As a pastor, I told the congregations I led that if I was to err, I would much rather err on not observing the Robert’s Rules of Order than what the Bible had to say, specifically, the New Testament, on how to lead a church! Yet, I do know that when you say, “the ‘I’s’ have it,” that the ayes won out over the nays. Well, there are two “I’s” that I believe win the day in effectively seeing lives transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s a both/and approach rather an either/or: Incarnational AND Invitational.
As a pastor and church planter several years back, I recall a contrast in my thought process as I drove around my neighborhood. Early on, I would drive by my neighbors on the way to church on Sunday and contemplate the question, “How can I get these people to come to my church?” Years later, seeing some, but minimal impact, my perspective and therefore, my question changed. I started to ask, “How can I take my church and Jesus to my neighbors?”
What I did not realize was that the former question was a common question that the American Evangelical church has asked for years. The training that seminaries and seminars engrained in me led me to ask the invitational question. The latter question, I learned later, was more of an incarnational question. Missionaries have asked the incarnational question for centuries in other parts of the world and their answers drove the strategies they employed in reaching unreached people groups.
After over 16 years of coaching and consulting with church planters in Northern Colorado on the Front Range, I have seen repeatedly that the church plants that adopt a both/and strategy of being incarnational in their community and modeling for their people an invitational approach is a more sustainable approach to reaching people for Christ.
The incarnational approach is more missional. It is being Jesus in one’s neighborhood. We see this approach by Jesus in Luke 10. He sent the disciples two by two into villages and towns and they went into the homes of the people and stayed where welcomed. It is key that we know the names of our neighbors and are praying for them. People can argue with what you say to them about Jesus, but they cannot argue with what you pray for them as you ask for their heart and minds to hear and receive the Gospel. This is what John 1:14 speaks of the incarnation of Christ where “the Word became flesh and dwelt among them.”
And we also see repeatedly that Jesus encouraged the invitational approach, the “come and see” strategy where the crowds came to hear Jesus’ teaching and stories. We all can remember the woman at the well where she encountered Jesus and then went to her town and declared, “Then the woman left her water jar, went into town, and told the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’ They left the town and made their way to him” (John 4:28-30). We know that Jesus could draw a crowd. We can do event evangelism that takes the church out into a park in the community where people can connect and see the church outside the “walls of the church building.”
The incarnational approach alone can be slower and foster deep relationships but take more time to see gospel impact. The invitational approach alone may draw a crowd at first but may not be sustainable without meaningful relationships being built earlier on.
In the “both/and” incarnational/invitational approach, one mantra would be “Invite them to Jesus before you invite them to church.” In essence, this affects a church ministry’s practice in that members learn not to invite people to church before they invite them to Jesus. This is dependent on Christ-followers living as Christ’s missionaries in their neighborhoods and workplaces.
I did not grow up in church. I came to Christ because my oldest brother, Dave Howeth, invited me into a relationship with Christ before he invited me to a church service.
As we plant the gospel into communities in Colorado, may we do both/and: incarnationally being Christ as we invite them to experience Christ in Christian community.