I don’t know about you, but I am a conference junkie. I love worship conferences. They are inspiring, motivating, and can really help us grow in our worship leadership. These days, you don’t even have to go to a conference to find great information that can help us grow in our leadership with the proliferation of YouTube and other great resource-sharing sites.
Let me ask a question, though. Have you ever been to a conference; found this great piece of information, a ministry idea, or a song; taken it back to your church, and watched it flop? It just didn’t work? It worked so great at the conference or at another church, but it fell on deaf ears in your own church. While there is great ministry information to be found in books, at conferences, and on the internet, there can be a temptation, if we are not careful, to simply borrow ministry practices that have worked well other places, and to implement them, without modification, in our own ministry situations.
What is the problem with this approach? Back in the early 1970’s, a Taiwanese-born man named Shoki Coe coined the term contextualization in reference to the need for churches to adapt their ministry practices to be more effective in their local contexts. He first used the term in reference to overseas missions, but it now commonly refers to the adaptation of ministry practices that takes into consideration the local culture and context. When we adopt ministry practice from other churches, without contextualizing, we will almost always miss the mark.
New York City church planter, Tim Keller, talks about cultural contextualization as the balance between two ends of an axis. At one end of the axis are churches that underadapt to the local culture. These churches have made their own church cultures an idol, refusing to adapt to the needs of the culture. They have become confusing, offensive, or simply unpersuasive in their contexts. These churches might say, “This is the traditional and proper way we worship in our church. What is the need to change?” Or more commonly, “We’ve always done it that way!” Underadapted churches force people to become more like them before they can hear and understand the message of the gospel.
On the other side of the axis are churches that overadapt to the culture. These churches are ineffective because they have actually assimilated the culture’s idols, in effect not asking people to change at all. These churches might say, “God is already at work in the culture, so let’s embrace it—all of it!” While it becomes easy for secular people to enter these churches, they are not counter-cultural and so lose their gospel effectiveness.
Effective churches adapt enough to the culture so as to communicate the gospel clearly and with impact, but are counter-cultural in calling people to reject the culture’s idols in the same way Jesus did1.
Finding the “Why” Behind the “What”
How do we avoid this temptation and do the essential work of translating and adapting our ministry style and communication of the gospel to our particular culture? How do we design a worship ministry that is neither underadapted nor overadapted to our culture?
If you do nothing else, spend some time identifying what Tim Keller calls, the baseline cultural narratives of your community1. Every culture has things in common that come out of shared experiences. These are the cultural narratives, or stories, that help define its culture, its values, and ultimately identify its idols. Is your culture pragmatic, individualistic, artistic, philosophical, or does it place a high value on learning? What does your culture value most? What are its primary idols? In New York City, the top cultural narrative seems to be the pressure to do whatever it takes to obtain wealth and power. In Boston, education and knowledge are extremely high values. In Dallas, materialism, and “keeping up with the Jones’” seems to be what drives people. What is it in your culture? What are your culture’s idols?
Once you have identified the cultural narratives, then you can begin to do the hard work of designing worship in a way that helps intersect the story of people’s lives with the life-changing message of the gospel. By the way, this is the case with both believers and non-believers, understanding that the believers in your church are still fighting the temptations to worship the idols of the culture.
Paul said in I Corinthians 9:22-23 (NIV), “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” Notice both the emphasis on adapting to culture, but also Paul’s emphasis on effective gospel ministry in this passage (which inherently challenges cultural idols). Paul was found regularly adapting the gospel message and his ministry approach to reach different cultures.
From the Big D to the Big Apple
I have been guilty in the past of doing “import ministry” – finding what is working in another church and adopting it to our context. It is easy and seems to bring new energy to culture, but unfortunately, it is seldom effective. Our family just made the move from Dallas to New York City this summer to plant a Wesleyan church. In our new context, we are on the front end of learning the culture of New York City so that we can design an effective gospel-centered Wesleyan ministry.
Here are some questions to consider:
1. What are the prevailing idols of the culture in your ministry context?
2. How can the gospel message we present (in our preaching, songs, liturgy, etc.) be good news to people in our culture? In what ways is their pursuit of cultural idols leaving them empty and wanting more?
3. How can the gospel message challenge the prevailing idols of your culture, both for believers and non-believers? How should the church be counter-cultural in its message in your community?
1. Timothy Keller, Center Church. (2012 by Redeemer City to City and Timothy J. Keller, Zondervan).