The other day, I was discussing with a group of potential church planters what it means to plant a “missional church”. Now, I guess that every church should be missional so, when we use the phrase we are suggesting that a church is not resting on its laurels as an established entity in the community but rather has some intentionality about its desire to be a community of believers seeking to fulfil Christ’s mission in the world of gathering disciples to worship him.
We put together a list of what a missional church must do and what it must not do. Fairly early on, the group wrote on the whiteboard that a church should seek to contextualise the message. We keep the same historic Gospel message but we communicate it in a way that the audience in a specific place and time can understand.
However, the group still did not seem to be satisfied with what they had come up with. Was there something more? One person suggested that perhaps there is a sense in which a church should reflect the community and culture. To be clear, they were not suggesting that the church takes on and apes the culture. We are not to be conformed to this world but they seemed to feel that more than contextualisation was needed. The same person gave the example of “what kinds of clothes will worshippers wear? What food will we eat when we meet together? What music will we use in music?”
I think that they were right to push on beyond just talking about contextualisation. Why? Well when we contextualise, we can kind of do it at arms-length. It would be possible for me to go regularly to a new church plant in Sparkbrook on the east side of Birmingham and help by preaching. I could learn about the neighbourhood and about the types of people who might turn up there on a Sunday if invited. Then I might adapt my sermon both in terms of content and style so that those people could understand it and engage with it. I might choose to use different words, different metaphors, different imagery, different examples, different humour. I might adapt my speaking style based on what the culture preferred. I might even adapt my application.
All of that would in a sense mean that I’d contextualised things. However, I could do this at arm’s length without it having much of an impact on me. I would return to my own home at night, a long way away from the community.
We are moving towards Advent and our attention will be drawn to these words at the beginning of John’s Gospel.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son[d] from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The Son of God came to dwell among us, to live with his people, pitching his tent with them. I want to suggest that this is what a missional church needs to be doing. A missional church is one that is making its home (the individual members and the church corporately) in and among a specific community.
When you do that, then you have no choice but to reflect the culture around you. If you are living in a particular place, then on a day to day basis you are seeing the same sights and hearing the same sounds -as well as smelling the same fragrances (for good or ill). You will be taking your children to the same schools, working in the same offices or factories and shopping at the same shops. This means that you are likely to wear the same kind of clothes and eat the same food.
This means that contextualisation is no longer at arms length and is less and less artificial. You do these things not to create an appearance in order to build bridges. You, especially if you have moved a distance as missionary or church planter have little choice in the matter. You have had to adapt to a new way of life.
And this cuts out paternalism. It cuts out outward show. When you are no longer acting at a distance then you have to be authentic.
What does it mean for you and your church to “dwell” in the community where God has placed you?