’s love of us. It refuses to stay distant – the incarnational heart enters into someone else’s world, culture and pain building the closest of relationships.
And then, toward the end of his earthly life, Jesus said these underappreciated words:
As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. (John 20:21)
That’s nice, we think. He’s including us.
Yes. And again…
Jesus’s words here speak not only to the reality of our sending; they speak to the philosophy of our sending as well.
Jesus is not asking you to love those far from God at a distance. He’s asking you to embrace the philosophy of incarnation and enter their world, their story, their friendship group, their culture, as He did ours.
So I am sending you…
If Jesus’s chosen philosophy of reaching us was incarnation shouldn’t it be ours?
I’ve noticed it’s easier for me to articulate things than do them.
Case in point: when the pandemic started, I became hyper-focused on creating an online experience people would love. I feared large, but not giant, churches like ours would become irrelevant because we would not be able to create high-quality online services like giant churches could.
I’m not saying that’s the right way to think about things. I’m just reporting.
So I pivoted quickly into making a great online service. I was a broadcast journalism major so, hey, this was kinda fun. We put together some pretty good weekend services that I was proud of.
And, while those online services creatively articulated Jesus, I was missing His heart.
I strongly believe creating a good digital experience is important, but I was wrong in my philosophy. I was in search of a silver bullet and thought killing it with a great digital service was it.
We produced some great online services, many of which were equal to or better than our giant church cousins.
Imagine how disheartened I was when our weekly numbers began steadily dropping. My hunt for digital tricks was a failure.
Less Sexy But More Like Jesus
I met a pastor in early 2021 with a similar-sized church who chose a different approach.
“Our entire church staff stopped doing almost everything else, and we just called people to see how we could pray for them,” he said and then paused. “For months.”
Ten people making 20-40 calls. Every day. That’s 200-400 people every week who are personally cared for. Yes, they still had a good online service although not as slick as ours. But they had something we (I, Jim) foolishly deemphasized: incarnation. And ironically, because they had relationships, people continued to watch their services.
They weren’t as good as us, but they were better.
That church is one of the few churches I know of that size who is larger today than 18 months ago.
They grew, not because growth was the goal, or scaling, or impressing the world with their grasp on technology. They grew because they incarnationally mirrored Jesus’s philosophical choice of entering the world of the people who needed Him.
Going to Where They Are
My new friend Jason and I recently compared the very different kinds of church plants we helped lead.
I planted in the affluent suburbs near Boulder, Colo., with lots of families and kids. Jason planted in the densely populated urban core of Denver targeting a population that is largely single and between the ages of 23-35.
Both of our churches grew, driven by a desire to know people and have them find Jesus in community with others.
“What positions did you hire first?” he asked me.
“Same as everyone,” I replied. “Children’s, students and worship. Same with you?”
He smiled. “No. We hired a guy to run our Instagram.”
Wait! Instagram?!? Didn’t I just say “digital tricks” are bad?
Hold on. Jason is using Instagram, not as advertising, but a tool to pursue people. His team is engaging 20-somethings in downtown Denver to get to know them and their stories, first online and then, hopefully, in person.
Then Jason said something worth remembering:
“We must meet and care for people in the spaces they already occupy.”
That’s the incarnation. On Instagram.
Jesus did this. He met humanity and cared for it in the spaces we occupied. Scratch that. He still meets us and cares for us in the spaces we occupy.
Incarnation means we pursue people in their world refusing to force them to come to ours first.
At the gym. At work. On the golf course. Online. At the party. In our apartment building. At the coffee shop.
Put another way: without the backbone of incarnation, our ministry strategies are like a football team whose playbook is full of clever plays but forgot to assemble an offensive line.
Incarnation in the Real World
Dave umpired my high school baseball games.
As an extraverted high schooler, I often chatted with the umpires. I heard he was a “church guy” which scared me a fair amount, but still… he was nice and funny and not the stiff image I’d associated with “Christian.” Our team called him Church Guy Umpire.
One day I hit a ground ball and was thrown out at first base. I was furiously competitive (maybe still am?) and, as I crossed the bag, every four-letter word I know started flying. Church Guy Umpire was working first base. He looked at me, called me “out” and then…
I went back to the dugout confused. Why would Church Guy Umpire wink at me?
Shouldn’t he be scolding or shaming me for my bad language? But he didn’t. He winked.
The strangest thought then crossed my 17-year-old mind; a mind convinced that “religion” was synonymous with good boy, rule-keeping.
The thought: maybe Dave just likes me. Followed immediately by: maybe God just likes me too.
That wink was the first snowflake in the avalanche-sized change in my life. That wink is what Jesus used to start bringing me home.
Dave articulated nothing and everything with that wink. There was no Bible explanation, no deep theological exploration, no church history exam. There was incarnational presence. And the Spirit. And that combination… well, it’s the breeding ground of miracles.
A Dying Art
Our local youth ministries are struggling to find volunteers. No one has time. We’re too busy to live out the incarnation. Or intimidated perhaps.
How many Christians could point to one other not-yet believing-in-Jesus-person with whom they are being actively incarnational?
I’m guessing the number is small. And that is the reason the church is losing ground.
The painful truth is that we all benefit from the incarnation but tend not to practice it.
We’re too obsessed and distracted with the culture wars or the newest ministry technique or satisfied with mere church attendance to take the courageous risk of going into the world of people who need to meet us on their own turf. We’re like obsessive groundskeepers perfecting our backyards anticipating a party that is happening at the neighbor’s home.
But I have hope. For me. You. The Church.
We’re incapable of changing headlines on our own. But the Holy Spirit isn’t sleeping. The Spirit never turns a blind eye to an incarnational heart.
If you are afraid you’re not qualified, you’re right. Neither am I.
But go anyway. Go Laugh. Cry. Play. Talk. Game. Eat. Drink. Ride. Stay.
THANKS for reading - please push that little heart button if you agree, pass this along to someone who might benefit from this and/or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.