Incarnate Leadership – A Philosophy Of Ministry

A few years ago Washington State passed a law that made it illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving.  This forced all of us to go out and buy Bluetooth headsets so we can continue our conversations legally while driving.  I, however, did not want to conform.  Instead, if I saw a cop while driving, I would quickly throw my phone on the floor of my car forcing the person on the other side of the phone to think I had just gotten into a horrific accident.  I admit, this wasn’t the best solution, but I just couldn’t bring myself to gluing one of those things to my ear.

It’s not like I’m against technology.  I love technology.  I religiously follow the latest Mac rumors and subscribe to Engadget.  I think the reason why I was so afraid of strapping a headset to my ear was because I was afraid of becoming, that guy.

You know who I’m talking about?  That guy with the slicked back hair and expensive suit that comes strolling into Starbucks talking loudly on his Bluetooth.  He’s really important and wants all of us to know it.  He’ll order his drink and the pour barista can’t figure out if he’s talking to her or the Bluetooth.  He doesn’t even bother looking her in the eye.  He gets impatient when his quad shot, skim, no foam, 184 degree caramel latte takes longer than five seconds to prepare.  That guy is rude, arrogant, loud, and obnoxious.   In short, that guy is a real tool.  I know it doesn’t make sense but fears rarely do and I was afraid of becoming that guy.

Unfortunately, I had a similar feeling creep into my brain when I began investigating Jesus.  I was interested in Christ but nervous about becoming a Christian.  I was so scared that if I trusted Jesus with my life, I would turn into that guy.  You know what I mean?  That guy who pickets abortion clinics and hates gay people.  That guy who thinks Bush is the fourth member of the trinity.  That guy who loves to debate, has no sense of humor, and loves bringing up theology while everyone else is just trying to watch the game.  That guy who is rude, arrogant, combatant, and elitist.  Now stick with me, this will become redemptive.  (I hope)

What I needed was more than information about God.  I had a Bible and understood the gospel but I was still unwilling to give him my life.  I needed to see how it worked.  I needed to watch theology with skin on.  I needed to see this lived out.  I am realizing that I am not alone.  In fact, God realized this long before I did.

 “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.  We saw the glory with our own eyes,”  -John 1:14 (Msg)

 We have always been a people that need more than just information about God.  We need to see how faith is lived out and makes a difference.  Now, more than ever, people are desperate to see how we treat our wives, what’s saved on our DVR, and what we spend our money on much more than what we believe.  This is why the Bible is filled with stories instead of bullet points.  This is why God sent his son instead of a pamphlet.  This is why God wants a relationship from us more than our allegiance.  This is why Jesus didn’t wait to arrive after the printing press or mass media.  This is the need for incarnate leadership.

 More Than Moral

This incarnate way of leading others is more than just following a set of rules for others to see.  Our goal is not to place our selves on a moral pedestal for others to admire.  We all know the neighbor that keeps his grass mowed and takes his family to church but we wouldn’t want to spend much time with.  Incarnate leadership is the ability to share not only our success stories but our failures as well.  In fact, don’t we learn far more from stories of failure anyway?  The apostle Paul (a fairly significant leader in the Bible) puts it this way:

 “so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe”  -1 Tim. 1:16 (emphasis mine)

 Paul was a tremendous leader and yet realized the power of leading from weakness.  Earlier, he lists all of the embarrassing, ugly things he had done in the past.  He then says how God will use this as a sort of “rough draft” for others to follow.  Paul is of course, not asking his followers to repeat his mistakes, nor is he condoning his actions.  The great leader is simply sharing himself- bumps, bruises, and all.  It is within this messy, mistake-ridden faith the gospel is understood.  Paul displays a faith with warts on it.

As incarnate leaders, we must have the courage to share what following Jesus really looks like to those around us.  I worry about the polished and perfect presentations we create behind big screen TV’s on Sunday morning.  Are we unintentionally communicating a faith that is unrealistic and unapproachable?  Do people walk away disenchanted and defeated because their insides don’t look like the Pastor’s outsides?  When we communicate a flawed faith, it sparks hope in those around and ultimately points to the grace of Jesus.

People Are Not Projects

Sometimes I miss the days I was in sales.  Life seemed simple and quantifiable.  At the end of each workday I could easily look up how much I sold and how much money I made.  I’d drive home every day either proud of my accomplishments or disappointed by my failure.  Either way, there was a sense of completeness after a long workday.

Unfortunately, we don’t get this luxury with people.

People are not projects we just solve and then move on to the next.  We all know life is messier than that.  See, the problem with treating people like projects from a spiritual perspective is that we reduce them to a list of problems to be solved.  If people are projects, we care more about results than relationship.  It’s simpler that way.  Less messy.  After all, compassion takes its toll.  That’s why we go oversees on a mission trip for a week to evangelize but don’t know our neighbor’s name.  It’s why we give people a Christian book to read rather than open our lives up so they may see Christ.  It’s why that cheapskate customer leaves a spiritual laws tract instead of a tip for the hard working waitress.

People are not projects.
And neither are you.

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”  At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.  -John 5:6-9

At first glance, this story seems typical.  Jesus heals yet another one in need.  A grand miracle occurs and it looks like the only prerequisite was willingness.  Project complete.  Or so I thought.  See, after the healed paralytic is walking around, he is questioned by some religious types:

So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?” The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.  -John 5:12,13

Did you catch that?  The healed man doesn’t have a clue who Jesus was.  He doesn’t even know Jesus’ name and he certainly doesn’t know He is God.  But that’s not the crazy part.  The crazy part of the story is that Jesus is okay with that.  Jesus heals the man for the sake of healing him.  He addresses the need and that was enough for now.  Perhaps the man wasn’t quite ready for a leap of faith.  Maybe a jog down the street was on the forefront of his mind for now.  Faith is left incomplete. God is patient with the process.

I am always struck by how long it took the disciples to grasp the gospel.  Just when you think Peter has it figured out, he asks the most elementary of questions, and Jesus walked alongside him the entire way.  If God is not in a hurry to move onto the next “project”, why are we?  Incarnate leadership means that a “successful” day of outreach could simply be learning someone’s name.  It means we are free to laugh, and enjoy each other, because the “project” doesn’t need to be completed today.  It means being less hung up on the end goal and allowing God to be a part of the journey.  It means faith looks more like a direction than a destination.  Simply put, incarnate leadership takes time because it cannot be quickly understood.  What changes us is often what is caught rather than taught.  Incarnate leadership always leans toward quality over quantity.  Oh, and it has a way of sticking as well.  That’s why Jesus spent three long years with a mere twelve men and the world was turned upside down.

 A “Yes” Face

I read a fun story about Thomas Jefferson a few months ago.  The story goes that President Jefferson was riding with a group horseback when they came upon a flooded river.  There at the rivers edge was a wayfarer.  The wayfarer watched as some of Jefferson’s company rode by forging the river on their horses until the President came along.  The wayfarer asked the President for a ride across and Jefferson agreed.  On the other side of the river, one of Jefferson’s men asked the wayfarer why he chose the President for a ride across the river to which he responded,  “The President?  I didn’t know he was the President.  I just know that on certain men’s faces is written the word, ‘No.’ and on others is the word, ‘Yes.’  His was a Yes face.”

Isn’t that so true?  Have you ever wondered why you tell certain people your junk and others you just smile and nod?  I’m not talking about the safe, politically correct mistakes like swearing after stubbing our toe.  I’m speaking of those dark, ugly, “it’s all my fault” kind of mistakes. What specifically do we see in those that cause us to feel safe, accepted, and understood?  What does a “Yes face” look like?  Incarnate leadership means we must learn to be approachable.

The Mundane Matters

I’m realizing every human interaction I have moves me closer to or further from becoming an approachable person.  What you think is just a meaningless interaction could be the very thing that sticks out in the mind of a friend that is considering sharing with you.  Even the jokes we make about homosexuals, Mormons, and the mentally handicapped are subtle ways we communicate our level of acceptance.

This is why I first approached Jesus.  His reputation is irrefutable.  I kept reading story after beautiful story of how he touched a leper or forgave a prostitute.  These stories began building hope in my young search.  I particularly enjoy these words from Jesus:

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  -Matt. 9:12,13

So what’s your reputation?  How do you treat the woman who made your coffee or the friend that cheated on his wife?  What’s your response to the young man who bagged your groceries or the woman that’s coming out of the closet?  Because, like it or not, you’re building a reputation.  Since incarnate leadership means we lead from our lives, we don’t ever clock out.  It’s our character people follow rather than our title.  Perhaps this is what Paul was getting at when he said:

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. -1 Thess. 2:8

 

Validating Virtues

A few years ago, my wife and I lead a couples group that met at our house.  It was a diverse group of couples with a variety of different spiritual beliefs and backgrounds.  My favorite couple was the Baxter’s.  The husband, Tom was an agnostic / Buddhist that remained very skeptical to Christianity.  Throughout the months we met, I was continually inspired and encouraged by the Baxter’s marriage.  They are really good at creating hobbies and friend groups they both enjoy.  This happened to be the very same thing my wife and I have always struggled with so we were able to learn from them.  Looking back, I think this humility to point out the good in their lives rather than slapping the “non-Christian” label on them was paramount to the Baxter’s coming to a faith in Jesus.  It tore down the “me vs. you” dynamic and leveled the playing field.  Instead of being disregarded, they were validated.  The dividing line between pastor and parishioner was blurred.  We became just people with our own individual weaknesses and strengths discovering God together.

I notice this same humility in the story Jesus tells of the Good Samaritan.  Three people pass by an injured man but only the Samaritan stops to help.  Jesus purposely chose the Samaritan because in that culture this kind of person represented the outcast, marginalized, and even evil.  Yet, we know this story as the “Good Samaritan”.  Jesus does not seem bothered to point out the good in others different from us.  Jesus was unthreatened by the differences in others. Instead, he encouraged that which was true and right in the people around him.  It was stories just like this that spread grace to those uncertain seekers listening in.  A “yes face” broke through loud and clear.  Who are those around you with different beliefs or lifestyles you can point out the good in?  Perhaps the gay couple you disagree with has elements of their relationship healthier than yours?  What if the Muslim coworker in your life can teach you a stronger work ethic?  Recognizing the good takes humility.  It requires we stop staring at the line dividing our beliefs from theirs and put to rest our religious territorialism.

 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. -Eph. 4:3

Divine Distractions

We wear busyness like a badge of honor so I realize this might be a tough one.  Making margin in our lives can be a constant struggle.  However, I just can’t get past the fact that most of Jesus’ miracles did not come in the form of prearranged appointments, or strategically planned events.  Most of Jesus’ miracles came from distractions, interruptions, and even annoyances.  Instead of looking for those in need, most of them came running to His feet.  The needy must have known he wasn’t too busy for them.  They must have heard a rumor that this man would make time for even me.

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him.  Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”  The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”  Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.  “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”  Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.  –Matt. 20:29-34

Listen, I know we all desperately want to be important and needed but what if our ambition has accidentally communicated the message, “I’m too busy for you.”  Who have you sent that message to lately?  When we talk to people, do they get our undivided attention or are we looking over their shoulder?  Do we get annoyed easily?  Are their people in our lives we treat like inconveniences?  We become more approachable as we allow God to divinely distract us.  Incarnate leadership means we consistently allow God to be a part of our everyday life.  It’s the discipline to wake up every morning and say, “God, I know you’re doing things today, can I be a part of it?”

Shift & Sent

Finally, incarnate leadership means we are sent.  Just as God sent his son we are sent into the culture.  If mere information does not work then it is our responsibility to go.  Often where He sends us can be uncomfortable and unsafe but Jesus’ command still stands.

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.  –Matt. 28:19,20

However, before we go, we must make four mental shifts:

  1. How to – Want to Shift

We know enough.  We’ve heard enough sermons.  We must repent and realize the reason we don’t reach our culture is because we don’t really feel like it.  We must no longer be distracted by the latest Christian conference or debate and become distracted by our friends that do not know Jesus.

2.  Protection – Proclamation Shift

We must lay down our need to continually defend the faith and lovingly share it.  We must be willing to get our hands dirty, be confronted with temptation and come home smelling like smoke because God came down from heaven for us.

3.  Coming – Going Shift

We must shift our budget, perspective, and focus from a “come and see” model to a “go and serve” one.  Lets face it, the culture isn’t exactly knocking down the church’s door to meet Jesus no matter how many Easter eggs we drop from the sky.  We must go to them.  We must enter their turf on their terms and look for ways to love.

4.  Relevance – Influence Shift1

We can condemn, critique, and even copy culture all we want but the only way to actually change anything is to create culture.  We are made in the image of the Creator and have received his Spirit within us.  Lets lay down the posture of battling culture and begin constructing something new. 2 Only then will we regain the influence in our city that has been lost.

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. -1 Cor. 9:22,23

 Final Thoughts

I know we all want to seem important and impressive.  I know we want to feel accomplished and successful.  I know we want things done efficiently and quickly.

But that is not Jesus.

He is wonderfully approachable.  He opened his life up.  He entered our world and He walked with friends for years.  He developed inside jokes and had dirt under his nails.  They watched him cry, get lonely, and lose his temper.  God didn’t just communicate the truth to this world, His Son became the truth and lived among us.  Finally, he spread his arms wide on a cross so that you and I could approach God and receive grace.  Jesus lived as a model of what an incarnate life really looks like.  And I want that.  I want to live a full, rich life of meaningful relationships.  I want friends to see an active, under construction kind of faith.  I want to enter conversations teachable.  I want a reputation of grace.  I want to share a God that allowed even me to approach Him and be loved.  Care to join me?

Your Story Is Important

Last week I had a coworker, Susan, ask for some book suggestions for a non-Christian friend she knows.  I offered her a few suggestions and then challenged her by saying, “Susan, I think you’re the book.”

She looked at me puzzled and I explained.

“All of these books are great and full of very wise stuff but there is not a book in the world better for your friend to read than your life.  Give her that instead.  Show her what following Jesus looks like.”

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.  – 2 Cor. 3:2,3

May you become an incarnate leader and be the book many are looking for.

 

1.  These four shifts were blatantly stolen from my Biblical Leadership class taught by Dr. Rick McKinley at Multnomah Seminary.

2.  Far more on this in Culture Making by Andy Crouch