Feature

The Rest of Our Lives

My incarnational journey

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I was once refused an interview for a position at the C&MA National Office because they said I had no “incarnational ministry” experience. I was 40 years old and a graduate of Crown College with nine years as a senior pastor under my belt. I was incensed.

Twelve years later, I see how right they were.

Today my wife, Sue, and I live and work in the urban center of Fort Wayne, Indiana. We lead a group of Jesus followers passionate about Kingdom change in “the ‘hood.” Our approach is simple: we are compelled by the mission of God and are focused on intentional relationships as our primary method of ministry.

This is the essence of the missional/incarnational movement of which we are part. It is the most natural, compelling and transferrable approach to sharing the life of Jesus that we have ever known. But for us, it took a great deal of personal discovery to embrace the incarnational lifestyle.

I was a typical Alliance pastor who spent 15 years ministering in two churches. During these years we saw many miracles of God as He brought life and redemption to people. Sunday morning–focused ministry, however, slowly became overshadowed by two disturbing truths.

First, I realized that I and my congregation were increasingly isolating ourselves from our nonreligious neighbors, friends and coworkers. The more we gathered and the more our fellowship became the center of our social lives, the less we had to give of ourselves to those outside the church walls. Second, it became obvious that our dominant ministry model in North America—attempting to attract those same people to “go to church”—is rapidly losing traction in our culture.

We searched for something to scratch the itch. We didn’t find it because we knew no other way to “do ministry.”

Our second church was a redevelopment project in Southern California. In five years we saw a dramatic turnaround and then a lethal split. In 2004 we closed the church. During our final Missions Conference, one of the international workers assigned to our church spoke to me privately about a small team in a creative-access country that could use our gifts and passions.

The months that followed turned us toward a wide-open door of opportunity. We decided to walk through and see what was on the other side.

Our assignment on another continent required us to have gainful employment in order to secure a residence visa; there are no professional “missionaries” in countries like this. Positions in administration were found at an American-style school in our city of choice.

We were appointed in December and arrived in the country the following August in order to begin the school year. There was no time for language study. Our school taught and did business in three languages, one of which was English.

Our neighborhood was another story. Our landlord spoke only Arabic. A European neighbor spoke English and French. His landlord spoke French and Arabic. Sometimes we got together to chat: I would speak English to my neighbor, who then spoke in French to his landlord, who then translated that into Arabic to my landlord. Back through the human pipeline the answer would come. We would all wind up laughing at the ridiculous game of verbal tag we played.

We discovered that when planted in a foreign environment, the best thing to do is make yourself part of the community. Learn the local customs and the necessary parts of the language. Shop at the local stores. Show God’s radical love by being people who love radically. We couldn’t talk about God’s love so we decided to be God’s love.

Authentic living became our method of ministry.

We discovered what “incarnation” looks like. Our place of employment became holy ground, because we brought God’s radical love to bear on all our relationships. Our village became our sanctuary, because God was worshiped in our acts of love, generosity and compassion to others.

We left after one term. Sue and I were in our late forties trying desperately to learn two languages while working full time. We finally admitted that achieving the fluency needed to speak to local residents in their heart language would probably never happen.

Many of our Muslim friends cried with us as we said goodbye. The power of intentional relationships impregnated with the mission of the Father and the love of Jesus changed not only them but also us—we came back knowing exactly how we wanted to spend the rest of our lives.

Like so many other evangelical churches in the 1970s, Westview Alliance Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, had abandoned the urban area for the suburbs. While we were overseas, the leadership of the church began responding to a prophetic call from God to re-dig the wells in the city center.

Westview gained a renewed sense of responsibility for the heart of Fort Wayne. They prayed, and God orchestrated an encounter with Sue and I, senior pastor Bob Petty and our district superintendant, Jon Rich. In minutes, we all knew that our destinies would collide in that city.

The area where we minister has 19,000 residents in a grand racial and cultural mix. Fort Wayne has the world’s largest population of Burmese outside of their home country. Our local public high school boasts more than 50 cultures and languages.

Our team is filled with people committed to living out the missio dei. Sue and I lead by example as we love and care for our neighbors and coworkers. Others in our group are working to maximize their Kingdom impact: a delivery man spends his evenings ministering life to incarcerated teens; his wife’s passion is discipling the women of our group; two roommates serve among the disenfranchised, one as a case worker with a resettlement agency that focuses primarily on Burmese immigrants and the other works in a local shelter for homeless women and children.

We are not a church plant. We are the Church who has decided to plant ourselves in neighborhoods and work to bring the Kingdom to bear in our area.

Our mission field is all around us. We don’t think in terms of “sacred” and “secular” employment. Because work relationships are a rich garden of opportunities to model Christ’s love, we have chosen jobs in the neighborhood. Nonclergy work is also the most effective way to model the priesthood of the believer.

Our team also understands the power of synergy: impacting our community through shared efforts we call “community bridges.” They are designed to be both a greater platform of outreach and to raise the water level of opportunity in our area. Forty-eight percent of the adults in our target zone are single parents; 27 percent are high school dropouts. What could be better community bridges, then, than early childhood education and literacy centers?

What God has begun with us is not just for one Midwestern city. Our group’s newest member, Ben Harrison, is helping flesh out what it will look like when potential leaders spend a year in our midst with the intention of developing similar communities across North America. Also, we believe that our multicultural, missional environment will be home to newly appointed international workers as they ready themselves for overseas living.

Our world is undergoing profound change. We will find our way and mark the path on this new terrain just as generations of spiritual pilgrims across the world have before us. The future of the Church, as it was in the past, is found in a renewed understanding of being before doing; of showing as our primary form of telling. It is found in incarnation.

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