Recent Comments on Contextualization
I'll summarize what Rusty, a classmate and thoughtful dude, said: Owen, yeah, we get it, contextualize!--but how does this play out in a pluralistic culture that seems to defy individualized targeting?
A great question, and a fair one at that. Here's my first response, though, Rusty (and Al): I have no response. Well, I do, but not yet. You're ahead of me. You see, you guys may already believe that contextualization is cool. Not sure either way. But whether you do or you don't, there are lots of folks out there who don't. I was aiming the discussion at them, trying to first show people that a) every church is in some way contextualized and b) that's not a bad thing--it's a biblical thing.
Okay, so that was the non-answer. Now for the answer. I would say that while American cultures are often diverse and difficult to pin down, there are certain cultural markers that one can identify. These may not necessarily be confined to a region. What do I mean by this? I mean that a church aimed at postmodern culture might succeed just as well in Bible-Belt Kentucky as it does in God-hating Seattle. This has actually happened, for the record. There's a church called Sojourn Community in Louisville that is a cousin of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Totally different cultures, seemingly--but the same contextualized approach has worked well in each city.
That's the strength of targeting cultures, I think. You're not attempting to get the one and only group of people that would ever go to church. You're trying to get a wide cross-section, but you're doing so in a culturally sensitive manner.
To push back a bit, it's difficult to give exact models for churches for different regions, because I'm not there and I don't know the cultures. There's no one principle at play. I would simply go back to my criteria from yesterday and say that, like Paul before Mars Hill, we should study the culture to best understand how to engage it and interact with it. Surely not everyone in Mars Hill was a philosopher, but Paul was reaching out to pagan philosophers, and so he tailored his message to them. He wasn't planting a church, true, but he certainly was doing the work that a church planter does. So we need to do that same work when we plant churches. That's a positive statement. Here's a negative one that, though not answering the question most fully, gives some kind of an answer: I would be careful about planting any church anywhere. I know you didn't love this advice last time, Rusty, but I think it's sound. I would not encourage someone from the deep South to plant a church in rural Maine. I'm not saying it couldn't work. I'm just saying I wouldn't encourage it.
Here's another thought. I don't think that there are a ton of different cultures out there to reach. There's university culture, postmodern culture, athletic culture, conservative culture, liberal culture, working-class culture, traditional culture, and a bunch more. So what I would say is that in planting a church, one should try broadly speaking to identify which of these cultures fits one's target. It may not be that the church in GA is overwhelmingly one or the other, but there will likely be some kind of community leaning. Of course, it's pretty likely that the postmodern culture model will fit increasingly well with American culture. It's not 1950, after all. People don't carry that same sense of modernist guilt they used to. Most non-churched Americans won't set foot in a church of their own volition these days. Times have changed. It used to be that society as a whole felt guilty about not being religious, if not Christian, and this compelled many to attend church of some type. But that's not the case anymore. The Boomers grew up as anti-creedal peaceniks, didn't go to church, didn't raise their children to do so, and certainly didn't instill in them a sense of guilt if they didn't go. We thus should not expect much of America to ever come to our churches. I don't know what's happening in your churches, but it doesn't happen alot in mine. The way to reach this post-Christian nation (Blake, owner of the best jumper at SBTS, declared that Christendom was over, an apt phrase) is not to expect it to come to us, but to go to it.
That will increasingly involve non-traditional means. The debate over creationism worked well for a while, and the door-to-door stuff did too, but that era is largely over, I think. Those things can and are used of the Lord, but I would encourage Christians to focus their attention on building relationships with people, and on making their churches, once they are grounded in the crystal-clear and rock-solid principles of Scripture, friendly to outsiders. I'm resisting the twentysomething evangelical urge to start screeching about overhauling tradition here, and I think it's good that I resist. But there is surely much about our church lives that are not necessary, that serve only ourselves, and that have nothing to do with edifying the sheep and reaching the lost. Where we can, we should tweak our churches and make them amenable to the outsider. We ought not to assume that church is geared to the unbeliever. That is a classic mistake, and I do not wish to make it. But I do wish to make the church services as understandable and enjoyable to the lost as I possibly can without giving up an inch of the need to preach the truth, edify the saints, and glorify the Lord by the observance of the church's marks. After all, this is not church growth. No, so far from that, it's biblical.
So there you have it. An insignificant blog has fallen in the blogoforest, and I'm quite sure it made nary a sound.