I had an eye-opening experience last week. I was driving to Shaw AFB where I serve. The weather turned bad and the rain came down in sheets. As I approached the base there was flooding on the roads and surrounding areas. When I finally arrived at the front the gate, I handed my ID card to the MP and said, “I heard there was an ark here.” He looked up from my ID, squinted his eyes and shook his head indicating he didn’t understand the reference. So, I said, “Noah’s ark?” He looked at me with the same lack of recognition. I finally said, “Flood, big boat, saved people?” There were cars behind me. The MP still didn’t understand the reference. He shook his head and said with a nervous laugh, “I don’t know.” He handed back my ID, saluted, and said “Have a good night sir” as he looked to the car behind me.
As I made my way to lodging I was a bit stunned. This was a young man in his early twenties and had no clue about Noah’s Ark. Given the weather I expected a short laugh at a corny joke. Instead I got an embarrassed “I haven’t a clue about what you’re talking about.”
I have been a pastor for almost seventeen years. It is so easy to become insulated from the outside world. And to remind me of that reality here was this young man who had no idea what I was referring to. Noah’s Ark – who doesn’t know about that? Apparently, an MP in his early 20s at Shaw AFB. I could shrug that off as an off encounter with a non-churched young man. Certainly, that is true. But, I suspect that there are many more like him in his generation.
I stand and preach every week. There are assumptions I make when I preach. The biggest is that the people in the church have a fairly good idea about what the Bible teaches. And in my church that assumption is mostly correct. But, the minute we walk outside the church doors, many people have no idea about those same things. There is a gap that has been created in our culture between the church and the rest of our non-church going society. I suspect it has been there a long time. And that gap is a large one and is growing daily. If someone does not know about a simple reference to Noah’s Ark, then there is a good chance they know nothing about what the Bible teaches about sin, judgment, God, Jesus, the cross, and eternal life.
Yet, we are called to reach this generation with the gospel. How has the church come to a place where the language we speak is foreign to our neighbors and fellow citizens? Maybe I am making too much of a single incident, but I suspect that we have lost the real meaning of being both missional and incarnational. The reality is that to be missional is to be incarnational. When Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, left the Godhead, disrobed himself of His majesty and glory, and became a man, He became incarnational by virtue of the fact that He became one of us. He took on our flesh. At the same time, He was embarking on the biggest mission trip ever planned. By His stripes we are healed. His mission was to be our sacrifice. He succeeded, and we rejoice in that. However, He said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). He did not communicate that we too would be a sacrifice for others, but that we too would have to follow His example in being both missional and incarnational.
The reason we speak a different language than our culture is because missions has been separated from being incarnational. Today missions has been reduced to going somewhere for a short period of time and telling others about Jesus. That’s fine and good, but when being incarnational is taken out of the definition what we end up with is people hearing a story that is detached from their everyday life and experience. And more importantly, it is detached from the person who is telling the story. Jesus didn’t come to this world, declare the gospel, then leave. No, he came to this world and declared the gospel as he lived and moved amongst the people he came to save. He became one of them. This is the part that we seem to have lost. We are certainly called to proclaim the gospel. And, we are called to go to places that have never heard the gospel. And, there are times when people hearing the gospel respond the first time. But, that is really the exception and not the rule. Missions works best when those who go, live amongst the people and invest their lives into that community.
The same is true back home. That principle needs to be applied to the communities where our churches live. The reason our culture does not speak our language is because we are not doing a good job of learning theirs. We have 1001 methods to share the gospel with others, and many are good methods. But, what cannot be taught in a classroom or shared via a conversation is the part where we become one of them and spend time investing in the people we want to reach. Many churches go into the community and share the gospel. But, then they go right back into the church house and spend time in the church community. There is nothing wrong with spending time with our fellow believers. But, what is often missing is the time spent with the people we want to reach.
I think part of the problem is that we are making an assumption. The assumption is that because the non-churched in our community speak our language (i.e. English), live in the same community, dress the same, go to the same foot-ball games etc., then we believe they understand our other language – our churchy, theological language that we take for granted. Because there is a sense of familiarity with them, we think they understand us and what we believe. That’s proving to be a really bad assumption. They don’t. And the reason they don’t is because we have not spent enough time in our communities as a living example and embodiment of being a Christian.
I’m not talking about being a perfect person who always does everything right. I think that’s another assumption we mistakenly make as well. I’m talking about living our faith in the open amongst those with whom we live, work, relax, shop, etc. etc. etc. I’m talking about living as a proud Christian (i.e. an unapologetic follower of Jesus) who loves the people we bump shoulders with every day.
In our culture, there is this unstated rule: we don’t talk about matters of faith. It’s deemed inappropriate. As a result, we often hide our faith except when we are in the church-house. Question, do your co-workers know you are a believer in Jesus? Do your neighbors? I’m not asking if you stand on a soap box and preach to them. But, when they are sick, do you offer to pray for them? When they need help do you come alongside them and help them? Have you ever read your Bible on your lunch break – in front of others? Have you ever talked about Jesus because … well because He really is the most important person in your life? Do they know Jesus informs how you think, behave, and make decisions?
In short, do the people who know you associate you with Christ?
Jesus said we are to be like leaven. Leaven is yeast and when applied to dough works its way through an entire batter. We are to live like that. We are to be in the batter of everyday life in our communities, reaching out to people, being one of them, allowing the fragrance of Christ to make its presence known as we seek to love them and serve them. In short, we are to be incarnational. We are to be living, speaking, worshiping, loving Christ as we are embedding ourselves in our communities and as we make an intentional effort to be a part of the people we are called to reach.
Mission plus incarnational means fruit bearing possibilities. It means the people around us know us. It means they know we know them. It means they understand we love them. It means they see us living for Christ even as we live amongst them.
Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16). A wide chasm currently exists between the church and our culture. The good news is that we have the power to change that reality.
Are you ready to be incarnational?