Incarnation: The emerging church at Christmas

At this time of year, a quiet battle is going on. The might of the corporations against a child in a feeding trough. In pulpits across the country Christians rail helplessly against the onslaught of the ‘holiday season’. Together we watch as year by year the ‘real Christmas story’ is marginalised by the annual festival of consumption. But as emerging churches do we have any alternative that moves beyond quietly tut tut ing and getting stuck into the mince pies?

Incarnation, the mystery of God becoming man. It is the word that sums up what we are celebrating at this time of year, but also a word I hear a lot in emerging church circles. In his book ‘The Younger Evangelicals’ Robert Webber tries to map the changes going on in Christianity that are often called emerging church. One word he comes back to again and again is Incarnation. He uses terms like incarnational theology, incarnational apologetics and incarnational ecclesiology to describe the changes taking place in Christianity.

But what does Incarnation really mean for us and does it make any difference at this time of year? I spent some time looking at what different emerging church bloggers and commentators thought about all this. It didn’t take me long to come across a great quote from Jonny Baker about incarnation. He describes what Jesus did in the following way: “He immersed himself in that culture; he used the language, signs and symbols of the day to communicate the Gospel of an upside down kingdom”. Christians have so often been afraid of the cultures that surrounded them, worried about becoming contaminated. But Jesus wasn’t like that. He became flesh and blood, demonstrating his kingdom among ordinary people in the reality of their daily lives.

In the same article Jonny goes on to talk about the culture we are a part of. “Western society… is defined by consumption. You used to be what you made or what you did, but now, you are what you buy.” This shift affects every aspect of our lives and understanding it will help us as we attempt to demonstrate Gods kingdom in it. Jonny is not the only person I found thinking through these issues. A variety of Bloggers and emerging church commentators recognise the effects of consumption on both the church and wider society.

On December 1st 2003, a number of emerging church bloggers took part in a grid blog. The idea behind the grid blog was for lots of people to blog on a particular subject on the same day. The subject chosen was branding. In his blog, Andrew Jones said: “I don’t want to be known as the Puma man or the Nike man, but rather a man. I would rather avoid the pitfalls of branding and be identified by who I am as a naked man.”

Later on in the same post, he talked about a No Logo service he visited at Grace Church in Ealing. The name for the service came from Naomi Klein’s bestselling book, which looks at the development and influence of branding. The aim was to examine our worship of brand names and how this relates to the identity we find through Jesus. It included a specially written liturgy called the Big Macfession: “we are ready to enjoy a happy meal, but not to eat a meal of sadness for injustice.”

Robert Webber suggests that the emerging church is a move away from the mega churches epitomised by Saddleback in California and Willow Creek in Chicago. In his view, emerging church leaders want to distance themselves from the ‘Pastor as CEO’ model developed from the business world and move to a model inspired by servant hood. The emerging church blog, naked church certainly reflects this frustration: “we have reduced the sea of faces in our congregations and youth groups from ‘unique creations of God’ to collective ‘consumer groups’ that keep our ministries going.”

It is at this point that incarnation asks the emerging church a difficult question. If this is the effect of consumption on the church and society, do we have an alternative? The danger is always that the church will simply copy the surrounding culture. Incarnation will become replication. The business world is moving from mass production to mass customisation. If you want your imac computer, you don’t have to settle for a standard model. You can have it built to your exact specifications and even track its progress online. So is the emerging church just following this trend, moving from the ‘church as corporation’ model of the mega churches to mass customisation of church. Is the emerging church movement just church built to individual specifications for an ‘it must fit me’ generation?

Jason Clarke from the emergent network is aware of this danger. In his opinion: “Even new Christians become consumeristic about their faith very quickly. The greatest need at the moment is for authentic discipleship.” The whole ethos of the emergent network is geared around seeing Christianity as a way of life, not merely a system of beliefs. If Christianity is not a way of life it is all too easy for it to become a consumer choice that just forms part of our identity. The spiritual equivalent of Nike running trainers that only ever get used for a Saturday morning stroll to the newsagent.

James Brownson describes the theology behind this: “the bible does not regard the church as a vendor of religious services to be received by religious consumers, but as a body of people sent on God’s mission to the world… The basic change (is) from viewing salvation as something we receive to viewing salvation as something in which we participate… Our lives become swept up into something larger and greater than ourselves, into God’s purpose for the world.”

Another theologian, Tom Wright, goes on to suggest that we can draw from the example of Paul. He believes that Paul’s proclamation of Jesus as Messiah was a direct challenge to the empire of Caesar. Paul offered a nuanced critique of Roman society, praising what was good but challenged anything that threatened Jesus’ position as Lord and King. This model is helpful to our understanding of incarnation. We can be fully immersed in our society, without accepting everything it has to say.

Surely this is the challenge facing the emerging church and also the wider church. Can we grasp the challenge of the incarnation in our consumeristic society? Can we offer an alternative way of living? Can we fully immerse ourselves in our society taking on its language and symbols, but at the same time offer a prophetic challenge to false gods of consumerism? Can we offer our generation a new identity in Jesus that is more compelling and more exciting than anything offered by Nike, Gap and Disney?

One thing is certain: it won’t be easy or simple. During the grid blog on branding, another blogger, Jordan Cooper wrote this challenge to us: “are we really allowing what we know is true to change our consumer habits. For all the talk of ‘costly grace’, I wonder if we ever think of that as the cost of living out Christ’s example in our consumeristic age. I’m not sure we do or want to…”

Enjoy the mince pies.

Ben Pattison works for Christian Aid and is involved in the emergent network. In his work for Christian Aid, he has been helping to develop small group resources to enable Christians to respond to global issues. To find out more and download a free copy go to