Contextulization in the church: getting out of the way

The last few years I’ve experienced a lot of pushback on the “modern American church.” I’ve noticed that people tend to voice their disagreements to me because I speak highly of Andy Stanley, and they look at my dad’s blog and see how much he talks about leadership, which is one of the “new values” of the “modern American church.” I guess that makes me qualified to discuss this with them…?

To get everybody on the same page… here’s some short buzz items to describe what I mean by “modern American church”:

  • Values church growth
  • Has a cool worship band
  • Likes the multi-site idea
  • Small groups (what’s Sunday School anyway?)
  • Has a Twitter account
  • Admires Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Andy Stanley, etc.
  • Talks about leadership development

Now, if I were to boil down the arguments of all the people who oppose these things, here’s what it would be:

You win people to what you win them with.

Translation: If a person comes to your church because you have cool lights and a cool worship service and cool programs for their kids, then they become committed to cool lights, services and programs for their kids… not Jesus Christ or the gospel.

And there’s huge truth to that. Church-hoppers are in the market for the “right” church. If another church comes along that offers a better product than the current one, or the current church no longer brings satisfaction, then they’ll just go to another church. Easy.

The response, then, is to criticize churches that are striving to be modern. Why try to be “cool” if you’re just going to win people to a “cool” church?

I think the debate consistently neglects the right definition of contextualization. With the right definition, I think both sides gain merit, tension grows for both sides to alter the way they do ministry, and the Church (big C) becomes more effective.

Contextualization is getting out of the way… not paving the way.

This is a very slight difference that changes the paradigm surrounding church models. The church’s job is to remove distractions, not to make Jesus seem more appealing.

Here’s how that plays out:

  • Relevant worship music is used because that removes an obstacle- people would expect to hear music like this.
  • Lights are used because that removes an obstacle- that’s what people would typically see today if music were being played on a stage.
  • Leadership strategies are implemented because that removes an obstacle- poor organizational culture only hinders the work of the church.

You don’t play relevant music to make people see how cool Jesus is. You play relevant music so people are still listening when you tell them how cool Jesus is.

This is huge for both sides.

  1. You can’t decide to avoid relevance in the church because then you lose your voice in culture.
  2.  You can’t try to win people with relevance because then you win them to relevance… not to Christ.

Both sides get in the way of the gospel. Ultimately only the Spirit will save a person, so our job is to get out of the Spirit’s way. Our job is to be contextual.


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