Recently Reformed Worship was able to pose the following questions about the incarnation to three individuals.
I’ve sometimes heard the phrase “incarnational worship.” What does that mean? What is the significance of the incarnation for our daily living and worship?
Here are their responses:
The idea of incarnational worship stems from the incarnation of Jesus Christ—God coming to earth and living among us, taking on human flesh and embodying ministry. Daily, Jesus made visible what was once invisible. Before, no one could see God and live; in Christ, God humbled himself so that everyone could experience his glory!
Incarnational worship, then, is worship that helps people to worship with their whole selves because Jesus honored our bodies by becoming human. Such worship provides opportunities for people to touch, to taste, to see, and to move along with the more common activities of worship, such as thinking, feeling, and singing.
Every worship service is incarnational to some extent because we are the ones worshiping and we have no choice but to be embodied human beings! Furthermore, we are always spiritually shaped by what our physical senses perceive and experience. However, there are some aspects of worship that truly help us to know the spiritual as manifested in the physical world. The sacraments especially do that. Jesus instituted both baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be physical seals of God’s promises—visible experiences of invisible realities. In other words, they give us in both body and soul the experience of God’s presence, in ways that we assent to in thought and submit to through the actual experience of eating the bread, drinking the cup, or feeling the water. In the sacraments we are reminded of the miracle of the incarnation: God uses ordinary, physical things to accomplish his extraordinary purposes in ways that we can understand, relate to, and participate in.
Key to our Reformed celebrations of the sacraments is our response of grateful living. Incarnational worship, then, is also worship that sends us into the world to continue to worship! When we leave a worship service with the awareness of the incarnate Christ and of the Holy Spirit living in us, the awareness of our reconciliation with God through the sacrifice of Jesus, or the awareness of the Father’s seal upon our lives by remembering our baptism, we are enlivened to manifest the visible signs of the work of God in our daily lives. This is where incarnational worship meets incarnational living. We follow the model of Christ, who physically manifested the kingdom of God on earth, by living in such a way that our worship continues throughout the week. We worship God incarnationally in how we raise our family, how we conduct ourselves at our workplaces and in relationships, by the kinds of callings and vocations we pursue, in the places and causes we give our free time to, and how we devote ourselves, whether in word or deed, to action done in the name of Christ Jesus (Col. 3:17). We do so because we believe that God shows up in the world and has invited us to make his presence and power known in tangible ways—just as Christ did when he came as God incarnate.
Incarnational worship is the courageous act of seeking to embed the heart of God so deeply into our souls that the concerns of the world become our burdens and the joys of the world become our reason for celebrating.
Incarnation is about embodiment. It is about sacrifice. It is about becoming “like” others in solidarity with them, particularly those who are suffering. In worship, incarnation means taking on the joys and burdens of others in faith. Incarnational worship reaches beyond “us” and “them” and seeks to be “we.” Whether by singing songs, sharing stories, or praying, we are called to live out the salvation we have in Jesus Christ through our relationships with others, and we can do that through our worship.
We are not called to be Christ, but we are called to follow him, even into the dark places that scare us, and to love others as he loves. When we do so, we are not incarnating Christ, but incarnating Christ’s call on those of us who follow him, recognizing that when we show up, God is already there. God doesn’t need us to be Christ to others, but God invites us to join the work of the Spirit, the Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being.
Let’s start with the reminder that “incarnational” means “in the flesh.” Spiritual reality takes physical form. This Christian doctrine takes our bodies and the body of Jesus Christ seriously. “Incarnational worship” might be defined in a variety of ways, but here are some of the implications of “incarnational worship” that I’ve observed:
- Incarnational worship acknowledges that we have one worship leader, and his name is Jesus (Heb. 8). Constance Cherry asserts, “If worshiping communities could capture this one thing, their worship would be transformed. Nothing is so central to our understanding of biblical worship than that Jesus Christ is truly present” (The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010], 25).
- Incarnational worship affirms the sacraments in our gatherings, especially the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Touching, smelling, tasting, and eating together become invaluable to participation in worship.
- Incarnational worship seeks to undo the damage done by the church’s turning its back on the arts several hundred years ago. Worship theologian Robert Webber writes, “A theology of the Incarnation says that God, the immaterial one, became present in this created world in a material, tangible way. What this means for the arts is that the divine chooses to become present through creation, through wood, stone, mortar, color, sound, shape, form, movement, and action” (Signs of Wonder: The Phenomenon of Convergence in Modern Liturgical and Charismatic Churches [Nashville, TN: Star Song Pub Co., 1992], 87).
- Incarnational worship seeks to bring the ancient stories of the Bible into the present not only by hearing the stories but also by seeing and feeling them. When we enact these stories (as the people of ancient oral cultures surely did), we enter into the stories, and the stories enter into us.
Incarnational worship extends from the concepts of incarnational ministry and incarnational spirituality. God is at work in us. We are the body of Christ at work within specific cultures. The various incarnational movements push back against Gnosticism as well as some twentieth-century notions that the church should separate itself from society. And these movements invite the reality of God rather than simply a teaching about God. The gospel becomes not merely “good news,” but Jesus himself at work in our bodies, our communities, and our cultures.
Here’s a caveat: In a helpful Christianity Today article, J. Todd Billings asks this question about incarnational ministry: “Was I assuming that my own presence—rather than that of Christ—was redemptive?” (“The Problem with ‘Incarnational Ministry,’” Christianity Today, July/August 2012, 58). We should remember that incarnational worship focuses on the mystery and power of God in Jesus Christ and is not merely about us and our experience.