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Incarnational Ministry in the Urban Context

Author: Soong-Chan Rah
Published: August 2012

MD 3.2

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

In recent years, the phrase “incarnational ministry” has entered the Christian vernacular as a method of engaging in urban ministry. Christian communities seeking to serve the city draw upon the example of Jesus. Jesus abandoned the heavenly places and relocated to earth and made his dwelling among us. Jesus’ incarnation becomes the theological motif for Christians who relocate to the city to minister in the city. The motif of incarnational ministry can provide a powerful theological motivation but can also be misappropriated. This essay explores the potential misapplication of the theology of the incarnation in the context of urban ministry and offers interpretations of the incarnation that seeks to strengthen the practices of the urban church.

How Do We View the City?

One of the difficulties in engaging the topic of incarnational urban ministry is defining the terms urban and city. If we were to draw upon the range of options found in Western thought for the definition of the city, we would be hard-pressed to determine one specific definition that is commonly and consistently used. One approach to the city in Western thought is the depiction of the city in abstract terms. The ability to define the city in abstract terms allows those who engage the city potentially to redefine the city on their own terms.

While cities certainly existed prior to the Greeks, it is in the Greek word for the city, polis, where the city begins to mean more than simply the collection of citizens in a defined physical location: “The Greek word for city, polis, meant far more to an Athenian . . . than a place on the map; it meant the place where people achieve unity.”1 Aristotle, in particular, begins to expand the definition of the city beyond the physical and the material. For Aristotle, the polis is not so much a location bound by geography but a destination, the end goal of human endeavor. Human partnerships and cooperation should move towards the authoritative good of all. “As we see that every city is a society and every society is established for some good purpose.”2

The end goal of the polis is not simply life lived in the context of a particular location. The polis is both the concrete concept of a political entity but also the abstract concept for collective human life and a socio-political entity. Aristotle states:

It is evident that this is the principle upon which they are every one founded, and this is more especially true of that which has for its object the best possible, and is itself the most excellent, and comprehends all the rest. Now this is called a city, and the society thereof a political society.3

Because of the heavily symbolic nature of the city, the city comes to represent more than its actual physical reality. It comes to represent the collective human endeavor.

The ongoing influence of Aristotle in urban thought is the abstraction of the city, not simply as a gathering of people within a geographic boundary but as the locus of human activity. The Greeks see the positive potential and direction of the city as a gathering of humanity moving towards a virtuous telos. As the culmination of human activity, the city has the great potential to embody the best of human life but also the worst. Western thought embodies both expressions.

Augustine follows suit in using the term city as an abstraction. For Augustine, the human city is the secular realm, existing in stark contrast to the city of God. The two cities stand in opposition to one another. The realm of the city of God is the realm of God’s dominion and authority. The human city is the work of human hands. Human cities, therefore, are viewed with a degree of suspicion. Since the true city of God is not being built in the earthly realm but in the heavenly realm, the earthly expression of a city would not yield the city of God. As Augustine writes:

The earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord. The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God.4

As Luke Bretherton summarizes, “For Augustine, the only true society and true peace exist in the city of God.”5

The cities of the earth stand in for the kingdom of earth, resulting in a rejection of the city as a potential site of redemption or as a location worth redeeming. In Augustine, there is the rejection of loyalty towards the earthly city and an embracing of loyalty to the heavenly city. Augustine’s development of a contrasting framework between God’s city and the human city furthers the abstract understanding of the city. The city is more than a location. It is a summary of human life or the transcendent work of God outside of the realm of the flesh. In Augustine’s framework, the virtuous city of God is not found in the earthly realm.

The advent of the industrial age meant that the city arrived as both an elevated and abstract philosophical and sociological concept and a heightened reality in everyday life. There would be an increasing awareness of both the positive potential of the city and the potential danger of the city. Industrialization meant that populations would increasingly move in greater numbers from an agrarian and rural setting to an industrial and urban setting.

In the twentieth century, the Augustinian perception of this division between the ungodly, secular culture and a contrasting godly culture widens. Exasperating the assumptions of this demarcation is the rapid proliferation of cities, the explosion of the global urban population, and the rapid shifting of populations towards the city. These drastic changes contribute to the sense of distinction and separation between the city and non-city regions. The sense of contrast and conflict deepens between the two worlds. This dichotomy has a problematic application in many Christian circles. The city can be viewed as the center of all that is wrong with the world, while the suburbs can be seen as what is right with the world.

For theologians Harvey Cox and Jacques Ellul, the city is often equivalent to culture, or, at minimum, the sum total of human endeavor. In a sense, both Cox and Ellul reflect the Aristotelian perspective that the city is the sum total of human life. The two theologians, however, hold vastly differing opinions regarding the value and worth of the city. As Cox writes, “In our day the secular metropolis stands as both the pattern of our life together and the symbol of our view of the world.”6 Cox’s perspective, best exemplified in The Secular City, holds the more optimistic position that the city is the culmination of all that is good about humanity. It is the height of humanism. Cox finds redemptive elements of the aggregate life of human community. The concentration of humanity in community life multiplies human goodness. “If secularization designates the content of man’s coming of age, urbanization describes the context in which it is occurring. . . . The urban center is the place of human control, of rational planning, of bureaucratic organization.”7 The secular city is to be celebrated as the good end of earthly human life.

Ellul, on the other hand, tends to hold a more pessimistic view of the city. The city is the culmination of human sinfulness. Cox’s perspective upholds the goodness of humanity (the image of God found in humanity) and the capacity to create good arising out of a good humanity. Ellul’s perspective asserts the fallenness of humanity (the reality of sin found in humanity) and the capacity to multiply sinfulness arising out of a fallen humanity. In The Presence of the Kingdom, Ellul states that “a major fact of our present civilization is that more and more sin becomes collective, and the individual is forced to participate in collective sin.”8 For Ellul, the concentration of humanity in the city is not the multiplication of human goodness but the multiplication of human sinfulness. While Cox and Ellul greatly differ on the general characteristic of the goodness or sinfulness of the city, both seem to reflect the Aristotelian approach that the city represents more than its mere physical reality but that the city gestures towards a larger and more abstract meaning. This trend continues in the writings of Graham Ward, James Dougherty, and others, who continue to use the term city to represent civilization, culture, and society.9

There is an array of opinion regarding whether a collection of humanity in the city yields a positive, virtuous end or a negative, destructive end. Despite this difference, the common method is to abstract the city to represent more than its physical and material reality. The abstraction and reification of the term city can result in an inability to engage the city in concrete and material terms. An abstract concept can be portrayed in extremes, potentially resulting in an all good or all bad perception of the city.

The city should not merely be an abstract concept that references politics or culture. Instead, we should view the city not only for what it represents (although there is a theological import of what the city represents) but for what the city actually is. The city is a gathering of people in one location that expresses the vast range of human life and activity in a particular location. The city is the city. It is the neighborhood where people are gathered together. This particular gathering of human life raises the same sense of need of any human gathering. In this way, it reflects the power of community life. It is not, however, only an abstract reality to be seen reductively through its theoretical representation.

If the city is merely an abstraction, then the response to that abstraction is another abstraction. The only legitimate change is, in this construal, further philosophical and theological abstraction and the triumph of ideas and values over any real on-the-ground changes. Urban theology then becomes an abstraction battling an abstraction; the battle of ideas. But if the city is an actual location, neighborhood, and community, urban ministry should draw from a theology that has a concrete expression. The church in the city is not merely engaging in a metaphorical battle, but it is working to bring real change in a material reality. The movement away from the city as an abstraction results in the possibility that the presence of the church shaped by Christian theology could have an impact on the city of humanity. The actual, physical realm of the city provides a place for concrete action by the church.

Limitations of Understanding the Incarnation of the Body of Christ

Applying the incarnation narrative to the urban church requires the recognition of key limitations. One of the most significant potential misapplications of the concept of incarnational ministry is that the church could mirror in every way the power and mystery of Christ’s incarnation. A key to the incarnational life of the church in the city is the awareness that the church is not the complete and perfect reflection of Jesus’ incarnation. While the church is established by Jesus as a holy institution, it is still comprised of human beings with human limitations. The church’s imitation of Christ should not be seen as a strict one-to-one correspondence between the incarnation of Jesus and the embodiment of Christ in the city through the church.

The first key limitation on the application of the incarnation is that one individual cannot fully and completely embody Christ, but rather, the individual is a part of the community that collectively embodies Christ. Western culture tends to centralize the role of the individual in society. The dominant theme of individualism in Western culture leads to the elevation of the individual as the primary force of transformation—usually in the form of the heroic individual. The image of the rugged individual called to conquer the wild frontier is a common expression of the Western individualist narrative.

The heroic and triumphant individual is not only found in Western culture but also in the context of the American church. The tendency in the church to elevate the heroic individual leads to the dysfunctional narrative of the Christian as the incarnate savior for the inner city—usually in the person of the heroic white pastor who arrives to save the urban black poor.10 The application of the incarnation, however, should never be the justification for the actions of the individual with a messiah complex. The individual does not have the capacity to single-handedly embody the Messiah, but rather it is the community that corporately embodies Christ. Western culture’s excessive individualism leads to the failure to understand that the power of the church is not in a heroic Christian individual superstar but in the community that is the body of Christ. The body of Christ must be seen in its corporate expression rather than being expressed through the individual.

A second key difference between the person of Jesus and the application of the incarnation to the body of Christ is the limitation of the authority of the church. Jesus’ authority as the Messiah finds its full expression in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ fulfillment as the king is the full eschatological realization of God’s kingdom and Christ’s kingship in that kingdom. Jesus expresses his authority in the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:18–20).11 Jesus proclaims his authority, and the charge to the disciples arises out of that authority. Yet, the Great Commission does not automatically transmit that full authority to the church. It is passed on to the church to make disciples. The temptation is to see the church with the fullness of God’s authority as the body of Christ. However, in the same way that the incarnation of Jesus gestures towards the eschatological fulfillment of Christ’s return, the body of Christ in the in-between space reflects the authority of Jesus, but that authority prioritizes the making of disciples of Jesus.

For example, John Howard Yoder outlines the three-fold office of Jesus in Preface to Theology: prophet, priest, and king.12 A misinterpretation of the doctrine of the incarnation would be to see the church as the incarnation of Jesus’ role as the king. The main expression of the church as the body of Christ should be seen in the servant role that shapes all three expressions of Jesus’ messiahship. In The Politics of Jesus, Yoder writes:

There is thus but one realm in which the concept of imitation holds—but there it holds in every strand of the New Testament literature and all the more strikingly by virtue of the absence of parallels in other realms. This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility. Thus—and only thus—are we bound by New Testament thought to “be like Jesus.”13

The goal of the incarnate body of Christ in the city is not to grab for earthly power but to be a servant for the city. This prevailing notion of the body of Christ as a servant does not preclude the possibility of prophetic witness and challenge to the powers that be in the city. The church has the responsibility to stand in prophetic opposition to evil in the city. However, the servant nature of the body of Christ precludes the possibility that the church would replace the earthly kingdom and become an earthly power. The pursuit of earthly power, therefore, leads to the name of Jesus being inappropriately appropriated, with the doctrine of the incarnation manipulated by fallen humans for the sake of earthly power.

The key limitation in applying the incarnation of Jesus to the work of the church in the city is, therefore, to understand that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between Jesus, the physical body of Christ, and the church, the spiritual body of Christ. A popular misapplication of the doctrine of the incarnation is the positioning of the affluent suburbanite in the place of Christ. The affluent suburbanite is called to live out the incarnation by moving into the city to live among the poor. This misapplication puts the affluent (usually white) American in the place of divinity, bringing salvation to the poor (usually people of color) in the city. Incarnation is co-opted to further the privileged position of white suburbanites.

Jesus embodies divinity in his individual personhood, but no individual person in the church embodies Jesus in the city. Furthermore, the body of Christ has an authority that comes from Jesus’ total authority. The church’s identity and authority is a derivative identity and authority. The level of authority that Jesus has over the world is not the level of authority that the church has in the world. Limitations in correlation and application of the incarnation of the body of Jesus to the body of Christ in the city must be recognized.

The Urban Church as the Body of Christ

Being aware of these limitations, it is still possible to formulate positive correlations between our theological understanding of the incarnation and the role of the church in the city. The Scriptures attest to the defining of the church as the body of Christ. First Corinthians 12 claims that the church is one body composed of many parts, as it is with Christ (12:12–14). The passage concludes with the proclamation in verse 27 that “now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” In Eph 4:12 and 5:23, there is a direct correlation between the church and the body of Christ. Finally, in Colossians, there is the assertion that Jesus is the head of his body, which is the church (1:18, 24) and that the whole body depends on connection with the head of the church (2:19). In each of these passages, we see the biblical understanding that the church is to be the ongoing embodiment of Christ. There is also the suggestion that the church is an organic being, a body that reflects the characteristics of the human body. Furthermore, the body that is the church relies upon the head of the church, which is Jesus. The image of an organic body that draws her identity from the body of Jesus is made explicit in these New Testament passages.

Given this connection in the Scriptures, this essay will explore three areas of application, with the understanding that additional applications are possible. First, the act of incarnation required humility that is characterized by a downward mobility. Second, the incarnation of Jesus reflects the heart of God to make his dwelling among us and to relate to us as his companions. Third, the movement of the incarnation required the embracing of suffering by Jesus. All three characteristics of the incarnation yield a model of how the body of Christ, the church, can relate to the city.

Furthermore, while the body of Christ is often understood metaphorically, true embodiment would require concrete and actual practices and actions. Our understanding of urban ecclesiology begins with the biblical motif of the body of Christ and the implication of this motif for urban ministry, not only as an abstracted theology but as authentic practices. It is through the practices of the church that the embodiment of Christ occurs in the city. As Sam Wells writes in Improvisation, the church needs to develop right practices and habits, “trusting itself to embody its traditions in new and often challenging circumstances.”14 The practices of the church in the city are urgently necessary given the number of potential crises in the urban context. Each of the three categories reflects the practices that arise from a theology of the incarnation. The emphasis will be on the important connection between Jesus’ body and the body of Christ, the church in the city.

The challenge of the Scripture is to see the church as the body of Christ, united and incarnate in the world. The promise of the Scripture is that Christ’s embodiment in the church could place the church on a trajectory of healthy engagement with the city. What Christians are not able to accomplish individually, the church as a body could accomplish corporately. The narrative of the incarnate body of Christ becomes the positive model for the practices of the urban church.

The incarnation as downward mobility

One of the central characteristics of the incarnation is God’s movement from the heavenly places to the earthly realm. This reflects God’s downward mobility and the associative laying down of power. This surrender of power provides a vivid example for the church to follow. In the same way that Jesus reflected humility in the emptying of his privilege and power, the church is also called to empty herself of privilege and power. The incarnational body of Christ should embody the ongoing laying down of power and privilege, rather than a seeking of greater power and privilege. If the focus of the church becomes the increase of the church’s power in this world, then the church no longer reflects the incarnation of Jesus. If, however, the church uses power for the benefit of the lame, the blind, and the sick, then the life of Jesus is embodied in the body of Christ.

The embodiment of Christ in the city must reflect the humble example of Jesus’ authority, which is best embodied as an act of servanthood on behalf of others. As Yoder explains:

Servanthood is not a position of nonpower or weakness. It is an alternative mode of power. It is also a way to make things happen, also a way to be present. When we turn from coercion to persuasion, from self-righteousness to service, this is not a retreat but an end run. It brings to bear powers which, on balance, are stronger than the sword alone.15

Jesus’ incarnation required his emptying himself of the privileges of heavenly power and majesty. The act of yielding privilege was not a false humility but an act of true servanthood. This self-emptying, even to the point of death on a cross, is the full expression of God’s love. The incarnation was not a short-term, half-hearted response to the reality of human existence. The practices of the church, therefore, should reflect the genuine humility required by the incarnation. Are Christian communities able and willing to yield privilege in the same manner that Jesus laid down his privilege? In the current context of the American church, power tends to speak more loudly than humility. Prominence in American Evangelicalism tends to focus on success oftentimes based on Western, capitalist concepts.

By measuring success by mostly American values, heroes are created of those who succeed by Western culture’s standards rather than biblical standards that arise out of the example of Jesus’ incarnation. Upward mobility in American society is the norm more than the downward mobility exemplified by the incarnation of Jesus. Pastors and churches that measure up to the American definitions of success become the examples and models for the Evangelical community. Success in an upper-middle-class, white, suburban community in the United States usually entitles American pastors to apply their systems, ideas, and values to a poor, starving, war-torn nation with the same expectation of material success.16 The true value of the incarnation, the process of yielding power and privilege, gets lost in the process of grabbing for material success.

American churches tend to reinforce a system of privilege. The power of the body of Christ is the capacity to go against the existing power structures and to present a counter-cultural model of engagement. The incarnation of Christ offers the model of downward mobility, which becomes the model of engagement for the urban body of Christ. How can urban churches engage in downward mobility? Our attitude and mindset should be the same as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5–8)

The church, therefore, should maintain an attitude of humility that would prioritize the needs of the community and neighborhood over its own needs—the same attitude that led Jesus to go to extreme lengths in order to be a part of the lives of the other—even to the point of total self-sacrifice. The church in the city should engage in the practice of downward mobility through the proactive and thoughtful sharing of their resources with the community. Given the example of Jesus, the church could do no less than engage in the corresponding act of self-sacrifice.

The Incarnation as Being-With

The drastic and humble act of downward mobility reveals the depth of love required by God towards his children. At the heart of the incarnation is God’s deliberate movement towards us. God is expressing his desire to be in our midst, because he enjoys being in our midst. It is the undeserved work of grace that operates as the fullness of God’s love. To use the language of Sam Wells and Marcia Owen, it is the sense of God wanting to be with us. “The incarnation marks the moment when God’s mode of presence moves definitively from being for to being with.”17 If the act of incarnation is seen as part of God’s supreme sacrifice, then the motivation of incarnation is God’s desire to be with his children. Jesus’ life, therefore, is not only seen in light of his actions, but also in light of the desire that underlies his actions.

Jesus’ example reveals the ongoing act of self-sacrifice for the sake of his relationship with us. As Wells and Owen describe:

He spent thirty years in Nazareth being with us, setting aside plans and strategies, and experiencing in his own body not just the exile and oppression of the children of Israel living under the Romans but also the joy and sorrow of family and community life. We don’t know the details of this period, but that silence all the more suggests it was not a time of major working with or working for, with whose narration the Gospel writers are largely concerned.18

One of the key expressions of the body of Christ in the city is the living with and the working with the people of the city. The Christian understanding of the incarnation of Jesus often glosses over a significant part of the story. A potential misinterpretation of the Scriptures is to argue from silence. One of the key ways that the argument from silence is employed is the silence afforded the thirty years of Jesus’ life prior to his public ministry. Scripture’s silence about Jesus’ pre-ministry years has meant that Christians may see those years as irrelevant. A common assumption would be that there would be more of a public record if Jesus’ life prior to his last three years were significant years. The argument from silence would project that the Scripture’s silence means that the mundane and everyday portion of Jesus’ life has little to no importance. Incarnation, however, requires that we walk alongside the other in the everyday aspects of life. God is found not only in the signs, wonders, and miracles of Jesus’ ministry years, but also in the mundane life of being a carpenter in a small town in Palestine. The body of Jesus is found in the midst of the mundane.

The tendency in urban ministry is to gravitate towards the fantastic success stories. Urban ministry conferences consistently highlight the story of the drug addict who got clean, the welfare mom who is now earning big bucks, and the urban pastor who orchestrated the whole thing. Dostoevsky’s story of the Grand Inquisitor reveals the desire of the masses to hear the fantastic stories.19 Henri Nouwen writes about one of the key temptations of Jesus being the temptation to grab attention with a pyrotechnic display of power.20 But understanding the incarnation is about moving deeper into the life of Jesus to see the work of God in its mundane aspects. The incarnation, therefore, requires the living with to be not only in the places of success but also in the mundane, everyday aspects of life, even the painful and suffering aspects.

The motivation of the incarnation, therefore, challenges the church in its practice of ministry in the urban context. Because the body of Jesus incarnate in the world reflects a desire to be with us, the body of Christ’s incarnation in the city should reflect a desire to be with the people of the city. The motivation to serve the city arises not out of a messianic expectation of triumphant victory over the city but the real benefit of being a companion to the poor and a friend to the citizens of the city. “Being with disadvantaged people means experiencing in your own life something of what it is to be disempowered and oppressed. It means setting aside your plans and strategies for change, and simply feeling with disadvantaged people the pain of their situation.”21 Wells and Owen describe the incarnation of the body of Christ among the poor as the full embodiment of God’s people in the city. Incarnation is not only for the benefit of the city, but also for the benefit of the body of Christ.

Underlying the church’s desire to become a companion to the poor in the city is the recognition that God is already present and at work in the urban community. Incarnation, therefore, must be understood in the context of the missio Dei. The term missio Dei arises from the understanding of God’s preexisting and ongoing mission in the world. “Mission is, primarily and ultimately, the work of the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, for the sake of the world, a ministry in which the church is privileged to participate.”22 From the very beginning, it has been God at work reaching out to lost humanity. God’s voice ringing out, “Where are you?” in the Garden of Eden is a reminder that God pursues and looks for us. “Mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.”23 When we consider the role of the church in the city, we must acknowledge that God’s plan of redemption has been at work before the church even existed.

Acts 10 provides an example of God’s preexisting work in the life of Cornelius before the “missionary” makes his appearance. The Apostle Peter is hesitant to minister to Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Peter is dealing with an underlying sense of superiority because of his Jewish identity. But God had already been at work in Cornelius’s life. Not only had Cornelius been seeking God through his generosity, but God himself had already appeared to Cornelius. God, therefore, communicates to Peter: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). When Peter does come to minister to Cornelius, he recognizes that God had already been at work and recognizes that these Gentile believers will receive the same baptism as the Jewish believers. “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right’ ” (Acts 10:34–35). God’s mission was being fulfilled among the Gentiles and Peter was allowed to participate in the mission of God. If mission is God’s work, then God’s plan is manifest not only in those being sent out into the city, but God is already at work within those in the city.24

The incarnation of the body of Christ in the city, therefore, means that the church recognizes the preexisting work of God in the city. The introduction of a new church body into the body of the city requires the permission of the host community. The preexisting work of the body of Christ must be acknowledged and honored. The incarnation of the church in the city is not an invasion based upon assumptions of cultural superiority but a seeking of how God is already at work in the community. As Wells states:

In learning how to proclaim the faith to a local culture, the Church discovers the signs and signals of its neighbourhood, and can rediscover the significance of the universality of the gospel while appreciating the particularity of the incarnation. . . . There is also an analogy between one’s understanding of the role of the church in a neighbourhood, the leader in a church, and the perception of God’s activity in the world.25

The incarnation acknowledges the preexisting work of God that prepares the city to receive the ongoing work of God.

Incarnation as Suffering

Our first two categories seem to reflect a chronological, even a linear understanding of the incarnation. We see God’s motivation for the act of incarnation and see the corresponding act of downward mobility to fulfill that motivation. However, understanding the incarnation requires comprehension of its full range of actions and motivations. The motivation to make his dwelling among us is a critical one, but the incarnation must also be seen in light of the cross, as well as the resurrection, ascension, and triumphant return. Incarnation without an eye towards the cross is naïve. The incarnation of Jesus points towards the fullness of his work in the world.

The outworking of the entirety of God’s plan required the incarnation. Not only because he wanted to draw close to us, make his dwelling among us, and to call us his friends but because the incarnation created the possibility of the full work of Christ. God wanting to “be with us” is not unrelated to God wanting to “work for us.” God’s work for us required not only the downward mobility of the incarnation, but also the suffering of the cross. The purpose of the incarnation, therefore, must be seen in its full widescreen reality. The incarnation is the declarative statement that God’s plan of redemption has begun. The movement of God is the movement from heaven to earth, but it is also the movement from the manger to the cross and to the empty tomb.

Because the understanding of Christ’s incarnation must encompass the suffering of Jesus at the cross, the body of Christ in the city must be willing to engage and even experience suffering. Shusaku Endo reflects on a non-Western approach to the incarnation which does not focus on triumphalism. The incarnation moves towards suffering and the model and example of suffering that is expected of the church. Endo states,

The religious mentality of the Japanese is—just as it was at the time when the people accepted Buddhism—responsive to one who “suffers with us” and who “allows for our weakness,” but their mentality has little tolerance for any kind of transcendent being who judges humans harshly, then punishes them. In brief, the Japanese tend to seek in their gods and buddhas a warm-hearted mother rather than a stern father . . . , the kind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus.26

Endo’s description of Jesus focuses on not only an incarnation that is a being with but also a suffering with. The work of the incarnation is both the work of suffering for us and suffering with us. “On every page of the Gospels we see an image of Jesus trying to share in all the sorrows of misfortunate men and women.”27 The incarnate body of Christ is the suffering body of Christ in the city.


Western history and philosophy’s abstraction of the city results in the perception of the city apart from its material importance. The church relates to the metaphorical city in abstractions rather than concrete practices. Theological motifs such as the incarnation are applied haphazardly with a range of options for the Christian engaged in urban ministry. If the city is viewed in its material worth with a direct connection to actual human bodies as Sennett suggests, the response of the church is rooted in the concrete reality of the incarnation. The concrete reality of the incarnation should result in actual practices for the ongoing incarnation of Christ, which is the church. Recognizing that the incarnation requires downward mobility calls the church in the city to seek opportunities for self-emptying, humility, power-yielding, and servanthood. Acknowledging that the motivation for the incarnation is the desire to be in community and relationship with the other should lead the church to practice depth in human relationships and to see God already at work in the life of the city. And finally, since the incarnation moves towards the cross, the church is called to embrace rather than shun suffering. While there is still significant latitude in how the theology of the incarnation can be applied to the body of Christ, we can begin to see the foundational principles and practices that help to define the church in the city as the ongoing incarnation of the body of Christ.

Soong-Chan Rah is the Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL.


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Gordon, Wayne. Real Hope in Chicago: The Incredible Story of How the Gospel Is Transforming a Chicago Neighborhood. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Guder, Darrell, ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. The Gospel and Our Culture Series. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Nouwen, Henri. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad, 1989.

Phillips, Michael. “In Swaziland, U.S. Preacher Sees His Dream Vanish.” The Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2005.

Rah, Soong-Chan. Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church. Chicago: Moody, 2011.

Sennett, Richard. Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. New York: Norton, 1994.

Ward, Graham. Cities of God. Radical Orthodoxy. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Wells, Samuel. Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004.

Wells, Samuel, and Marcia Owen. Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence. Resources for Reconciliation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011.

________. “Ministry on an Urban Estate.” Lecture presented at The National Readers’ Course, Duke University, Durham, NC, August 2001.

White, Randy. Journey to the Center of the City: Making a Difference in an Urban Neighborhood. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996.

Wilkinson, Bruce. The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life. Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000.

Yoder, John Howard. For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

________. The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.

________. Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002.

1 Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (New York: Norton, 1994), 39.

2 Aristotle, Politics: A Treatise on Government, trans. William Ellis (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1912), The Project Gutenberg EBook edition,, book 1, chapter 1.

3 Ibid.

4 Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin, 1972), 593.

5 Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilites of Faithful Witness (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 83.

6 Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 1.

7 Ibid., 4.

8 Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom. trans. Olive Wyon (New York: Seabury, 1967), 13.

9 See James Dougherty, The Fivesquare City: The City in the Religious Imagination (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980) and Graham Ward, Cities of God, Radical Orthodoxy (New York: Routledge, 2000).

10 See Ray Bakke and Jim Hart, The Urban Christian: Effective Ministry in Today’s Urban World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1987); Wayne Gordon, Real Hope in Chicago: The Incredible Story of How the Gospel Is Transforming a Chicago Neighborhood (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995); Randy White, Journey to the Center of the City: Making a Difference in an Urban Neighborhood (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996).

11 All Scripture citations are taken from Today’s New International Version.

12 John Howard Yoder, Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002), 235ff.

13 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 131; emphasis added.

14 Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004), 12.

15 John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 191.

16 One of the more explicit examples can be found in the story of Bruce Wilkinson, author of The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000). The Wall Street Journal reports that “in 2002 Bruce Wilkinson, a Georgia preacher whose self-help prayer book had made him a rich man, heard God’s call, moved to Africa and announced his intention to save one million children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.” Wilkinson proposed a $190 million project called the “African Dream Village” to be built in Swaziland. It would provide homes for 10,000 orphans. Each home would have a bed-and-breakfast suite where tourists would pay $500 a week to stay, combining charity with an African vacation. Fifty such homes would form a mini-village of 1,000 orphans, built around a theme—such as Wild West rodeos or Swazi village life—to entertain guests. There would also be a new luxury hotel and an 18-hole golf course. Orphans would be trained as rodeo stars and safari guides at nearby game reserves. The idea, Mr. Wilkinson said, was to “try to bring experiences to the kids they could only get at Walt Disney or a dude ranch.” Wilkinson’s demands to the Swazi government for a 99-year lease for prime real estate were rebuffed. “In October [2005], Mr. Wilkinson resigned in a huff from the African charity he founded. He abandoned his plan to house 10,000 children in a facility that was to be an orphanage, bed-and-breakfast, game reserve, bible college, industrial park and Disneyesque tourist destination in the tiny kingdom of Swaziland.” See Michael Phillips, “In Swaziland, U.S. Preacher Sees His Dream Vanish,” The Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2005.

17 Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owen, Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence, Resources for Reconciliation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011), 41.

18 Ibid., 42–43.

19 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Modern Library, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Random House, 1995).

20 Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad, 1989).

21 Wells and Owen, 36–37; emphasis original.

22 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 392.

23 Darrell Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 4.

24 Soong-Chan Rah, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church (Chicago: Moody, 2011), 29–32.

25 Samuel Wells, “Ministry on an Urban Estate” (lecture, The National Readers’ Course, Duke University, Durham, NC, August 2001).

26 Shusaku Endo, A Life of Jesus, trans. Richard Schuchert (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1978), 1.

27 Ibid., 11.

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