Lights up or down in worship? At what age do kids join us in ‘big church’? How long is too long to preach? Cajon or drums? Acoustic or electric? Jeans or khakis? VBS or Sports Camp?
It’s hard to imagine a Christian reading this article who hasn’t disagreed with another Christian on these topics. You may have left a church over some of them. Why are these issues so confusing and divisive? What kind of a filter should a mature Christian use in these discussions?
A Theology of Contextualization
These questions are difficult because they are contextual in nature. This means that the answers will vary based on context. White boomers in the Midwest will have different opinions than African-Americans in the South or Latinos in the Northeast and we haven’t even left the United States yet. Context is determined by a myriad of factors including age, macro-geography (where you are in the world), micro-geography (where you are in the city), ethnicity, stage of life, affluence, length of residency and education. Unless a church is 100% homogeneous, we will disagree on issues of context.
The Bible, though, gives us a theological framework for contextual issues. Notice how Paul not only changed the language he spoke based on his context, but his argument as well. He reasoned with the Jews first from Scripture, but the Athenians first from the gods of the Areopagus. Context determined that Timothy was circumcised, but Titus was not. Paul’s decision to work as a tentmaker versus being freed up full-time in the ministry of the gospel changed based on context. No ministry, though, was more contextualized than that of our trinitarian God who condescended to us by taking on flesh in the form of Jesus Christ and communicating to us via the written word to pursue us in our context.
A theology of contextualization teaches that there is a direct correlation between contextualization and gospel fruit. Contextualization isn’t limited to missionaries in foreign countries. To be sure, all of us contextualize. We contextualize in our speech, our dress, our music and our meeting space. We agree that the progress of the gospel is affected when a missionary learns the native language, so why would contextualization in our own culture be any different?
In contextualized ministry, we aren’t serving ourselves, but our context. We aren’t primarily focused on the preference of the believers within the church, but the context of the unbelievers without. Contextualization is our effort to love our community by making the gospel as accessible as possible. If that is clear in our minds, the strife within our church surrounding these issues will dissipate as we shift from a self-focused theology to an other-focused theology. But, won’t that lead to a watered down worship that looks more like an Imagine Dragons concert than a church service? Not if the continuum is clear.
The Contextualization Continuum
Imagine a continuum with under-contextualized churches on the right and over-contextualized churches on the left. Under-contextualized churches may have great doctrine, but they have chosen to do church in a way that has little regard for the outside culture. The adiaphora of the under-contextualized church will always mirror the dominant culture within. They utilize faithful, but awkward methods of evangelism that can make unbelievers feel more like projects than people.
An example, I have visited churches where all children in the church are expected to sit still during the whole service. The parents were extremely diligent in their parenting and their children were remarkably obedient. But the expectation of children sitting still for 90 minutes was too far of a leap for the context, so few new people ever came.
In the under-contextualized church, the call trumps the context. No church is in sin if they choose this path, but the quantity of fruit in the under-contextualized church will suffer because the leep for the lost person into that new context is just too far. The people in that church may flourish, but their impact on that community will be limited.
Are you an under-contextualized church? An easy test: how free do the people in your church feel to invite their friends (all types of friends)?
An over-contextualized church, on the other hand, allows the context to drive too much in the church. Their music will be extremely contextualized, the preaching will primarily be geared to the unbeliever making sure to avoid landmine topics (or the Bible altogether), it will be easy to slip in and out anonymously and membership expectations will be low. They usually do a great job of engaging unbelievers, but often stopping short of full gospel engagement.
In the over-contextualized church, the context trumps the call and fruit will suffer, not in quantity, but in quality. They will often pack a room, but there will always be a lower glass ceiling over their spiritual growth.
Are you an over-contextualized church? An easy test: Do unbelievers or young Christians stay in your church for long periods of time without experiencing either growth or offense?
Appropriately Contextualized Ministry
The goal is appropriately contextualized ministry. This is a church that sees the context as the call. Churches are missions outposts. We exist for the mission. A church with no mission is like an airport with no airplanes, a yacht club with no yachts or an amusement park with no rides. Until that is crystal clear, we will work to make church in our image and perpetuate a theology of self.
Appropriately contextualized ministry can only grow in the fertile fields of humility and love. Only when we see the lengths Jesus went to for our souls can we begin to care more about our context than our comfort. An appropriately contextualized church is a missional church. Tim Keller says, “To contextualize with balance and successfully reach people in a culture, we must both enter the culture sympathetically and respectfully and confront the culture where it contradicts biblical truth.”
So, where does your church go from here? That depends on your context.