Contextualization can be a hot-button word. Some synonymize it with compromise, assuming that any movement towards a culture weakens the gospel message. Others obsess over it, and baptize anything aesthetic and cultural in its name.
The fact is that everything we do is cultural. We are enculturated, embodied persons, and no matter what I attempt to do, I will be an enculturated and contextualized person doing it. If I choose to wear vestments and shake a smoking censer in a 700-year-old cathedral, I will be a thirty-something American former indie rock kid doing so. My past shapes my present, and shapes the way my present is perceived by the people around me.
When talking about contextualizing, we’re usually talking about a congregation or an audience, and we’re usually asking questions like:
- What does it look like for this community to celebrate?
- What does it look like for this community to mourn, or lament?
- What does it look like for this community to confess and repent?
- What does it look like for this community to share comfort and assurance?
- What kind of language do they use?
- What is the common level of education, and how should that shape language?
These questions are all important, and they’re certainly the right track to develop a sense of the kind of culture we want to cultivate as pastors and worship leaders. But we also need to think a bit more broadly about the community for which we’re contextualizing.
Over the years, I’ve developed a framework for thinking about contextualization that I think is pretty helpful. It’s three primary questions to ask that hopefully provide a well-rounded vision for contextualized ministry.
Who is Here?
The first question to ask is, “Who is here?” We need to be aware of who already is present in our churches. I’ve seen many churches aiming for a particular cultural vision (“we want to reach urban African Americans”) that seem completely self-unaware about who they are presently (“we are white, middle class, suburbanites”). This is problematic on two levels.
First, it poorly serves the body of Christ that is already gathering. The core of a church plant is not merely means to an end – a team that can gather another group for worship. They are ends in themselves – the body of Christ. Pastors and church planters are called to shepherd and serve that body, and calling them to mission is certainly a part of that work, but if our contextualization goals fail to include the culture from which our body has already gathered, we dishonor them, placing cultural roadblocks in front of their participation.
Second, in most cases, it will poorly serve the target community. There’s nothing worse than seeing a poor imitation of your culture’s beloved music and language. Bridging cultural gaps requires reaching leaders from within that culture, empowering them, and letting them lead the way. It doesn’t mean “faking it ‘til you make it” stylistically. The lack of authenticity and excellence will do far more harm than good.
Excellence, on the other hand, is culturally transcendent. Though an individual may not love gospel music, excellence in performance will generally be engaging anyway. That’s the nature of great art and music – it collects and gathers people who are both familiar and unfamiliar.
On this topic: I know many worship leaders who cringe at the thought of incorporating one of CCM’s big “hits” (I often do so myself), but we need to think about who our church actually is. Do they listen to those songs? If so, they’re ready to sing them. Is it worth incorporating one or two songs in our gatherings to serve those who are encouraged and blessed by them?
Who Was Here Before Us?
The second question to ask is, “Who Was Here Before Us?” This question has a broad range of considerations. If you’re pastoring a church with a long history, get to know that history. What did previous generations love and appreciate? How can you celebrate the heritage of God’s people who gathered and paved the way for you now?
Consider as well the much broader question of the historic church. How are you recognizing that the church didn’t start with us? That we stand as part of a tradition that stretches across the ages and across international borders?
This isn’t to say that you need to start singing in Latin, or that you need to only sing historic hymns and chants. But it may be worth – on a regular basis – incorporating some things from outside your cultural and generational tribe: A creed, a hymn (perhaps one that’s pre-reformation even!), a song from the global church.
Who Isn’t Here (and needs to be)?
The final consideration is “Who isn’t here (and needs to be)?” Who are we trying to reach with the gospel? What would it look like for them to wake up one day and start singing songs to Jesus?
This is the question that I hear being asked and answered well by the missional tribe. There’s great work being done to consider how we might speak to our post-Christian culture, and it takes some serious wrestling. How we navigate decisions about the kinds of language we use, the stylistic choices about dress, music, and architecture have a great impact on mission, telling someone almost immediately whether or not they belong. That’s the nature of enculturation; it says “The kingdom has advanced even here.”
The Goal of Contextualization
I remember Tim Keller once saying that the goal of contextualization isn’t to make the gospel unoffensive, but to make the offense of the gospel clear. That’s a task we need to engage in for both believers and non-believers, because we all dwell in churches that are full of folks who assume they get the gospel. Our choices about language and culture provide windows through which we can subvert their assumptions, open new windows to the gospel, and point more clearly to Christ as their only real source of hope and comfort.