Building Walls or Building Bridges?

Posted on 05/17/2007

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A MISSIONAL CHURCH IS CONTEXTUAL

Churches can be biblically faithful to God’s mission and at the same time work to relate to people in culture. Unfortunately there is a segment of Christianity that interprets attempts to become relevant as a compromise of the gospel.  Basically what these people have done in their minds is to make Christianity synonymous with their own cultural preferences.

                The missional church seeks “to remove the ‘extra’ stumbling blocks of culture without removing the essential stumbling block of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:23). “Unfortunately, the stumbling block of the cross has too often been replaced by the stumbling block of the church.”[1] Leonard Sweet observes that, “The church’s leaders have Alzheimer’s disease.  We still love them. We remember and pass on their stories. But they’re living in another world.  They’re totally clueless about the world that is actually out there.”[2] Sadly many churches exist in there own little world oblivious to the fact that they are no longer relevant because they have ceased to contextualize their ministry to the changing world around them.  They are stuck in a cultural rut and either can’t get out or do not want to get out. 

Being missional is about thinking and acting like a missionary in our culture.  It means thinking missiologically.  Missionaries know that, “they must have a profound understanding of their host culture before planning a strategy to reach the unique people group that exists in that cultural context.”[3]  What I mean is that churches will, and should, look different in each cultural context.  The gospel is unchanging but the church must contextualize the gospel to the culture in which we are trying to reach.  The fact is that, “God’s truth is not limited to any one culture.  The gospel is for all humanity, but it is always received within a specific cultural context.  This context includes a people’s language, customs, heritage, worldview, religion and all other things we find in a culture.[4]

For example, an urban church will and should look different from those in the country. Instead of relying on one model or one way of doing church, it is necessary to present the gospel to the community through the church in ways adapted for that particular culture. The church should contextualize its methods, strategically adapting its strategy in order to reach as many people with the gospel as possible.  Paul demonstrated contextualization in his own ministry.

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win the Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are with law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak.  I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some.  Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.  (1 Corinthians 9.19-23)

           If the church wants to be relevant; if it wants to succeed in its mission, it must give attention to contextualization. It must learn to understand, communicate, and demonstrate the gospel in a way that is contextual to its community.  “For the sake of the gospel,” we must have the heart of Paul to seek to be a servant of all people so that we might reach them.  The effective missionary studies and speaks the language of the audience’s culture in order to better communicate the gospel.  There is no culture-free expression of the gospel.  The church’s message, the gospel, is inevitably communicated in linguistic and cultural forms particular to its own place, time, traditions, ethnicity and many other factors.[5] Considering the fact that America can no longer be considered a Christian nation, Pastors should be equally skilled in exegeting both Scripture and the culture in order to best understand how to communicate the timeless truth in relevant and meaningful ways.[6]  Some are saying that Christians are as foreign in the post-modern West as they are in unevangelized lands overseas.[7]  If we are going to reach people with the gospel we must become aware of our cultural differences and plan accordingly. 

           Some may be tempted to think that culture and the need to contextualize is unimportant but to think this way is being blinded to the history of the expansion of the church.  For 2000 years, missionaries have sought to take the message across cultures.   For 2000 years the gospel has remained unchanged but the church has undergone constant change.  The reason strategies and models change is because the world is ever changing.  Being missional involves translating the gospel into the language of the culture.  The gospel must be expressed in fresh ways to each culture.  The church is called to cross cultural boundaries and to communicate the unchanging gospel in fresh, and relevant ways.[8]  The gospel is literally translated into a culture.

          As previously observed, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23, “I have become all things to all men.” Why? Because the gospel message needs to be contextualized to the people one is trying to reach.[9]It is important to note that the missional church may look completely different in its style and methodology from one place to another.  A culturally relevant church in one community may look very different from a culturally relevant church in another community. Stetzer makes a poignant challenge to Pastors to think contextually in their culture without seeking to blindly mimic the model used by another pastor in another setting:

“…too many leaders pastor their churches in their heads and not in their communities. But the truth is, if you can’t pastor the people God has given you (not the ones He’s given Andy Stanley or Erwin McManus), then you don’t love them. John Knox said, “Give meScotland or I die.” He had a passion for the people of Scotland. We need to have the same passion for the people where we are, and to love them and their culture (though parts of every culture should make you uneasy and call for a biblical critique—see Acts 17. The reason we engage culture is not to be cool, trendy, contemporary, or cutting edge—words that have become idols to us—but so that those who live in culture can hear the message of Jesus. That message is more than just “come to Christ,” it involves how we live and structure our lives, and it matters deeply. Our churches should share the gospel message wherever they are and whatever their cultural context.”[10]


[1] Ibid.  [2] Leonard Sweet, Postmodern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century World, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 29.

[3] Stetzer and Putman, Breaking the Missional Code, 2.

[4] Donald S. Tingle, The Gospel Unhindered, 100.

 [5] Darrell Gruder, ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in
North America
(Eerdmans, 1998), 87.
 

[6] Eddie Gibbs, ChurchNext, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 32 

 [7] Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches: Planting a Church That’s Biblically Sound and Reaching People in Culture (B&H, 2006), 34.

[8] James V. Brownson, Speaking the Truth in Love: New Testament Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic, (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998) 4.

 [9] Ed Stetzer,Church and Contemporary Culture-Always a Challenge,”
http://www.catalystspace.com/content/monthly/detail.aspx?i=1198&m=01&y=2007

 [10] Ibid.

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Posted in: Missional