A new day for the Church: Modeling incarnational ministry (pt 2)

As I wrote in Part I of this series, I believe the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is in a kairos season. The crises and challenges we face have also brought an “opportune time” for God to do a special work in the church.

Wallace Henley, former Senior Associate Pastor of 2nd Baptist Church in Houston, Texas.
Wallace Henley, former Senior Associate Pastor of 2nd Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. | Photo by Scott Belin

The rejection of the institutionalism I wrote about in Part I does not mean abandoning order and surrendering to chaos but focusing on the biblically described “organization” of a church that is stable yet energetically moving forward in incarnational ministry (see, for example, I Corinthians 14). “Organization,” after all, is related to “organism”.

Organization based on biblical guidelines therefore is a means of leading to healthy organic dynamism without fragmentation and disorder. Among other things, this means biblical governance replacing the secular models that so many churches have adopted.

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Where do we go from here?

When I became a pastor in 1973, I faced that hard question. Based on my observation of many institutions as a newspaper reporter and columnist, and the view from inside the White House, I believed passionately (and still do) that the only true transformation for good that ever comes into this world is through the touch of the Lord Jesus Christ upon individuals, institutions, and even nations and civilizations.

Thus, I had left White House service in 1973 with the growing conviction that the authentic church is the most important organism in the world. It could be the means of the “good infection,” as C.S. Lewis described the love of God infused into the world.     

If the church is the body of Christ, then it ought to do what Christ did in His body. But what was that? I began to wake to the reality that many churches had hobbled themselves through a departure from biblical truth, or seeing the Holy Spirit more as doctrine than dynamic, or confusing non-transformational programming and busy-ness as the work and blessing of God.

New believer Chuck Colson, with whom I had served in the Nixon White House, asked me a troubling question the first time I visited him in the prison where he was incarcerated for Watergate-related charges. Speaking of C.S Lewis, Chuck was destined in God’s plan to be perhaps the greatest apologetics voice of the late twentieth century.

The warden of the prison had surprisingly given his private conference room for the meeting with Chuck. We should have suspected something fishy. We found out later that the room was bugged. The officials hoped they would record us talking about the Watergate scandal, but all they got was two men talking about the Lord and praying together.

“There are so many churches in America,” said Chuck as he gazed at me with querulous eyes. Then the question: “Why If there are so many churches is the nation in such trouble... Why is there so little transformation?”

That observation and question kept zinging through my head on the three-hour drive back from the prison to my office in the little white building where our church gathered in south Alabama.

More than two decades after that meeting with Chuck I sat on a platform in India where I was to speak. From that position I could scan the audience of hundreds of church leaders who had come from throughout the vast country to a leadership conference. An awareness burst upon me: This is the way the Lord Jesus Christ walks and ministers in the villages and cities of India.

As I described in Part I of this series, I set aside the church growth books surging tsunami-like in the 1970s and began a focused study of the incarnational ministry of the Lord.  After all, Jesus reached multitudes and impacted them with transformational power.

I discovered five major categories of daily routine and action of the Lord:

1.  Jesus worshiped

Jesus Christ began each day by rising early, and spending time worshiping the Father and praying. This was the “launch pad” of His daily routine.

2.  Jesus interceded

Jesus’s prayers were part of His worship expression, but they were also intercessory. He stood “in the gap” for humanity itself, and for those He would encounter in that day.

3.  Jesus proclaimed the Gospel of the Kingdom

He not only preached a gospel of dying and the hope for Heaven, but also the Gospel of living under God’s majestic transcendent being and the Lordship that Jesus incarnated within the world.

4.  Jesus made disciples

He trained “apprentices” of ministry, and sent them out to do the work, and then report back to Him.

5.  Jesus served human need in the Name of His Father

The need of the humanity Jesus touched each day and who touched Him dealt with the full person—spirit, soul, and body. Jesus ministered to every type of need, with the whole person in view.

There were the strategic values of the Jesus church: Worship, Prayer, Proclamation, Disciple-making, Service.

In the three churches where I was senior pastor, I realized that while this was not “church growth” strategy, growth was the outcome.

Each church grew dramatically as we sought to be the body of Christ and practice incarnational ministry in our communities. Any failures or shortfalls were usually brought on by my own leadership limitations. I had to learn so the congregation could learn.

As we progressed in learning and doing the ministry of Jesus, I began to see the emergence of a healthy profile of what I called “the Jesus church.”

I describe that profile in Part III.

The kairos of remarkable opportunity is before us. Out of the ashes of pandemic, churches can and must arise into the identity and mission of the Jesus church.

Wallace B. Henley’s fifty-year career has spanned newspaper journalism, government in both White House and Congress, the church, and academia. He is author or co-author of more than 20 books. He is a teaching pastor at Grace Church, the Woodlands, Texas.

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