In the second in Julian Reese’s series on Incarnational Presence, Reese describes how one establishes that presence.
In our last post we introduced Incarnational Presence as a theological paradigm for academic ministry. This Way of thinking cultivates three spiritual habits:
- We first Establish Presence, looking for opportunities to develop relationships by participation in academic events, instead of relying on “attractional” ministry to get unbelieving academics to attend ours.
- We Earn a Voice at the table of intellectual conversation where we present Gospel-informed thinking and questions over time.
- We Encourage Creative Participation in the presence of the kingdom through partnerships between believers and unbelievers, building relationships with the academic community and giving them the opportunity to experience the goodness, beauty and kindness of the Gospel of the Incarnation.
In this post we reflect on a primary dimension of this Incarnational Way: “ESTABLISHING AN INCARNATIONAL PRESENCE.”
Several years ago, my colleague Jonathan and I attended a lecture in the History department at his university. He wanted to establish a presence in the department through meeting their faculty and graduate students. For months, Jonathan had been frustrated at the lack of response to his attempts to establish contact.
But as we sat in the back of that small, crowded room, Jonathan scrolled through the History department website on his phone and said, “I’ve been trying to contact some of these people for months, with no response. And here in this room is every single person I have been trying to contact!”
After the lecture, we joined the small crowd around the speaker, and Jonathan engaged him with a question. As we turned to leave, we were warmly introduced to the department head and to some other faculty.
Jonathan had just taken a step in establishing an Incarnational presence. He had tasted an Incarnational way of thinking about ministry by entering their world on their terms. Jonathan recognized that his “attractional” ministry paradigm meant investing energy into inviting non-religious faculty to come to Christian-sponsored events without success when, as he told me, “I can go to one of their events and meet more faculty in an afternoon than I was meeting in a whole year before.”
In the Incarnation, Jesus lays aside the form of God, leaves heaven, and enters into the world of humanity. He leaves one “culture” to enter another, establishing an Incarnational Presence.
Sent by Jesus, we participate in the academic culture as an Incarnational Presence. We enter their world as learners, attending their events, reading their books, and getting curious about their research. We become a presence, an insider. We embed ourselves in their world and participate in their successes and disappointments.
And we show good things of the Gospel of God.
The first time I met Dr. H, she didn’t really want to talk to me. I had asked the department she chaired to cosponsor an event with us. “I don’t really want to do this,” she answered, “but I guess I have to. You know that the Department is presently in budgetary trouble, and we need all the positive publicity we can get, wherever we can find it.”
A year later, she presented at one of our events.
Jesus repeatedly tells his followers that “If they welcome you, they welcome me.” In some mysterious way, when we experience welcome, we are participating in the presence of Jesus.
Today, Dr. H welcomes me into her office. She makes it a point to introduce me to her new faculty hires. She let me pastor her after a death in her family. She wouldn’t call it this, but when she welcomes me, she welcomes Jesus.
Dr. D is a talented, accomplished scholar and teacher, and she is always glad to see me coming. She grew up in a painful spiritual community and gave up her faith during graduate school. Wounded spiritually and emotionally by the Church, she describes her experience as “post-traumatic stress disorder.” She also says we have helped her heal from her the toxic religious community of her youth.
She, too, welcomes me. She helps our apprentice cohort think about ministry to academics. She refers Christian students to our ministry for support in their faith struggles. She assists me in writing a Bible study for non-believing academics.
She, too, welcomes Jesus, even if she thinks she never talks with him.
Not a part of their world, we inhabit their world. And they gladly welcome the positive, incarnational, Christian Presence we bring with us.
PROSELYTES OR CONVERTS?
Andrew Walls, pioneer in the academic field of World Christianity, describes the Jewish approach to missions as “attractional.” People were attracted to the worship and tradition of the Temple and synagogue, but to participate fully, they had to adapt to the Jewish culture and religious practices as proselytes.[i]
He explains, “the general effect of the proselyte lifestyle would almost certainly … have produced very devout Christians, but their effect on their society and its ways of thinking would have been negligible” (Walls, p.6).
Paul, however, insisted on a new model that Walls calls the “Convert model.” Instead of being drawn into a new religious culture, the convert remains in his native culture and wrestles with negotiating that old culture while expressing a new Christian identity.
Walls claims that “the outcome of conversion was thus culturally and intellectually dynamic, creative and innovative. As segments of Hellenistic social reality and structures of Hellenistic thought were turned toward Christ, they received new life and meaning” (Walls, p. 6).
This is what we mean by “Incarnational.” To serve the University with an Incarnational Presence is to leave the comfortable culture of the familiar and enter the culture of the academic world, where the language is different, the values are foreign, and the inhabitants may or may not look up when you enter the room or show up in their Inbox. This means patience, curiosity, willingness to be misunderstood and, perhaps, ridiculed. It means laying aside one’s ego and entitlement and willing to begin as an outsider. In this new world you may not count, or you may even start with a deficit of goodwill.
But like yeast, the kingdom of God is hidden there, waiting to display its dynamic. When we establish an Incarnational Presence, we don’t bring the leaven, but we participate in making the bread.
[i] Andrew F. Walls, “Converts or Proselytes? The Crisis over Conversion in the Early Church.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 28, No. 1 (January 2004): 2-6.
Julian Reese serves Faculty and Graduate students at the University of Tennessee in Knoxvillle, Tn with InterVarsity’s GFM ministry. He is a graduate of Wheaton College (IL) with a B.A. in Bibilical Studies, and Gordon-Conwell Seminary (M.Div.). He is married to Melanie, who serves with him on GFM staff. The Reeses have three grown children on two continents.
The GFM ministry in Knoxville has coordinated the Veritas Forum at the University of Tennessee since 2005, partnering with academic departments in the University. They also sponsor an Apprentice Cohort in Incarnational Presence ministry.