A wise missionary knows that preaching the gospel to a different culture requires contextualizing your message. The words we use don’t automatically translate to a new culture that lacks the associations and experiences we’re familiar with. We need to find new ways of communicating the old, old story, ways that can be understood, ways that “speak the language” of those we’re ministering to.
But even on a local scale, we have to deal with contextualization. That’s because music and liturgy are a language. They can mean different things to different people. In the past few years, much has been written, advocated, and modeled to help us understand why we should be concerned about leading services in ways that people actually comprehend what we’re doing and saying so that they are impacted in the right ways (Mike Cosper’s Rhythms of Grace is one example). That might mean changing your music accompaniment, liturgy, communication methods, and more.
But I’ve seen contextualization misapplied at times. Here are a few things I’ve found helpful to keep in mind when thinking through how to connect with people.
Attempts to contextualize without clear, theologically informed leadership will tend to produce disorder, divisiveness, and distance. Sometimes leaders receive the revelation that they should start doing more to reach the community around them. So the music becomes hipper, or louder, or jazzier, or more traditional. Centuries old liturgical practices are suddenly added or dropped. But making drastic changes in methodology or focus without considering those who are already in your church will prove disastrous. Communicating a clear gospel-informed vision will help people engage with changes.
If most of the congregation isn’t singing, you’re not contextualizing, you’re performing. Contextualizing should result in greater engagement, not less. I’ve been in meetings where the musicians are very culturally relevant, but at least half of the people were there to observe, not participate. God’s exhortations for his people to sing (1 Chron. 16:8-9; Ps. 5:11; Ps. 30:4; Ps. 47:6) far outweigh the encouragement to play instruments. In fact, it’s a good idea to teach your congregation through your words and example that their faith-filled voices are the most important sound when music is happening.
Contextualization that takes all its cues from the larger culture risks becoming indistinguishable from the culture. If an unbeliever feels completely comfortable in our meetings, we have a problem. The gospel is an affront to our pride and our lostness. Being in the world is not the same as being of the world. If our music, videos, values, and conversations look and sound exactly like the world around us, it might be difficult for an unbeliever to understand how the gospel has changed us.
Some aspects of our meetings will be counter cultural and shouldn’t be contextualized. Christians are people of the Word. Our first and last authority for what we do when we gather is Scripture. That’s why we celebrate the Lord’s supper and baptism. That’s why pastors preach and don’t merely engage in non-threatening interactive conversations (2 Tim. 4:1-2). The gathering of God’s people is its own context, which is meant to shape and transform our thinking, perspectives, and choices.
Contextualization that ignores or minimizes history and other cultural contexts tends to create cultural snobbery, produce alienation, and undermine the broad reach of the gospel. When contextualization is too narrowly defined, people are inevitably left out. Are you contextualizing for 20-30 year olds? What about 60 year olds? Are you contextualizing for home schoolers? What about parents who send their kids to public school? Are you contextualizing for the arts community? What about brick layers, homemakers, and accountants? At the recent Sovereign Grace pastors conference, Kevin DeYoung said that, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will become a widow in the next.” Amen. While connecting with the most significant cultural aspects of our church and community, we’re wise to make our people aware of the worldwide and heavenly body of Christ as well.
Contextualizing evangelism practices is different from contextualizing congregational meetings. Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 9:22-23 are often used as a defense for changing the Sunday meeting to make unbelievers feel more welcome.
To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
But Paul is speaking of evangelizing non-Christians, not meeting with the church on Sunday mornings. The purpose of those gatherings is to build up the body of Christ through the spiritual gifts for the glory of God (1 Cor. 12:4-7, 1 Cor. 14:12). If an unbeliever is affected it will be because he or she realizes what’s happening when the church gathers is different from any other kind of gathering (1 Cor. 14:24-25).
Contextualization is a means, not an end. A while back I was interacting with someone on Twitter who said it’s “confusing when ‘congregational worship’ is used globally. What’s congregational for one is not for another.” I see the point. But passages like 1 Cor. 12 & 14, Col. 3:16-17, and Eph. 5:18-20 give us some basic building blocks that should characterize every gathering of Christians. Churches in Moscow, Beijing, Mumbai, Nairobi, London, Sydney, Santo Domingo, and Boise should all gather to hear God’s Word faithfully expounded and preached. Congregations throughout the world should sing and pray. Every meeting and its members should reflect the reality of the new life we share through the gospel of Christ as we anticipate his return.
Leading meetings in a way that people understand should be a priority for pastors and leaders. But let’s make sure contextualization never makes us look and act like something other than what Christ has redeemed us to be – blameless and innocent, shining as lights in the world as we hold fast to the word of life (Phil. 2:15-16).
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