Is there anyone who doesn’t hate long layovers when you’re traveling alone? The airport teems with people, but they’re all strangers. Some wander aimlessly about the terminal, but most travelers have their eyes riveted to a “mobile device.” Virtually no one is looking to interact with a flesh-and-blood human being. The Airport Authority tries to make the place more interesting, but the best they can do is a nondescript shopping mall like the one you have back in your own city – where, by the way, you are as rootless and lonely as you are at the airport.
Author Michael Frost thinks the airport departure lounge is more than a powerful metaphor for postmodern life. He also sees a warning of grave danger for Christians who claim to follow a God who “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood,” as one colorful paraphrase of John 1:14 has it.
The airport departure lounge is “full of people who don’t belong where they currently find themselves and whose interactions with others are fleeting, perfunctory and trivial,” says Frost in his new book, Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement. Even though the core idea of the Christian faith is incarnation – the idea that God took on flesh and came to live among us – Western Christians today are being swept away by a culture that is rootless and disengaged, “connected to our world more and more through screens, rather than face to face.”
Frost calls it “excarnation.”
The spiritual climate produced by this disembodied faith “is a culture of individualism, narcissism, materialism and triviality,” says Frost, who is founding director of the Tinsley Institute, a mission study center in Sydney, Australia. “In such an excarnate environment it is easy to objectivize others, rank feelings above morals, prefer the therapeutic above the transcendent and nonconformity over authority, and absolute freedom becomes an intense form of slavery.”
Self-absorbed people inevitably treat other people as objects. On one hand, Frost says, morality becomes disembodied and the vulnerable are decimated by pornography and sex trafficking. On another hand, reason is disengaged, exalted as the road to knowledge, and “ruthless ideological debates” rage against other people we have reduced to cartoonish stereotypes.
“We are creating new generations of believers who know more than they choose, who understand things they never act upon, who discern ideas they never use,” Frost says. Churches resort to “stagecraft, sensory pageantry, charismatic leadership and an upbeat, unchallenging vision of Christianity to provide their congregants with a powerful emotional religious experience.”
Instead of making disciples who make disciples, we create “shy, socially awkward, emotionally removed and risk averse” cripples who are “unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships ….”
When faith is reduced to knowledge, the church has abandoned its mission of being the body of Christ among the broken souls around it. A generation distracted by its mobile devices thinks it can pursue its mission of multiplying God’s justice by clicking and hashtagging. We are quick to Like on Facebook and text to donate, thinking we have done good, yet we never get personally involved with someone who needs to be set free from the power of sin and death.
Everyone wants “to take the ‘road up’ to a poverty-free world, but no one [is] willing to get there via the road down, into the gutter, among the poor themselves,” Frost says. “But the incarnation teaches us that the way up is via the downward road.”
He adds: “In a time of disengagement and excarnation, the body of Christ is required all the more to embrace a more thoroughly embodied faith, a truly placed way of living that mirrors the incarnational lifestyle of Jesus.”
God-in-the-flesh came to live among a particular group of people. He walked among them. He touched the lepers and healed the blind and lame.
Frost says: “Instead of churning out books, manuals, DVDs, podcasts, websites, tweets, status updates, Jesus took a band of protégés to his elbow and humbly but relentlessly passed on the ‘hidden rules’ of service. Like Jesus, incarnational leaders model it, live it, breathe it and invite others to copy them.”
And more: “What the world so desperately needs are incarnational servants of Christ to wade into the muck and stench of this world and to partner with the locals, as broken as we all are, in helping to shape human society as God intended it to be.”
From God’s lips, to your ears.
Departure-lounge Christians aren’t following Jesus. He’s out in the neighborhood.