The SST conference this year was particularly good. (The conference is always a great time of meeting old friends; this year several of the papers – Webster; Kilby; Sarot – were excellent as well, which is not always the case; and more folk from St Andrews attended than has been common recently, which was also a plus for me.) A recurrent theme of bar conversations (where all the best theology gets done at SST) was ‘buzzwords’: language that sounds positive and resonant, but on examination is unreflective, ill-defined, and so dangerously meaningless. ‘Participation’ was one such; ‘incarnational’ another.
‘Incarnational ministry’ seems still to be a popular phrase. As far as I can tell, its meaning, to the extent it has any, is a gesture towards a practice of Christian discipleship which involves simply being in a place, consciously refusing to challenge people or structures, but instead living a life of quiet piety and availability in the hope that this will serve as a witness to those around.
It might well, of course, and there have been times when such a practice of mission was perhaps appropriate (the Mennonites survived by becoming ‘the quiet in the land’ in a bloodier age…), but is this really ‘incarnational’? Is this what Jesus did – quiet, non-confrontational living; service without preaching; being but never saying? It might not be wrong, but to dignify it by claiming it is uniquely true to the life of Christ seems to me rather ambitious. Jesus was not obviously quiet and non-confrontational; the authorities noticed Him, and feared Him, and did something about Him. ‘Incarnational ministry’ will not be quiet and non-confrontational either: by a holistic combination of word and deed, it will publicly and decisively undermine the authority structures of this world in the name of God’s Kingdom of justice and joy; it will mock our idols and critique our lives. It will be profoundly threatening to the culture it lives within.
Truly incarnational ministry will end, invariably, in crucifixion – and the sure and certain hope of resurrection life.