Recent Posts
A good theologian once drew me a diagram of the progress of Christian doctrine and [more]
We began this series by making the claim that Pentecostalism has quietly (or not so [more]
Pentecostal worship places great emphasis on intensity. By intensity, they mean a strongly felt experience [more]
A polarized debate goes on between different stripes of Christians over the place of experience [more]
I am very pleased to announce that I have accepted a position with G3 Ministries  [more]

The Incarnational Mode of the Missional Church

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series

"Missional Worship"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

If the “why” of mission is the fact that God sends the church, and if the “where” of mission is post-Christendom Western culture, then for the missional advocates the “how” of mission is incarnation. By incarnation, missional writers mean that a truly missional church is one that is embedded in its target culture. Hirsch notes,

Many churches have mission statements or talk about the importance of mission, but where truly missional churches differ is in their posture toward the world. A missional community sees the mission as both its originating impulse and its organizing principle. A missional community is patterned after what God has done in Jesus Christ. In the incarnation God sent his Son. Similarly, to be missional means to be sent into the world; we do not expect people to come to us. This posture differentiates a missional church from an attractional church.1

Of course, missional exponents adapt the term from the way in which Jesus Christ was sent—he immersed himself in the culture of humanity in order to redeem it—and this adaptation is intentional. One of the key texts for missional thinking is John 20:21: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” God has sent the church, just as he did his Son, into the world in order to redeem it, and no culture is exempt from the possibility of redemption: “All human cultures, marked as they are by the tension of being simul creates et peccator (simultaneously created and sinful), are honored by God as potential receivers of Christ and his calling.”2

Contextualization. Another key idea for the missional movement that is related to the idea of incarnation is contextualization. For missional proponents, contextualization is at the heart of what it means for a church to be embedded in its target culture. In order for a church to reach its culture, the church must contextualize so that its message is intelligible to its audience. According to Newbigin, contextualization is “the placing of the gospel in the total context of a culture at a particular moment, a moment that is shaped by the past and looks to the future.”3 This is important, because as the culture moves further and further from its Christendom past, the gospel and Christendom methods will become more foreign. As Van Gelder explains,

It is important, then, for the church to study its context carefully and to understand it. The technical term for this continuing discipline is contextualization. Since everyone lives in culture, the church’s careful study of its context will help the church to translate the truth of the gospel as good news for the society to which it is sent.4

Missional proponents insist that churches be truly indigenous, inheriting ideas spawned all the way back in 1938 at the International Missionary Council in Tambaram:

An indigenous church, young or old, in the East or in the West, is a church which, rooted in obedience to Christ, spontaneously uses forms of thought and modes of action natural and familiar in its own environment. Such a church arises in response to Christ’s own call. The younger churches will not be unmindful of the experiences and teachings which the older churches have recorded in their confessions and liturgy. But every younger church will seek further to bear witness to the same Gospel with new tongues.5

Missional authors apply the indigenous principles that have characterized foreign missions for years to the North American context. Since the West is now post-Christendom, churches in the West “should reflect the full social mix of the communities they serve, if they are truly contextual.”6

Not only should the missional church reflect the cultures around it, but it should also immerse itself in the expressions of those cultures in order to understand them and use them as a bridge to the gospel. Van Gelder elaborates:

We need to exegete . . . culture in the same way the missionaries have been so good at doing with diverse tribal cultures of previously unreached people. We need to exegete . . . the themes of the Rolling Stones . . . , Dennis Rodman, Madonna, David Letterman, Rosanne, Seinfeld, and “Tales from the Crypt.” We need to comprehend that the Spirit of the Living God is at work in these cultural expressions, preparing the hearts of men and women to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have to find, in good missionary fashion, those motifs and themes that connect with the truths of the gospel. We need to learn how to proclaim, “That which you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.” This is missionary vision at its best.7

Missional experts highlight primarily two passages of Scripture in support of their view of contextualization. First, they appeal to 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

Stetzer and Putman say of this passage, “Paul is the model for us in that he made himself a slave to the preference and cultures of others, rather than a slave to his own preferences.”8 Parris comments, “Paul held deep personal convictions, yet he searched for customs and traditions with which he could sympathize in order to place himself in the position to win them to Christ.”9

Missional exponents also often look to Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17:16-34 as the supreme example of missional contextualization, so much so that Mark Driscoll even named his church “Mars Hill”:

When the apostle Paul stood atop Mars Hill, he proclaimed good news to a diverse people steeped in philosophy, culture, and spirituality. Mars Hill Church seeks to continue that legacy in modern-day Seattle. Our city is a place much like first-century Athens: a marketplace of ideas, a vibrant arts community, and a metropolitan hub.

Our church is more than a building, an organization, a man, or a Sunday. Mars Hill Church is a group of missionaries united by a common relationship with Jesus Christ. We want to share him with Seattle by serving and loving the city and preaching the gospel like Paul: using the artifacts and language of our culture to point to Jesus.10

Paul’s engaging of the culture of Athens in his attempt to win them to Christ serves as a model for missional churches. Stetzer and Putman say of this passage, “The culture of the hearer impacted his missional methods,”11 and Van Gelder notes that “Paul argued philosophy with secular philosophy on secular terms.”12 A missional church will immerse itself in its culture so that it can understand and engage its culture on its own terms.

Series NavigationPreviousNext

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Alan Hirsch, “Defining Missional,” Leadership Journal, Fall 2008,, accessed August 10, 2011. []
  2. Guder, The Continuing Converstion of the Church, 84. []
  3. Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 2. []
  4. Craig Van Gelder, “Missional Context: Understanding North American Culture,” in Missional Church: a Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998), 18. []
  5. International Missionary Council, The Growing Church (London: Published for the International Missionary Council by the Oxford University Press, 1939), 276. []
  6. Van Gelder, “Missional Challenge: Understanding the Church in North America,” 70. []
  7. Van Gelder, Confident Witness—Changing World, 14–15. []
  8. Stetzer and Putman, Breaking the Missional Code, 52. []
  9. Stanley Glenn Parris, “Instituting a Missional Worship Style in a Local Church Developed from an Analysis of the Culture” (PhD diss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 2008), 28. Other missional books that use this passage include Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 85; J. D. Payne, Missional House Churches: Reaching Our Communities with the Gospel (Biblica, 2008), 110; Alvin Reid and Thom S. Rainer, Evangelism Handbook: Biblical, Spiritual, Intentional, Missional (B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 311; Ed Stetzer and Philip Nation, Compelled by Love: The Most Excellent Way to Missional Living (Birmingham, AL: New Hope Publishers, 2008), 125. []
  10., accessed February 15, 2008. []
  11. Stetzer and Putman, Breaking the Missional Code, 183. []
  12. Craig Van Gelder, The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2009), 118. []