In many ministry conversations today, you will hear questions like, “Do we need to contextualize the way we do ministry?” or “Do we need to contextualize the presentation of the gospel?” These are good questions.
We understand the importance of contextualization when it comes to foreign missions. We know that you need to plant churches in Africa that reflect the current culture of that place. But contextualization is just as important in our Western culture.
In this three part series, we are looking at what it takes to contextualize the mission here in the West. To figure out how we carry out the work of God, we need to vigorously consider three issues.
Ecclesiology: What expression of a New Testament church would be most appropriate in this context?
Missiology: What forms and strategies should we use to be about the Kingdom of God?
Why Must a Church Contextualize Its Ministry?
As I’ve spoken and encouraged churches and leaders, I’ve often said, “If the 1950’s came back, a lot of our churches would be ready to go.”
So in kind of a popular sense, I’m calling for and encouraging a consideration of contextualization in the way that we do ministry. This isn’t about preaching a new Gospel, or adapting the Gospel to the culture. It is about sharing God’s truth in the culture using its own language.
God is a missionary God, and we’re reminded that the Church is to be a missionary Church because God has a mission. The Church doesn’t need to search for a mission. God’s mission has a church, and so the Church doesn’t just have a function of mission, but the Church exists for mission.
If your local church set up a food pantry, those overseeing it shouldn’t just sit around talking about what to do. They should figure out how to do it. They should be passionate about how they could connect the food with hungry people.
People on mission already know why they exist. They simply must work on how they succeed.
Sometimes we are more successful at contextualizing ministry in our personal lives than we are at the church level. This is true for various reasons.
Some people in the church may desire to be better at reaching the surrounding culture, but they don’t have influence in the church. Others may be afraid that in adapting their methods they will necessarily ruin the message. These may be legitimate concerns, but they are not legitimate excuses.
Whatever the excuse for not contextualizing ministry, the end result is the same—irrelevance. As culture morphs into the future, we don’t have the luxury of letting it do so without the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiology Informs Contextualization
How does our church accomplish its mission where we are? Well, ask yourself this: What expression of a New Testament church would be most appropriate in this context?
That question makes the assumption there are certain Biblical values, marks, if you will, of a church that should be true everywhere and every place. Whether it is among a remote people group in Africa, or in a high rise in Vancouver, it is true everywhere.
The values and marks remain the same. It is the expression that varies. The answer to “What is a church?” is grounded in why we exist.
But the answer to “How does our church function?” will depend on where we are geographically, where we are on the timeline of history, and who is around us. The how of ministry is in many ways determined by the who, when, and where of culture.
Before we can be an expression of the main values of the New Testament Church, we should understand what those main values are. This can get tricky, because as we look at Scripture it is easy to view some of their specific practices as the guiding principles. But practices grow out of principles.
It is the practices that will look different from one context to another. The principles are steady, even if certain movements or tribes within the body hold to some more strongly than others.
We see the constant values of the New Testament church at the first outbreak of the Gospel post-ascension. Many people from different cultures are being saved and filled with the Spirit. Immediately after Peter’s bold sermon on the day of Pentecost, we get a glimpse into what mattered to the infant Church. These guiding values traveled home with the foreigners into every culture. What were these values?
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers… Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house… praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42, 46a, 47.
Here are three things we can learn about the values of the early Church.
Devotion to God’s Truth
The early Christians loved God and believed His truth. They spent much time in prayer, worship, study, sacraments, etc. because they believed truth was the fabric of His expanding Kingdom.
In each culture, there are different lies, but the truth of God is the same everywhere. Being sold out to His truth is important as you contextualize ministry to each setting and confront the lies of each culture.
The Church can minister in many different ways, but it cannot succeed apart from God’s truth. This requires Bible study and hearts that seek God. Choosing leaders who place a high priority on the things of God is essential if we want to truly be a missionary church.
Determination to Reach the Lost
The Lord was adding to their number daily because they weren’t simply sitting on the gospel. They didn’t just internalize it.
Even though everyone will not accept your witness, Scripture does tell us that believers can and do find favor with our neighbors. Part of this is because we are living out the gospel in daily life.
Caring for the hurt, standing up for the oppressed, seeking the lost—these are things Christ did. These are things the early church did. No matter one’s location, we know these things. Everyone needs a Savior, everyone is broken, and everyone is enslaved to sin.
The truth to remedy the evil of sin is constant, but the way we express that truth will vary from a community well, to a barbershop, to a prison. God will bless the missional mindset.
Dedication to Build up Believers
The church is a place where people find healthy community. This happens through worship, training, fellowshipping, etc.
If we are going to offer the unsaved a new life, we should offer them a new place to grow in that life. This isn’t a place of escape. It is a place of transformation.
The idea that we have a more private place of nurture does not mean there isn’t a larger benefit. Believers in the church experience a renewing of the mind as they are exposed to the gospel in a more intense way.
As the body becomes the safe and edifying place it is meant to be, it will have a healthy effect in its community. Transformation will spill out into the streets.
The church should be a place people want to join, even if it is a place people don’t understand at first. But it should never become a club.
The body should be unique enough to be recognized as God’s family, but open enough to freely express God’s mission.
How Are We Doing?
Are we successfully expressing these values in the Western Church? If the world looked at us, could they tell we are on a mission? How would they state our mission? Do our own people know what we are doing?
If members of the early Church would visit us, would they find us contextualizing their values? Where are we strong in our expression? Where could we use some work?