A wise missionary knows that preaching the gospel to a different culture requires contextualizing your message. The words we use don’t automatically translate to a new culture that lacks the associations and experiences we’re familiar with. We need to find new ways of communicating the old, old story, ways that can be understood, ways that “speak the language” of those we’re ministering to.
But even on a local scale, we have to deal with contextualization. That’s because music and liturgy are a language. They can mean different things to different people. In the past few years, much has been written, advocated and modeled to help us understand why we should be concerned about leading services in ways that people actually comprehend what we’re doing and saying so that they are impacted in the right ways (Mike Cosper’s Rhythms of Grace is one example). That might mean changing your music accompaniment, liturgy, communication methods and more.
But I’ve seen contextualization misapplied at times. Here are a few things I’ve found helpful to keep in mind when thinking through how to connect with people.
Attempts to contextualize without clear, theologically informed leadership will tend to produce disorder, divisiveness and distance. Sometimes leaders receive the revelation that they should start doing more to reach the community around them. So the music becomes hipper, or louder, or jazzier, or more traditional. Centuries old liturgical practices are suddenly added or dropped. But making drastic changes in methodology or focus without considering those who are already in your church will prove disastrous. Communicating a clear gospel-informed vision will help people engage with changes.
If most of the congregation isn’t singing, you’re not contextualizing, you’re performing. Contextualizing should result in greater engagement, not less. I’ve been in meetings where the musicians are very culturally relevant, but at least half of the people were there to observe, not participate. God’s exhortations for his people to sing (1 Chron. 16:8-9; Ps. 5:11; Ps. 30:4; Ps. 47:6) far outweigh the encouragement to play instruments. In fact, it’s a good idea to teach your congregation through your words and example that their faith-filled voices are the most important sound when music is happening.
Contextualization that takes all its cues from the larger culture risks becoming indistinguishable from the culture. If an unbeliever feels completely comfortable in our meetings, we have a problem. The gospel is an affront to our pride and our lostness. Being in the world is not the same as being of the world. If our music, videos, values and conversations look and sound exactly like the world around us, it might be difficult for an unbeliever to understand how the gospel has changed us.
Some aspects of our meetings will be countercultural and shouldn’t be contextualized. Christians are people of the Word. Our first and last authority for what we do when we gather is Scripture. That’s why we celebrate the Lord’s supper and baptism. That’s why pastors preach and don’t merely engage in non-threatening interactive conversations (2 Tim. 4:1-2). The gathering of God’s people is its own context, which is meant to shape and transform our thinking, perspectives and choices.