Ministry and mission require some basics in order to thrive: thinking and doing, strategy and action.
This typically involves assessing your location, considering the Scriptures and then working a plan born from a deep desire to see the Lord’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. The plan must be to make real disciples, not theoretical ones.
But there are some forces at work in our present age that make this task increasingly difficult. Many theologians have wrestled with this concept for some time, expressed by the terms incarnation and excarnation. Incarnation means “in flesh,” while excarnation means the “removal of flesh.” Incarnation speaks of moving toward one another. Excarnation speaks of moving away from one another. This plays out in many ways, but here are three to consider:
- Digital interactions are increasing as the boundaries between what is real and what is virtual continue to blur in our daily lives.
- Virtual relationships tend to become argumentative monologues instead of empathetic dialogues where we give people the benefit of the doubt up front. Plus, these digital interactions only include written words, so incarnate actions are diminished.
- A new normal is emerging from the coronavirus pandemic where social distancing is now in the collective conscience.
So as the people of God, how can we be “in the world” without being “of the world” as we strive to make real disciples?
In 2015 at the premiere for the movie Black Mass, a photo was taken of an elderly woman in a sea of other people. The difference was that everyone else in the frame was trying to see the actors through their phones — taking pictures and posting on social media — while this lady was simply taking the scene in, phone-free. It captures the essence of being present without any digital mediation.
One way to practice presence is to daily make it a point to have a real conversation with a real person face to face. Another way is to display a real act of love to a real person. Strategy meetings that stay at the “those people over there” level easily cave to excarnation and never take into consideration the real needs, questions and gifts of actual people. The gospel calls us to incarnate into actual people’s lives. In other words, to be present.
Lean in and listen
One of the ways to combat the argumentative monologue form of discipleship that the culture is imposing is to lean in to real relationships. Take the posture of a learner and really listen. When we listen to the stories, the pain, the hopes and the fears of others, we grow in empathy and compassion. You can demonstrate empathy when you can relate and compassion when you can’t.
Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain
Maybe, like me, you grew up thinking the third commandment involved not saying God’s name with a curse word after it, or shouting “Jesus Christ” when you got mad. But it literally means, don’t carry the presence of the Lord in vain. As ambassadors and ministers of reconciliation, which is our status from the moment of our conversion, carry the Lord’s presence with joy, humility and conviction.
Think about and live for the age to come
In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes hell as this endless city with millions and millions of houses where everybody is constantly moving farther and farther away from each other because they hate each other. Consumed with self, they are nasty, in the truest sense, toward one another.
This is the feeling I get when I look out at the current world we live in. To stay in that place is not hopeful. It’s depressing, actually. Lewis knew this, which is why he forces the reader to zoom out. And as the vision grows, you see that the millions of miles of that hellish city are actually just a crack in heaven’s sidewalk. It’s minuscule in comparison to the glory of heaven. As always, Lewis is attempting to expand our imagination, both in the hellishness of hell and the overwhelming heavenliness of heaven.
The reality and surety of heaven is the only thing that can truly empower a faithful, incarnate engagement in ministry and mission here and now. For heaven alone is the place where we will be truly human, living to our fullest potential as the Creator intended.
That longing will be incarnate as John proclaims in Revelation 21, “Behold the dwelling place of God is with man,” and it provides the inner capacity and motivation to carry the Lord’s name fruitfully, not in vain. And it causes us to lean in to real relationships — not theoretical ones — with empathy and compassion because it longs for others to join us in the kingdom we were truly meant for.