MiNY series - Week 3 - Is contextualisation necessary?

6th October 2014
Mark Jackson
Group of people posing for the camera in New York

I can’t believe how quickly the time is going here on the Redeemer City to City International Church Planting Intensive … too quickly … as there is so much to take in; so many questions to think through; and so much to process for my own life as well as for the life of Inspire. But I am loving every moment of it. See here for some week 1 reflections on the priority of prayer and gospel renewal and here for week 2‘s ‘how to kill your church plant’! This time I want to consider what is often referred to as ‘contextualisation’. What is it? Why you can’t avoid it. How do you do it well?

What is contextualisation?

I don’t know if this word means anything to you. Or whether it has a positive or negative effect on you. I have to confess that the word ‘contextualisation’ has, in the past, been something of a negative term for me. Alarm bells used to go off in my head whenever I heard the word, thinking that it meant changing the message of the gospel in order to make it more palatable for those skeptical about the Christian message.

But that is not how the term is being used on the intensive here in New York. In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 , the apostle Paul speaks of adapting to the different cultures he came in contact with: ‘becoming all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.’ In other words, biblical contextualisation has nothing to do with changing the message of the gospel. But it is serious about changing the manner in which we communicate and embody that message based on the different people and cultures we are seeking to engage with.

Why you can’t avoid it

In one sense, contextualisation is inevitable because you cannot avoid expressing the message of the gospel in a certain manner. In terms of the Sunday service, the language you use, the accent you speak in, the clothes you wear (blue-checked shirts!) or the sermon illustrations you choose – they will inevitably connect more with some than others and depending on background may even alienate some people. The question, therefore, is not whether you are contextualising but in what ways are you doing it? Because you can’t avoid it. Are we doing it well? Are we aware of the effect our service style may be having on others?

This is not an easy question to answer. I know one person at Inspire who finds our children’s song in the Sunday Service very difficult to join in with. I know another person who has joined Inspire because of the way we welcome the children at Inspire and allow them to participate at the front during the first part of the service. In other words, you can’t appeal to everyone at the same time and yet decisions need to be made on, for example:

emotional expressiveness    (stoic … cool … warm … earnest … hot)
genre of music                     (Classical … mixture … contemporary)
type of communication        (Conceptual/abstract … intuitive … relational … practical)
musical skill required           (Expert … accomplished … passable skill … Low skill)
ethos                                    (Dignity, transcendence … family … passion … mission)
timing                                   (1 hour … 1.5 hour …. 2 hour … 3 hour ‘experience’)
focus                                     (Doctrinal … Experience … Practical)
structure                               (Simple … Choir … Band … Complex)
leading services                    (Experts … Lay leaders … Anyone can participate)

And I am not just talking about Christian sensibilities. We want to be a church for everyone; making sure we do not erect any unnecessary cultural barriers to those unused to church or questioning Christianity. Don Carson warns church leaders that ‘…in every culture it is important for the evangelist, church planter, and witnessing Christian to flex as far as possible, so that the gospel will not be made to appear unnecessarily alien at the merely cultural level.’1

I wonder how we are doing at Inspire?

How do we do it well?

I used to think that culture was either a neutral thing or a negative thing, which meant I either wasn’t fussed about culture or I had a superior attitude towards it; thinking the church knows best and let’s be careful of all things ‘out there’. But the Bible teaches that this is the world God has made; every human being is made in his image; and culture comes from him too. Therefore, there are positive aspects to culture that we should embrace and engage with. On the other hand, post-Fall, our hopes, desires, longings are not what they should be and so there are aspects of culture that we need to challenge and confront.

In other words, whenever we’re thinking about the manner of our gospel presentation or how to shape our Sunday service so as not to erect any unnecessary cultural barriers – a two-way approach is required whereby on the hand we connect positively with those aspects of culture which are God-given and good but challenge and confront those aspects which are fallen.

We see this dual method of cultural connection in 1 Corinthians 1:22-25  where the apostle Paul is engaging both the Jewish and Greek cultures of his day and their respective desire for power and wisdom. On one hand, he affirms each society’s cultural aspiration for wisdom and power. On the other hand, he uses the cross of Jesus to challenge the way in which they are pursuing these good things. Christ alone is the true wisdom which the Greeks long for and Christ alone is the true power which the Jews seek. Paul’s formula for contextualisation is neither completely confrontational to culture nor totally affirming of it. It is a dual method where he both affirms and confronts.

This is vitally important for the way we think about engaging with our friends and local community. It will keep us humble and protect us from a ‘holier than thou’ attitude because there will be many aspects of culture which are positive and can show us how to do things better. For example, there are those outside the church who put us to shame in certain ways that they live their life and the excellence they produce in their work. On the other hand, it will keep us wary of adapting to every aspect of culture or blindly adopting every new fad because there may be idolatrous desires and longings behind us.

So let’s be engaging more with our friends, neighbours and colleagues. Let’s be listening to the reasons they feel uncomfortable coming to church or what they don’t like about Christianity. Some of those reasons may be valid and we need to affirm them and think about changing some of them. On the other hand, there may be times that we need to challenge as we hold out Jesus Christ as the ultimate answer to all our hopes, longings and desires in life.

So here are a few questions I’d love to get your thoughts on:

– Any concrete ideas as to how we may be unintentionally excluding some people?
– Any language of phrases we use which may be unnecessarily exclusive?
– What cultural barriers may we be inadvertently setting up?
– Is there anything that we are doing as a church (aside from the offense of the gospel) that is holding you back from inviting – your friends and colleagues to a Sunday service?

1 D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian MInistry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), p.122