Tales of “Incarnational Ministry”


Almost daily we hear of individuals giving up their lives for the cause of hate, death and destruction. In contrast, I’d like to shine a light on some of those who are pouring their lives out for the sake of love, life and redemption: individuals and families who have left behind their comfortable middle-class lives to take up residence among the poor and marginalized and to be a living embodiment of good news to their new neighbors.

These “incarnational missionaries” have chosen to be God’s hands and feet where many of us least want to go…in corners of our country (and world) where drugs and violence dominate, where hopelessness abounds and one pained generation bleeds into and births the next.

I am inspired by their great love and believe you will be, too.

The following 8 books (and 8 blogs) tell the stories of just such individuals. The first 3 books are my favorites. I challenge you to pick one of them and read it this week. (Then call me and we’ll discuss it over tea.)

Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development, by John M. Perkins. I have put Perkins book first, because, out of everything I’ve read, I consider it to be the most comprehensive guide to living incarnationally among the poor. Published in 1993—long before the other books on my list—Beyond Charity is the byproduct of a lifetime of experience and is drenched with both biblical and functional wisdom. I deeply admire Perkins’ discernment, humility and example and consider him one of the ultimate authorities on this subject. If you are looking for a “how-to” book, I think this is your best starting place.

(I’ve blogged a bit more about this book in the post: 9 Lessons I’ve Learned from Christian Community Development.)

The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, by Shane Claiborne. In this powerful (and oft-quoted) manifesto, Claiborne offers a profound call to “red letter Christianity.” Even after a year of reading books and blogs by those living incarnationally, I found Claiborne’s perspective to be surprisingly challenging and paradigm-changing. I am particularly drawn to his ideas of new monasticism and of downward mobility; and I love his explanation of how Jesus calls us to engage our culture and each other with holy imagination and a disarming grace. (The Amish for Homeland Security, anyone?)

(On a side note, Claiborne and John Perkins co-wrote a book in 2009 called Follow Me to Freedom. I need to get myself a copy!)

Kisses from Katie, by Katie Davis. In this gem of a book, young Katie Davis tells how she chose Uganda over college and how she became the mother to 13 orphans before reaching the ripe old age of 20. I guarantee this is a story unlike any you’ve heard before. Chronologically, this was the first book on this list that I read…and it absolutely BROKE me. I cried straight through. Katie’s willingness to enter into the hard places and pour out Jesus’ love with abandon and humility is more than inspiring: It is a living example of what, down in my deepest depths, I always thought following Jesus should look like.

Sub-merge: Living Deep in a Shallow World. Service, Justice and Contemplation Among the World’s Poor, by John B. Hayes.  In its introduction, Hayes describes Sub-merge as “a prophetic call to join what God is doing among poor and marginalized communities.” The book combines parts of John’s own story with the stories of many others as he lays out the ideologies and practices that undergird InnerCHANGE, the Christian order among the poor which he founded in the mid-1980s.

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, by Gregory Boyle. Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, is a Catholic priest who has spent more than 20 years ministering to gang members in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. His stories are both hysterically funny and heart-wrenching, offering a unique picture of what life is like for youth growing up in the world of gang-banging. (My post Prichard, Alabama was inspired by this book.)

From the Sanctuary to the Streets: How the Dreams of One City’s Homeless Sparked a Faith Revolution that Transformed a Community, by Wendy McCaig. As do so many other authors on my list, McCaig tells the story of her own journey into ministry to (and ultimately life among) the poor and marginalized in concert with the stories of those she’s met along the way. Her tale is centered in Richmond, Virginia and details how her organization, Embrace Richmond, came to be.

Where the Cross Meets the Street: What Happens to the Neighborhood When God is at the Center, by Noel Castellanos. As the current CEO of the Christian Community Development Association, Castellanos has a great deal of authority when talking about “incarnational ministry.” I have only just begun this book, but am particularly enjoying hearing the perspective of a Mexican American.

Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, & Faithfulness in a Broken World, by Craig Greenfield. Hot off the presses, Greenfield’s book just released this past April. It is sitting in my soon-to-be-read pile. You can read more about this one in my friend Lindsy’s post: Subversive Jesus [A Book Review].


In addition to these 8 books, I’ve also found a number of blogs written by women living purposefully incarnational lives in communities all across America:

In Atlanta:

The Stanley Clan. In 2010, Rebecca Stanley and her husband moved into a troubled neighborhood in Atlanta. For the past 6 years, Rebecca Stanley has beautifully expressed her family’s struggles and joys, growth and changes as they live life in the margins. Some of my favorite posts by her include “FAQ: But Why Do You Have to Actually Live There? ,” “An Undivided Life,”  and “Reframing.”

In Miami:

Light Breaks Forth. Lindsy Wallace, along with her husband and 5 children, moved into the distressed (and dangerous) neighborhood of West Coconut Grove this past year as missionaries with InnerCHANGE. Lindsy chronicles their new life with honesty and passion. Try starting with What We Ought to Believe and then follow some of her other links to get more of her story.

Esther in Miami. Esther is another member of the InnerCHANGE’s Miami team. She has been blogging about her life in West Coconut Grove since January 2015. I highly recommend her post, Agents of Hope.

In Rocky Mount, North Carolina:

Lori Harris, and this is grace. I recommend reading Lori’s post: “Our New Normal” to get a peak into her life.

In Goshen, Indiana:

Shannon Martin Writes (formerly known as Flower Patch Farm Girl). Shannon’s book, Falling Free: Rescued from the Life I Always Wanted, comes out in Sept. 2016.

In Austin, Texas:

Wisdom’s Workshop. Bethany and her husband live in an RV inside Community First! Village, “a master-planned community for the chronically homeless.” A friend of mine just introduced me to Bethany’s beautiful blog. I love the honesty of her post: On (Not) Hating Home.

In Lancaster, South Carolina:

Amor For Him. Shanda Mackey has lived in Countryside Mobile Home Park since January 2016. Recommended post: “My Safe Little Bubble.”

In Portland, Oregon:

D. L. Mayfield, Living in the Upside Down Kingdom.  Mayfield, a frequent contributor to Christianity Today, has been very honest about her struggles after immersing herself into “life on the margins.” For a bit of insight into her current life,  I recommend her post: “An Update on Downward Mobility.”  Her book (which I have preordered) comes out in August: Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith.




…a journey of compassion. Mary and her husband, Richard, have been living in Nepal for 6 years. They began by volunteering at a shelter for women and now run a small garment business. My 2 favorite posts are “The Poor’s Purchasing Power” and “Why Business?

*** I’m sure I’ll be adding to this list as I encounter more “tales of incarnational ministry.” Please leave your recommendations below. I’d love to hear from you!


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