Open up any systematic theology and you will find a chapter on the incarnation. This chapter will usually revolve around metaphysical issues including anthropology, the Trinity, and discussion over the contradiction between categories of humanity and divinity. What you probably won’t find in that chapter is discussion about how incarnation informs our mission. Hugh Halter addresses that problem in Flesh: Bringing the Incarnation Down to Earth.
Hugh Halter is probably best known for his book The Tangible Kingdom, a primer for living in missional kingdom oriented communities; in this book he puts a bit more flesh to that concept.
This book is broken up into six sections. The first section, “Incarnation,” explores what we mean when we talk about Christ’s incarnation and what it means for us to be incarnational as a faith community. The second section, “Reputation,” is probably the most helpful section of the book. Here Halter explores the ins and outs of how one goes about being incarnational. A major part of being incarnational is earning a reputation in a community that gives you authority to speak into the deeper issues of people’s lives. You do this by avoiding shallow religiosity, planting yourself down in a community long term, working well, and practicing hospitality. Doing these things goes a very long way and actually set us up for having the type of conversations he describes in the third section, “Conversation.” As we incarnate God’s presence in the world our conversations must be filled with truth, but they must also be filled with grace. We must also learn not to point people to our church or to our religion. We must learn to point people to Jesus first. This means that the name of King Jesus must constantly been on our lips, and we must ooze out the gospel in our conversations. Eventually these conversations lead to a confrontation; the next section is aptly name “Confrontation.” It only consists of one chapter, but it’s a very important one. It’s the chapter that most people are probably waiting for (“when are we going to talk about evangelism!”). Halter makes the important point that this final step – evangelism – is supposed to be a spirit led and inspired moment. He concludes this book with a section titled, “Transformation,” where he addresses the issue of conversion without discipleship.
- The book is filled with great stories that help put “flesh” to the ideas he is writing about.
- He clearly communicates the notion that incarnational ministry is not easy and that it takes a lot of time and work.
- He does not “church bash” – at times these sorts of books tend towards a “the church has it all wrong” attitude; that attitude is absent in this book.
- Halter briefly addresses this, but many have written about how “incarnational ministry” is actually a category mistake. They argue that “incarnation” is unique to Christ’s role, thus we cannot be “incarnational.” This might not be the book to address those types of issues, but I think Halter could have spoken a bit more to it.
- The chapter on confrontation tends to overlook some important parts of scripture – Halter says that “Jesus never tried to confront someone. They always tended to confront themselves.” Halter holds this up as a model for Christians when they interact with friends and family who are making poor choices. I am pretty sure that Jesus did confront people, however he knew how to confront them well. We cannot simply let people “confront themselves” because there are certainly times, especially within the church, that we need to confront one another.
Hugh Halter has written an excellent book describing what it looks like to live incarnationally. There is much wisdom here, especially for those who want to jump quickly into “sealing the deal.” We need to learn to slow down, do life with people, and earn a position to speak the gospel into people’s lives. That slowing down and doing life is the “incarnational part.” I think Hugh is right, we need to learn to be more like Jesus who spent 30 years “moving into the neighborhood” before he began preaching about the Kingdom.
May we learn to “move into the neighborhood,” learn the community’s rhythms, learn what is “good news” for our friends and neighbors, before we begin preaching a gospel that makes no sense to them…
(Note: I received a advanced copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley and David C. Cook in exchange for an impartial review)