Incarnational Ministry in the Colony of Evangelicalism

by Scott Bessenecker

I have friends who were not born into poverty, but who have chosen to relocate into neighborhoods of desperation. I also have friends who grew up in poorly resourced areas who actively choose to remain there. These friends are committed to a ministry of incarnation – living as residents in communities where they long to see revitalization. While there may be value in those who choose to address poverty from the outside, my friends believe the best way to impact a community is to become part of it.

I feel that way about the impoverished neighborhood of Evangelicalism, one of the colonies of Empire.

Protestantism grew up as a prophetic indictment of the ways Christianity had been co-opted by Empire. The medieval Church had gotten in bed with kings and emperors and found they had become a tool of Empire to serve earthly powers. High clerical positions were purchased by those with economic power or secured by those with political power in order to secure the kingdom of this world.

American Evangelicalism today often bears the marks of Empire. We are seduced by presidential candidates and emulate the commercial corporation. Many of our large churches and ministries have adopted the methodologies of commercial enterprises, accumulating massive properties and wealth. But another reformation is on the way, and I welcome this prophetic indictment of the colonized Church. It will usher in the renewal of God’s people and bring a fresh expression of Christ’s good news to the marginalized, disenfranchised, and excluded. All those who are slaves of the empire will be refreshed by another true expression of God’s kingdom and justice.

But the medieval Church did not collapse. In fact, it experienced what is known as the counter reformation. Throughout the history of the old guard, whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, even Protestant, there have been malcontent reformers who stayed; incarnational workers who believed the best way to bring about change is from the inside.

The large public high school my kids attended has a social hierarchy very different from the high school I attended. In their school, the jocks and cheerleaders are at the bottom of the social pyramid and the glee club is at the top. The graduating class for my eldest daughter nominated the high school janitor to be the keynote speaker at their commencement exercise. Mr. Ely had served faithfully for 30 years in the halls of East High and was well-loved.

In his message, he confessed that he had lived his entire life in one zip code. He challenged graduates to settle down and love one little corner of this world for their whole lives. While every other commencement speaker in town was calling students to go out there and conquer the world, a faithful high school janitor on the eastside of Madison, Wisconsin, was calling them to radical rootedness.

The American Evangelical neighborhood is in trouble. Kingdom infidelity is rampant as the brothels of materialism are welcomed onto our street corners.

I do not blame my friends who are leaving the hood. For them, the Evangelical neighborhood has gentrified, and they can no longer afford to live here. Christianity thrives best on the margins, and they are finding more theologically affordable housing on the edge of town.

It is difficult to stay. Some of my friends harbor a little bit of animosity for those of us who remain. “Sell outs” they must think. But I am a believer in incarnational ministry, and the best kind of change often happens from the inside, even if it is less dramatic. Besides, there is still life left in Evangelicalism, particularly outside the West. It is one of the most geographically diverse expressions of the Christian faith, growing wildly in places like Iran, and our theological streams are being enriched by African, Latin American, Asian, and Indigenous enclaves within our larger community.

St. Francis lived a prophetic alternative within the spiritual ghetto of medieval Christianity, as did other great mothers and fathers of the faith in their day, as they confronted the marriage of Church and Empire within their traditions. In short order, the Protestant movement of the 1500s was co-opted by Empire, requiring other renewal movements. So will the coming reformation.

But even in the mainline communities, the Spirit persisted and flourished under the care of prophetic malcontents who remained in their traditions reminding their neighbors of the way of Christ. The stirrings of the Holy Spirit which animated reform movements also bubbled up within the traditional Church, though it is more exciting to tell the stories of new wineskins.

Like Mr. Ely, I have chosen to love one little zip code over the 35 years I have lived within Evangelicalism, despite the ghettoization and colonization of the faith. I am an incarnational minister in Evangelicalism, helping myself and my neighbors recognize our desperate poverty as well as taking stock of our assets. Together, we work toward the renewal of our neighborhood and break free from slavery to the powers of this world.

 

Scott Bessenecker (@Bessenecker) is associate director of mission for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Each year, he helps to mobilize thousands of students to high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods in the U.S. and to dozens of nations around the world. He is author or editor of five books, including his new release Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex. Scott also blogs at www.OverturningTabels.net.