Contextualizing the Gospel -Part 1

One of my most-discussed topics on this blog has been the life of faith in a post-Christian America.  The most read section of this blog is this section, about the use of communications technology within the church.  These two topics are not disconnected, though.  Any new culture necessitates new ways of communicating the message of Jesus.  Radical societal changes create a new culture.  Thus, the Christian message must be re-contextualized.  In order to understand the methods of communicating that, we must first truly understand the basic reasons behind this.

The difficulty is that the Church in America has largely missed addressing the massive changes in culture over the last 40+ years.  In some ways, the Church has insulated herself against these changes.  While the community is seen as increasingly ungodly, many Christians have banded together into Christian ghettos.  Over time the Christian culture has changed independently of the culture around it.

A great example of this has been seen in worship.  In the 1970’s the Church in America started to adopt the musical styles of the larger American culture.  In a relatively short amount of time the Church changed its worship style from the hymns of the last thousand plus years to the more modern praise songs.

A natural result of a more exuberant worship style was increased movement in worship and raising of hands.  Churches needed a way for its members to see the words of these new songs.  Songs were being frequently added to the musical canon, and older ones were being removed.  This was not conducive to printed hymnals.

As technology increased and prices dropped accordingly, churches began to display these words with overhead/slide projectors and more recently, video projectors.  So, visiting the average church in America on a Sunday morning, one will find a group of people clapping along to the music as they sway and sing at a digital projection of words and video.

This isn’t greatly different from a rock concert, but people staring at projectors with one hand raised as they awkwardly shuffle their feet is its own beast for sure.  While this has evolved in Church, the larger outside culture has grown into a greater variety of musical expressions depending on genre.  A rap concert might have a crowd packed tightly with people jumping and arms swaying, while hardcore and punk fans are moshing in the pit up front.  Although it has been modernized, Church music still looks and sounds very different than its secular counterparts, but for new reasons.  While the culture evolved, church culture has evolved too, but separately.

A second response to the changing culture has been for the Church to cling to the methods of the past, refusing any changes at all.  Many of these churches look to the glory days of the 1950’s when the sanctuary was packed.  Either because of political forces within the church resisting, or as part of a poor growth strategy (similar to keeping your Member’s-only jackets in hopes it’ll come back in style), these churches have tried to keep everything museum-quality.

In these churches one can find the only places in America with pews and pipe-organs.  Deep Maroon carpets and green pew hymnals sit locked eternally in 1962.  The pride of these churches is their history and they give even vocal approval of the fact that they haven’t evolved, as if the gospel itself is encapsulated by the accumulation of dust.   -Ryan


5 thoughts on “Contextualizing the Gospel -Part 1

  1. ryan, after overcoming the inertia of the first paragraph, you picked up speed and ended with a verbal checkered flag flapping in the breeze! You finished with a sad description of the church that had locked itself in 1962. I was eleven and went to one of those stalwart Methodist churches in Biloxi, Mississippi. You forgot to mention the padded pews in deep forest green. Our hymnals were red. All the prayers were printed in the back of the red books. Next to them in the pew backs were black Bibles all RSVs. Everything in the church had a little plaque next to it, above it or under it with someone’s name on it or “in memory of…” on it. This is in part why the museum stays in tack. How could you move the table donated by the Rodeau family in honor of Grandmother Rodeau who was president of the senior women’s council for over 25 years! When a $50,000 organ is donated in someone’s honor it is encombant on the music minister to use the organ every Sunday. Someone from the donating family is watching and listening.
    My heart goes out to these people. They are stuck, partly in honor, partly in a kind of nastalgia, partly because it’s comfortably familiar, and perhaps because it seems more fitting and right to do church in this way.
    My parents attend a church just like this and visited our church last Sun. They rarely comment. It is just too different for them to handle. They don’t know what to do with their hands. Gotta commend the main-liners and old stylers, they take care of that problem with all kinds of handy stuff in the pew backs. For years I used the golf pencils and the donation cards to draw charactures of the minister. The more I got into comics, the more the charactures took on the appearance of the heros (Green Lantern) or the villian (Muck Master Cruel. I for one was grateful for the stuff in the pew backs. We supply none of that for tactile people. But today we have i-phones and don’t let people use them in church. I like it that some people are re-thinking that.

  2. Thank you so much for the comment.
    Yes, that was my grandparent’s church too. Of course, that was 25 years ago. It is unfortunate that there are still churches that aren’t much different than that today. Thanks so much for reading.

  3. This is one of the issues I always wrestle with when considering contextualization in America: who do we contextualize for? If we update our services for the youth, we will alienate the older crowd. If we keep things the way they have been for 25 years, we alienate the youth. If we have separate services for everyone, we segment the body of Christ and miss the whole point I think.

    When I was in college, I knew some people that started a church just for college students. In fact, a national famous worship recording artist came from that church. I knew one of the guys that started the whole idea, and he asked if I wanted to help him. I politely declined because he just had some major hate speech about the Churhc that just made me uncomfortable. I mean, not like your posts that just question the status quo (which is always good), but just down right anger. The unrighteous kind. Luckily, some other people got a hold of the idea and I think something better came out of it. But I still stayed away for quite a while because of that one guy.

    I did visit there once to see what it was like. And it was a church that was perfectly contextualized for college students. Everything was set up the way college students could want it. And I found it really… boring. It was just too perfect. There was no need to stretch or die to self. There was nothing wrong.

    I think that is danger when you get into too much contextualization. We all need to be stretched, to die to ourselves. To get out of our comfort zones. That is why I think something about church HAS to be different from the culture around us. Otherwise, why not go to a U2 concert and then attend a Stuart Smalley feel-good-about-yourself seminar afterwards? Music and preaching right there – all contextualized the way we like it.

    I think we need the things that are familiar for the older crowd and the younger crowd. Which you probably agree with to, to some degree, but I just wanted to put my two cents in. Since you are only giving me a penny for my thoughts, I guess you will make a bundle if I comment more, huh?

    Of course, I am a fan of contextualization – but as long as it is not a means to just make the church totally comfortable for one particular cliche out there. But as long as there are hip hop churches out there that only cater towards one cliche, I think it is also okay to have churches that haven’t changed in 25 years. They both serve specific people. In order to have a more balanced church, both sides will have to give up something.

    If you haven’t read The Relevant Church, it’s a good compilation of essays by pastors that are wrestling with these issues.

  4. Matt,
    I have not read The Relevant Church, but I would love to check it out.

    I do completely understand what you are saying, and I would agree with you. However, what I am discussing at its heart is really less about how the gospel is contextualized specifically, and how the gospel must be contextualized. In my opinion, part-and-parcel to this issue is the “comfort factor” of the Kingdom of God.

    I gave a sermon a while back entitled, “The God of All Comfort,” where I attacked this idea (in a very Irwin McManus reasoned way) that God is fundamentally concerned with our comfort. The churches that remain unchanged for decades do so primarily because they don’t want to do what is uncomfortable. Change requires discomfort and insecurity. When things stay the same, people know exactly what Sunday is going to look like. When that surety vaporizes, people feel that what they have known as part of them for so long is now gone. What is left isn’t that church any longer. They feel a loss.

    I remember my family buying a new car in the 80’s. It was a maroon Cutlass-Sierra. It was my first time getting a new car (I was about 10–not driving age). My Mom’s first car was a ’77 Corolla, a yellow station-wagon with faux-wood paneling. It was old and nasty. There were dried pollywog carcasses from a failed attempt at transport summers before embedded in the carpet. When it came time to trade it in, my Mom cried loud heaving tears, and convinced my step-dad to trade in his truck instead.

    My critique of part of the Church in America is not so much that it isn’t creating worship services with full coffee bars and the trendiest music. Many churches are doing exactly that. I would argue, actually, that often these changes are made less to reach the unchurched, and more often to make it more comfortable to hip young Christians. Instead, I think we should be re-examining how we present the truth of our faith, the “what” of our communication just as much as the “how”.

    If we only take the charge of contextualization as a motive to make our music more U2-like, we are simply making the gospel more comfortable. I think that our comfort is often very much at odds with God’s will. I do hope that we are always adapting to make the good news about Jesus more understandable and lowering any hurdles that we have created (meaning not people’s own sin and selfishness) to people coming to relationship with God.

  5. Comfort is kind of a relative thing, I would say. I know people that are not comfortable with U2-like worship. In fact, there was an article a few years ago about a movement of young Christians into the orthodox church because they felt that churches were becoming too “infected” with modern worship. The same can be said for the Gospel – different people find different parts of it comforting. Michael Pritzl, an old-school Vineyard worship leader that still puts out stuff, once said how he takes comfort in the meditating on the crucifixion. Like, the actual, bloody, graphic nailing of the arms of Jesus and all that. he said he loved the thought of himself curling up inside the wounds of Jesus or something like that and finding rest there. Most people would find those some fairly disturbing thoughts. But we are all different in what we find comfort in.

    Some of these hip modern churches do worry me, especially when they are so proud in their assertion that they are the best place for people that have been burned by the church before. I know that there are many people that have legitimate hurts from the church, but a slight majority of those that say they are burned by the church are actually just mad that the leaders of their past church wouldn’t do things their way. So, basically… these churches are wanting people that were stretched out of their comfort zone and bailed in the past? They’ll just bail again when things don’t go their way. I think some church leaders are realizing that and you don’t hear that as much any more. Just a random tangent thought.

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