The Age of DisIncarnation

Leadership Journal
By Skye Jethani

Our family was standing among thousands of others in front of Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World. Music soared. Fireworks turned night into day, and the entire facade of the castle came alive with projected images.

But not everyone was impressed. Next to me was a boy, about 10 years old, pecking on a screen inches from his eyes, oblivious to the hurricane of light, sound, and color around him. His body was at Disney World, but his mind was lost in the immaterial world of pixels. As I looked over the crowd, I saw many other kids—and some parents—focused on screens, seemingly unaware of the spectacle before them. If this couldn’t get their attention, I thought, nothing ever would. We have entered the age of dis-incarnation.

When Jesus came to dwell among us, Paul says, he “emptied himself” to take on flesh (Phil. 2:7, ESV). This means he willingly set aside some of his divine attributes, like omnipresence, to occupy a physical body. Scripture tells us that God is spirit and is therefore unconfined. “O Lord, where shall I flee from your presence?” asked David. When Jesus became incarnate, however, he was not everywhere, doing everything, engaging everyone. He accepted the confinement of a body. To be incarnate is necessarily limiting.

I no longer have to be present with those near me, thanks to the genie in my pocket.

Technology, however, offers us the illusion of omnipresence. In an instant I can flee the boredom of standing in line at the DMV to text my brother in California, or lose myself in highlights from last night’s Bulls game. I no longer have to be present with those near me, thanks to the genie in my pocket. Our phones grant us the godlike power to escape our bodies. But are we losing some of our humanity?

This temptation may be especially strong for ministers. We have a divinely ordained mission; why shouldn’t we employ godlike technology to accomplish it? Technology promises to reach more people more easily than we ever could as embodied ministers. The analog, incarnate ministry of the past was slow. The word was transmitted person to person, face to face. And the care of souls required shepherds to be physically present with their sheep. How agrarian.

With the advent of digital, dis-incarnate ministry, our mission can finally industrialize. We can all scale our influence, and preach to thousands via pixels on a screen. We can manufacture disciples via blogs and tweets, and live-stream ourselves to our anonymous sheep anytime, anywhere. Dis-incarnate ministry is so much cleaner, so much more efficient, and infinitely more marketable. In Jesus, the Word became flesh; for ages the church followed that pattern. But our generation has finally set the Word free from the inherent limits of incarnation.

The only thing inhibiting this more efficient form of ministry are those who stubbornly refuse to abandon their bodies. For example, a few years ago I preached a message about forgiving our enemies. I could see a young woman near the front struggling throughout the sermon as her husband comforted her with his arm around her shoulder.

After the message I spoke with her. I learned that a man had broken into her apartment and sexually assaulted her. He was caught and convicted for the crime, but she was deeply wounded. “I don’t know if I can forgive him,” she said. I took their hands and we prayed together.

Jesus became incarnate to redeem every part of us—mind, soul, and body. Ministry in his name must do the same. The way of Jesus is to accept, even embrace, our embodied limitations. It means emptying ourselves of the desire to be everywhere, do everything, and engage everyone, and instead be fully present for the redemption happening right where we are.

Skye Jethani is the executive editor of Leadership Journal, an ordained pastor, and the author of numerous books. This article originally appeared as a commentary in Leadership Journal.