Seven Myths of Contextualization

shutterstock_184172318_FotorA 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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14 Responses to Seven Myths of Contextualization

  1. Loren November 3, 2015 at 8:23 PM #

    “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.”

    How would one go about convincing the leadership of a church that this is true. Our Sunday morning services are almost exclusively about attracting people so they can hear about Jesus. It didn’t use to be that way, but a change of leadership has declared it to be so.

    • Bob Kauflin November 3, 2015 at 10:14 PM #

      Loren, thanks for your question. I’d first pray for your own heart and for God to be glorified. Then I’d read a book like The Compelling Community by Mark Dever or The Deliberate Church, also by Mark Dever. You could then ask your leaders if they’ve read them and perhaps encourage them to do so. I pray God gives you favor!

  2. Richard November 6, 2015 at 2:00 PM #

    Thanks for a helpful study. However I must say I think it’s a bit of a over-generalist soon to say that “Anytime your people aren’t singing, your’e not contextualizing, you’re performing”. Yes, musos and artists might struggle at times with self glorifying moments (but surely the same happens with speakers, too!?), but there’s certainly a place for creative, reflective, meditative, culturally-relevant expressions of bringing the Word to bear on the congregation’s heart without it always having to include everyone singing all of the time. I’m a professional muso, church planter and missionary and by God’s grace have been able to format various expressions of public worship that engages the congregation with the Word in possibly more confronting ways than if they were singing it themselves. I don’t have time to go into it here but happy to talk more offline if you want. God bless

    • Bob Kauflin November 6, 2015 at 5:10 PM #

      Richard, thanks for your thoughts. You’re reading more into my comment than I intended. I was speaking specifcally of churches where only a minority of people sing because the band is so concentrating on “contextualizing.” I didn’t mean to make it sound like the congregation should always sing. I’ll rewrite that section to make it clearer. Thanks for the comment!

      • Richard November 7, 2015 at 2:09 PM #

        Ok thanks Bob for clarifying your intention with this heading. Unfortunately, many Christians would agree with your unedited wording on this! We need to reclaim the arts and beauty and mystery and all the other beautiful asthetics that God has given us to glorify Him. Enough with cookie-cutter worship!

  3. Dave Bish (@davebish) November 7, 2015 at 6:50 AM #

    Bob, good to see you writing on this .”If most of the congregation isn’t singing, you’re not contextualizing, you’re performing.” – I suppose this is true, though if half the people in the room were unbelievers or on the fringes of faith, and in the sound of the gospel through the lyrics and the preaching, that would be a positive wouldn’t it?

    • Bob Kauflin November 7, 2015 at 8:05 AM #

      Dave, good point. But I’m not sure if the Bible envisions 1/2 of a congregational meeting made up of unbelievers or people on the fringes of the faith! At least, that’s not what it seems 1 Cor. 14:24 is saying. “If an unbeliever or outsider enters…” I suppose such a situation could exist, but in cases I’ve observed this phenomenon, it’s been members of the congregation who aren’t singing.

      • Dave Bish (@davebish) November 9, 2015 at 8:30 AM #

        And, I agree totally that church as a gig isn’t something to go after.

        The temptation to offer a gig with a TED talk is clearly there for churches in situations where its possible to gather a crowd… the presuppositions about what we think the gathering of the church is that lead us down that road are interesting and frightening.

  4. Carly Riordan January 5, 2016 at 5:01 PM #

    Hmmm I’m not sure I entirely agree with your statement: If most of the congregation isn’t singing, you’re not contextualizing, you’re performing.

    It’s given me something to think about but at this stage I think performance flows from the heart of the ‘performer’. Where the congregation chooses to engage in worship is up the the individual. And agreed that the band/vocals etc can help or hinder this. Over the years I have learnt that individuals respond to God in different ways. For me to look outwardly and decide if they are engaged or not can be futile. You’ve given me much to think about. Thank you.

    • Bob Kauflin January 6, 2016 at 9:15 AM #

      Carly, thanks for your comment. In saying someone is “performing” I didn’t intend to speak to motive. I was describing the overall effect. You’re playing, people are listening. Generally that falls under the category of performing. I shared more thoughts on why I think God calls us to sing in this post: I Worship God by Singing. You Should, Too. Hope that’s helpful. Thanks again for the comment!


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