Most people know what to expect when they enter their local church on any given Sunday. Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian—it doesn’t matter. Even those churches who pride themselves on being “different” most often have a certain way of doing things, from dress to worship style to music. And that’s fine—until people begin to see those things as an essential part of their experience with God. At that point the system becomes a fundamentally flawed strategy.
Around the world we teach missionaries to take the gospel into specific cultures. We teach them to take plenty of time before entering a culture so they can rightly understand the language, culture, and mind-set of the people there. By doing so, they can see how the church needs to look in that particular soil. That’s called contextualization. And in contextualizing, we follow the example of great cultural innovators of the past like Hudson Taylor, William Carey, Amy Carmichael, and Lottie Moon—the favorite of my particular denomination.
Lottie Moon understood what true contextualization meant, and it cost her life. She dressed in Chinese clothes, lived in Chinese culture, and ate Chinese food (at least until she eventually starved to death by giving it all away). My denomination memorializes her work through a missions offering each year around Christmas. But it is a huge irony that one of the greatest missionary examples in history, whose work is celebrated each year, no longer seems to be our model.
Instead we seem to find something that works in one place and try to make it work the exact same way in an entirely different context.
Contextualization is not just a concept applicable to work in other countries; it is applicable in every single place that has a context. And that would be everywhere.
Simply put, we will not reach communities this year, let alone in the next decade, if we continue to try to do so with church methods that worked in the communities of the 1950s. It’s hard for some people to hear that, and while I don’t want to be critical or harsh, I will confess I am desperate. Desperation forces us to speak the truth in love. As missionaries wherever we live, we must daily be involved in the contextualized communication of the gospel. That’s what missionaries and missional Christians would do.
Missionaries teach us to look similar and live differently. That’s what good missionaries do. Unfortunately, we don’t tend to do that in our culture today. Instead we look different but live the same.
We may dress in a tie or skirt on Sunday mornings, but on Monday morning we’re still driven by the world’s definition of success. We may listen to Christian music, but we use words in conversations that tear others down. We may not go to bars, but we’re guilty of gluttony. We may avoid movies like but we struggle with Internet pornography at the same rate as non-Christians. We may go to Christian schools, but we ignore the hurting world around us. We have failed to “shine like stars” amongst a “crooked and perverted generation,” as we’re urged to do in Philippians 2:15. Once again, Paul, the greatest contextualizer of them all gives us advice on how to do it.
Church isn’t supposed to be like TiVo. That is, it’s not a place where you can choose to keep only what lines up with your viewing pleasure and delete the rest—while you cozy up to watch surrounded by friends who laugh at the same things you laugh at and get caught up in the same dramas that you get caught up in. Church isn’t supposed to be like that, but most of us have been catered to in so many other areas of life that we’ve become little more than church consumers. So if someone threatens our preferences, we’ll just shop around until we find another.
The apostle said that he would give up all personal preferences because of the mission to share the gospel. Let’s not forget that Paul was a Jew by birth; Judaism was his heart culture. It was the culture of his mother and father, the one he had grown up in and felt most comfortable around. Yet for the sake of the gospel, he was willing to become all things to all people. In fact, he even went so far as to say,
“For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers, my countrymen by physical descent” (Romans 9:3-4).
Paul’s passion was so great that he was willing to sacrifice his very salvation so the Hebrews might be saved. What about us?
Most of us aren’t willing to sing different songs.
Most of us aren’t willing to trade seats.
Most of us aren’t willing to adapt our methodologies.
Most of us love preferences more than the gospel.
Do we love our preferences more than the people who are dying to connect with a God who loves them?
There are plenty of people who will tell you not to be culturally relevant. They’ll even tell you it’s wrong to be culturally relevant. Please don’t listen to them. It simply doesn’t make sense to be angry at culture. Preaching against someone’s culture is like preaching against someone’s house—it’s just where someone lives. There are good things as well as bad things in it, but we have to live in the culture in order to transform it. We must be missionaries in our own contexts.
The “how” of ministry is in some ways determined by the “who,” “where,” and “when” of culture. The gospel has not become irrelevant in today’s culture. The gospel, the Scriptures, and the cross are relevant in this in every culture. Our churches are what have become irrelevant.
Too many churches have chosen their traditions over their children. They’ve chosen their present comfort over their future. We live in a world full of people in need of hope. We can ignore them, or we can meet them where they are. I think meeting people where they are is the better way to go. And that means going—as sent people—into real relationships with real people in the real world.
This article is excerpted from Sent: Living the Missional Nature of the Church.