Most people who are involved in church ministry are concerned, to some degree or another, about culture, “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.” To be more specific, they want to best contextualize their message to people in society. This contextualization is an important part of ministry. When a pastor contextualizes, he chooses a form of communication by which to proclaims his faith. It’s worth it to give a little thought to adapting and contextualizing within today’s culture.
Culture: It’s More (or Less) Than You Thought
The Apostle Paul on Contextualization to the Culture
Paul wrote, “i have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:18). There are a few important points to draw from this passage. First, Paul adapted his ministry to the situations of particular cultures—the Jews, the Gentiles, the weak, etc. The passage also suggests that there are a variety of different cultures, all existing simultaneous, to which Paul must adapt at different times. Third, the whole point of Paul’s becoming all things to all men was for the sake of the gospel.
Three Concentric Circles
It is helpful to think of culture and our adaptation therein in terms of three concentric circles.
- First, there is a big outer circle that we’ll call “Kingdom Culture.” This is the culture formed by the theology, doctrine, and behavior , held by Christian people. Paul calls it “the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). Christians are a chosen people (1 Peter 2:9) that have a specific calling within life. This is the most significant aspect of culture, and forms the governing principles for contextualization.
- Then there is a smaller circle within the big one. It is the “Local, Contemporary Culture.” This is the culture of your particular place of ministry. For an inter-city church startup in Washington D.C., the “local, contemporary culture” will look far different from the local contemporary culture of a pastor in rural Namibia.
- Finally, there is the smaller circle, the “Internal Subculture,” of a particular group of believers. This circle includes the smallest number of people, and has to do with a specific set of cultures, customs, expectations, etc. within a larger local contemporary culture. The cultural behavior of the subculture may vary slightly from the broader culture, but they live within it.
When it comes to our adaptation to the culture, there are varying degrees of how it works.
- Kingdom Culture – Christians should live according to biblical doctrine and practice. “Kingdom Culture” as a product of biblical doctrine, does not demand that we wear certain clothes, drive (or not drive) certain vehicles, or listen to certain types of music. Within Kingdom Culture there is allowance for a broad range of behavior, and all of it can be considered biblical and right. Yet differences do exist. That is why the rural pastor in Namibia dresses differently from an urban church planter in Chicago. Although Christians live according to doctrinal principles, the practical application of that doctrine can (and should) change according to the local contemporary culture.
- Local Contemporary Culture – Christians can live according to the cultural practices that are in accordance with Kingdom Culture. This is not about being “worldly.” It is about being appropriate. In an effort to be “biblical” a Christian could theoretically adopt A.D. 50 practices—wearing robes, riding camels, and the like. He would be considered a nutcase. The Christian faith is dynamic, adapting to all cultures, all peoples, and not bound to just one local contemporary culture. More significantly, conducting one’s life in accordance with the local contemporary culture is a gospel-directed lifestyle. As Paul said, “I do it for the sake of the gospel.” Obviously, Christians must be discerning as to what practices and behaviors they adopt. There are certain elements of the local contemporary culture that may be opposed to Kingdom Culture.
- Internal Subculture. The internal subculture differs from the local contemporary culture. Here’s how it works. Every culture has a subculture. For example, in urban Chicago there is the gang subculture. There may be a Guatemalan subculture in one area of the city. There is also a subculture of high-income white collar workers in another area. All of these subcultures operate within the local contemporary culture. For example, many of them watch TV, drive cars, and use cell phones. But they differ in other substantial ways. The Nicaraguans speak to one another in Miskito. The white collar workers live in 6,000 square foot homes, spend $25,000 a year on pet care, and take six-week vacations to Europe. This differs from another Chicagoan who works two jobs, never takes a day off, and shares a tiny apartment with three families and no pets. The lifestyles of these subcultures differs significantly. Obviously, Christians in these subcultures or reaching these subcultures will conduct their lives in different ways. They may not dress the same way, speak the same way, or prefer the same style of music, but they can all be living a life characterized by Kingdom Culture, with appropriate adaptation to their local contemporary culture, and in accordance with their internal subculture.
Living It Out
Because of the differences in cultures, there tends to be some disagreement among Christians as to how (or how much) they should take on the lifestyle of their surrounding culture. That’s understandable. Here are a few points to consider regarding contextualization.
- Do not judge others who live in a different internal subculture. It’s easy to cast aspersions on those who live or minister within a subculture that is typically viewed with suspicion. A very traditional church in suburban Chicago may expect that attendees “dress up” for Sunday services. Men wear suits. The intercity church is probably going to look a lot different. That’s okay.
- Do not demand adherence to your standards within the local contemporary culture. All Christians should live according to Kingdom Culture. But, as mentioned above, Kingdom Culture does not make detailed prescriptions regarding every area of one’s live. For that reason, as you live within your local contemporary culture, hold your standards with charitable understanding towards those who may adopt a different set of standards. Follow what the Bible says, but don’t add to it.
- Make cultural adaptations for the purposes of of gospel living. Some people have an overwhelming desire to conform to every aspect of the culture. If it’s trendy, we’re gonna do it. If it’s the latest music style, we’re going to pretend to like it. If it’s the most current scarf pattern, we’re gonna buy it. There is nothing inherently wrong with being fashionable or culturally engaged. There is something wrong, however, when cultural adaptation becomes more important than gospel living. Paul wasn’t trying to be a hipster. Paul was making personal changes, even uncomfortable ones, “that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Did that mean he was a hipster apostle? Maybe. But he was first of all “a servant to all, that I might win more” (1 Corinthians 9:19).