Is Online Ministry ‘Incarnational’?

WheatfieldI feel like the luckiest guy in the world that something I really like to doing – coding websites – can be an important ministry. But it’s not all fun and games. Last month, the online education program I oversee lost two students in East Asia due to government crackdown. This means what I do isn’t a game, it’s a real world struggle and it leads me to take my job – internet ministry – very seriously.

As we near Christmas, the celebration of the Incarnation of the Son of God as the God-man, Jesus Christ, I want to reflect for a moment on a term – “incarnational” – that I would like to use to describe Internet ministry. If you’re not familiar with the term, “incarnational ministry” has come to describe ministries that go where people live their lives and take on a set of cultural values and practices in order to minister within it.

In online ministry, we digitally go where people are and minster to them in their native environment, so it seems like “incarnation” would be a natural descriptor. But, as much as I would like to use this term, I have some reservations about it for the online world.

1. Online Ministry Is Simultaneously Incarnate and Discarnate

When the eternal Son of God enfleshed himself into the first century world, he took on Jewish customs and practices in order to minister within that culture. Today, some of us are called to take on the culture of the twenty-first century online world and minister within that context.

However, taking on customs is only part of what it means to be “incarnate.” The other half is physical presence or “dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The presence of God in Christ through the Incarnation is special and unique precisely because it was physical. Of course, God has always been present with us through the Spirit, but we don’t call that presence incarnate.

In our twenty-first century world, going online to be “present” with someone is an important part of our lives. But because that presence is not physical (or carnal), it is by definition discarnate not incarnate. Just because our online presence is not physical doesn’t mean that it’s not good and helpful and true, but it is not incarnate any more than the Spirit’s presence in the Old Testament was incarnate. When we say that today God is present, but not incarnate, that does not in any way denigrate him, and therefore we should not feel anything negative when we say that online, we are in some sense online, but not incarnate.

[Another difficulty here is that our online presence is a categorically different thing than God’s spiritual presence. Let us not make the mistake of thinking of our technologically enabled presence is at all like God’s omnipresence, or the mistake of confusing the online/virtual world with the spiritual world.]

2. Technology Should Be a Means Rather than End

In sociology and philosophy, technology is sometimes defined as tools used for human ends. In other words, humans have goals that they use technology as the means to achieve.

This separation of the ends and the means becomes muddied when a culture’s primary identification is that of being “technological.” In such a culture (like our own), being incarnational means that we need to be “technological.” Instead of using technology as a means to a specific end – like writing an email [means] to communicate a message [ends] – being high tech itself (having and using a lot of technology) becomes an end goal. This leads us to praise high tech churches and say things like, “That church is so ‘cutting edge.’” But when we praise a church or ministry for how high tech it is, we are praising the means as if they were a worthy end.

It is very easy to slip into this kind “we must be technological” thinking, because it is the constant message of our technological society which values efficiency above all else. We talk more about having an iPhone/Pre/Nexus than the ends for which we use them.

Unlike our technology, for Jesus “being incarnate” was actually part of the goal. He did not merely use the Incarnation as a means for saving us. The Incarnation itself is saving. In the language of Eastern orthodoxy, the union of the uncreated with the created is as essential as the cross and tomb. For Jesus, the incarnation is both a means and an end, but for us we cannot allow technology to serve as both our means and our ends.

3. Incarnational Implies both a “Within” and an “Against”

Doing “incarnational ministry” means not only that we take on the essential elements of a culture and minister from “within” it, but also requires challenging and working “against” that culture. Jesus himself embodied the Jewish way of life, but he also railed against its injustices and sins. Assuming a Jewish identity did not mean that he was blind to the negative parts of Jewish culture. Though he lived “within” that culture, he also worked “against” it.

Our ministry to technological culture must also be able to work both within and against the online world. We cannot be so enthralled with its vast power and potential that we blind ourselves to its downside and the immoral tendencies it can bring.

Again, I feel incredibly privileged to work in the online world, and I consider it of huge importance to Christ’s church in the world. I appreciate all work that coders, artists, videographers, editors, designers, and writers do online and with other technology. In some sense what we do is “incarnational” in that we are bringing the message and love of God to a people using the customs and practices that make sense to them. And yet in another sense, using the word “incarnational” to describe what we do seems to be stretching the word a bit too far to me.

However we describe our role, let us remember that the fullest revelation of God himself, our closest glimpse into what God is like came in Jesus Christ’s physical presence – his flesh and blood presence – and so too our fullest presence and greatest impact comes in the flesh, when technology is our tool not our master.

What words do you find helpful to describe online ministry?

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

11 thoughts on “Is Online Ministry ‘Incarnational’?”

  1. I really struggle with ways to talk about online ministry. I agree with some of what Shane Hipps has said but differ a lot with him on how he talks about it. You had some really good analogies here. The best (for me as I am read this) was the idea of being present but not incarnate. (The last line of your 1st point.)

    Thanks for the post, very helpful.

    1. Thanks Adam. I, too, struggle with the right terms and analogies to use. I want to validate online ministry, but avoid accidentally speaking so highly of it that I denigrate physical reality.

  2. John,

    Really great post…I appreciate that what you have written is something I struggle with a lot.

    I think what I am taking away the most is that you talk about how technology can serve both our ends and our means.

    There is this idea out there in church that technology equals cutting edge or more relevant, etc…something I’ve said at some point myself.

    It’s interesting that no matter how much I love the technological tools, I still end up sitting down with that person over coffee…in the flesh. The technology which I can become so enamored with was really just a means….I can’t help but think that God wired us that way…wired me that way. Blessed me with people I have connected with on Twitter, but has not allowed me to stay there, but has moved me into in person relationships with these people (i.e. you, Scott, Tony, Aaron, etc, etc.)

    Rhett

  3. John – great post man.

    One of the most frustrating moments I deal with consistently is when churches send us requests on how we are doing church online and all their questions focus on the Technology – that by just having a technological presence online is the ministry answer they’ve been looking for. They see the tech as an end to health, or influence or any number of things, instead of the means to extend their ministry online IF they are called to that sort of mission.

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