Yesterday we examined the Emergent movement and its implications for Western Christianity. I have one more thing to add: over the past year, I have heard little to nothing from this movement.

Today we will examine what I call the Incarnational Movement.

The Incarnational Movement

Like Emergents, the Incarnational folks have a love/hate relationship with institutional Christianity. However, their dislike of the institutional church is based on a much more orthodox interpretation of Scripture.

The Incarnational movement wants the church to go to where the people are instead of trying to attract them to the institution. There’s nothing wrong with that. Incarnationals (most of which are only fledgling groups) send people out into the culture to spread the seeds of Christianity in coffee shops, cafes, the workforce, etc. Having a worship service and doing things to attract people to the institution aren’t central to their concern. Relationships and friendships in the neighborhoods where people live are their primary concern.  The Incarnational model is seeking to bring the church back to its historical roots and free it from its institutionally-dominated understanding of what it means to be a church.  However, taken to its ultimate conclusion, the institutional church, at best, isn’t central to their movement, and at worst, is completely unnecessary.

The primary speaker for the Incarnational group is Alan Hirsch. Hirsch’s first book, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church, should be read by every Christian who knows something is wrong with today’s version of Christianity but can’t put their finger on what it is. Throughout the book I found myself saying “Yes, but!” On one level, I envy the journey Incarnationals invite us to join. On another level, I wonder what will become of the institutional church if what they propose is followed.  They go far beyond “reshaping” or talking about innovation as is suggested on the cover of the book.

A better title for the book might be “The Rewiring of Things to Come: The Beginning of a Revolution.” Since Alan and I are friends, in an email I asked him about this alternate title. Here is his reply: “You have exposed us for the revolutionaries that we are – our cover is blown. But I have to say that I feel very flattered by your review.  Thanks for the deep affirmation I find in it…and thanks for its warnings as well.” Hirsch is one of the most authentic, passionate deep thinkers on the church scene today and he needs to be heard.

Hirsch is advocating a wholesale rewiring of 21st century Christianity back to its 1st century roots.  He shows us how to be the church without being institutional at all. He talks about a missional, incarnational, messianic, apostolic church that is found within the surrounding community rather than apart from and behind four walls. Hirsch challenges every facet of Christianity today from ordination to the traditional creeds and offers a new, but ancient, way forward.

Hirsch is quick to point out how the church flourished in China under Mao without the institution. The problem with comparing the church in the U.S. and China, though, is that public institutions were not part of the fabric of the Chinese society under Mao. Give China another 50 years, and watch the emergence of the institutional church.

In 2007 Alan was in a group of twenty-five world-class Christian leaders I gathered together at my home for two days. The topic of that gathering was the Apostolic Movement in the twenty-first century. During our time together, I interviewed Alan about his first book, The Forgotten Ways. I asked him point blank if I had read him correctly, that is, if you take what he says in the book to its logical conclusion, we should do away with all institutional churches? Although he didn’t say yes, he did say this: “You need to realize the present Protestant movement as it is today has the capacity to reach only 35 percent of the U.S. population. What are you going to do with the other 65 percent?” A valid point.

Since being in the U.S. for several years now, Alan is more open to the existence of the institutional church.  In fact, he has become a partner with what I will later call the Reproductives and has realized the megachurch is one of the best allies of the Incarnational movement.

Although I agree with Alan that most churches have forgotten what it means to be the church, I feel it’s impossible for Christianity to survive without the institution of the church in a society where institutions are part of the basic fabric of life. Like the Emergents, Incarnationals will be part of the 21st century church, but not as large a part as they think.

Question: In your opinion, what are the positive and negative aspects of the Incarnational movement? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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