Making Church Real
by Captain Janice Rees, Australia Eastern Territory
In recent years, Christian thinkers have called the Church to a renewed emphasis on contextualisation. As the Church's relevance in community is in constant question, there is a new wave of interest in the Church's mission. This is evidenced by the scores of Christian bookstores keeping their shelves stocked with resources detailing contextualisation. If a church's main focus is community, then contextualisation is a vital factor.
Captain Janice Rees, Australia Eastern Territory
What is contextualisation?
The word first appeared in Christian circles in 1972. It was simply defined as 'communicating a message with language and behaviour common to the audience'. As Christians we believe that Christ's message and Kingdom principles are valid for all eras and cultures. However the Church must take seriously the challenge to communicate truth in culturally accepted ways - the process by which the message becomes appropriate for that particular culture.
Community mission, and therefore contextual-isation, should be of extreme importance in every corps. Throughout the history of the Church there are fine examples of contextualisation. Jesus was a master in using contemporary imagery and allegory to ensure his message was understood by listeners. Paul adapted to culture when he appealed to the pagan statue of the 'unknown god' as a means to introduce the God he served (Acts 17).
Community mission and adapting to culture was a high priority in the early stages of Salvation Army history. Its rapid growth shows that adapting to the culture led to its success. The Salvation Army embraced popular military metaphor, commandeered fashionable music and continued to develop the free style of worship made so popular by the holiness movement. Brass banding attracted large groups of people who listened to the gospel.
As The Salvation Army ventured overseas, it was forced to consider dramatically diverse cultures. In India, Frederick Booth-Tucker famously wore Indian clothes, ate Indian foods and adopted local names and customs with his missionary team in 1882. The team's adaptation to Indian culture gave the team invaluable opportunities for ministry within local communities. All the while, they demonstrated flexibility, constantly using familiar words in speaking - even though they may not have been necessarily familiar to the preacher. This was contextualisation at its best.
Although this concept may seem self-explanatory - and in terms of practice, obligatory - it seems that the Church has forgotten its mission. Many critics would simply dismiss Christian faith as irrelevant, old-fashioned and, in many aspects incomprehensible. All these words point toward the Church that has 'de-contextualised'. Yet, if the Church believes that Christ's message is relevant for all generations, then it must seriously consider these claims and evaluate its means of communication.
There is a story of a missionary in an African community who preached 'Here I am! I stand at the door and knock' (Revelation 3:20 NIV). In that particular community, a thief would warn a household before entering by knocking on the door. So when the community tried to relate to what the missionary was saying from their own cultural perspective, they understood Jesus to be a thief who wanted to steal all their possessions.
Being familiar with the context, we know that Jesus does not commit home invasions. But the African community decoded this text from their own cultural experience. If God's message of love is to be clearly communicated, a church must find creative and relevant ways to reveal the message, even if the methods do not reflect personal preference.
Many of today's critics have pointed out that Church traditions are not necessarily relevant in postmodern culture. They may not represent the best means available for communicating God's love. For instance, what do words that are so well-understood by Christians mean to an unchurched person? When we keep in mind that many unchurched people know little or nothing about Christianity, and may not even be monotheistic, words such as 'the blood of the Lamb that was slain for my iniquities' may actually frighten them.
Is there a better way to talk about freedom from sin and Christ's redemptive work? Contextualisation is not about dumbing down Christianity or softening the blow; nor is it about trends and appearing 'cool'. Yet, contextualisation does put mission before preference and others before ourselves. It strives to share biblical truths so that others hear them and continue to believe they are 'good news'. Keep in mind that listeners are searching for authentic and transparent Christians.
|Clockwise from top left: building the new hall; with its relaxed atmosphere, the commercial cafe reflects the beach community it serves; Captain Anthony Rees and Captain Craig Todd approve of the work so far; Captain Janice Rees takes a well-deserved break from the project; a volunteer from Miranda Corps helps out; Captain Craig Todd and Captain Anthony Rees work on the modern cafe interior|
Where do we start?
To effectively communicate Christ we must review how we present the message and be committed to making radical revisions. First, we must have a firm understanding of the Christian message. This may mean examining the denominational practices and deciding which ones are essential to the Christian message and which practices have been added, perhaps unnecessarily.
The second step is to consider the cultural norms that operate within a church, and then compare those to the influences in the community in which the church is a part. A church may have to accept that it is predominantly Anglo-Saxon, aged and old-fashioned, operating in a racially diverse, hip and young neighbourhood. These differences do not render the church useless, but they do present a challenge.
If a church finds itself in this situation, it may have to work very hard to change its communication style in order to adapt to the neighbourhood. Each behaviour, value and lifestyle habit must be evaluated so that a critic cannot find a reason to label the church hypocritical. A re-evaluation of language and even clothing should be made before presenting Jesus in a community. The Body of Christ should communicate God's love in a non-threatening way with the intention of being understood.
The challenge for many of us is that we are simply not aware of how our language preference impacts others. In order to overcome any barriers, we may have to go out of our way to engage with popular culture. It would be good to go as far as to ask others to evaluate our jargon to see that it is understood within the community. One of the best ways to find out if the language used in a church service is understood is to invite an unchurched friend to a service, and after the meeting ask how much was understood. Salvation Army jargon can be the hardest to understand. We must courageously and continuously evaluate our methods and be willing to sacrifice traditions and habits that inhibit the salvation message. Since it is a Christian's natural desire to share God's love with others, adapting to community context should come naturally.
A case in practice
Nine years ago, The Salvation Army planted a new church in Cronulla, a beach-side suburb in Sydney, Australia. The community was well-known for its laid-back lifestyle. Contextualisation became paramount for the corps.
The corps began to meet in a cafe on the beach. The church service adapted a relaxed style, with people attending in a uniform t-shirt. The typical parts of a traditional service were adapted to the corps's context. Time that would normally be spent singing was spent in discussion - and in this discussion, the popular Australian euphemisms were heard. As the church experienced steady growth it needed to merge with another Salvation Army corps in a neighbouring suburb. Having the two come together was a challenge. The beach-side cafe met its challenge as it merged with a traditional Salvation Army corps.
Once again my husband and I had to consider the questions of context and how this new church group could relate to the community. Since then, we have begun extensive building renovations. The architectural design could not be that of a traditional Salvation Army corps. Instead we are building a cafe with a large deck, eclectic furniture and modern artwork. The building will have a playground available to the community's families.
As we think again about adapting our worship services, we will continue inviting people to worship in t-shirt uniform. Our sermons will incorporate the popular jargon of the community. When we sing, we will target the musical tastes of different generations. We sing some of the pumped-up, Christian songs that teenagers love, yet we also sing popular worship songs. We have found that good coffee brings people together, so our cafe is stocked with coffee machines galore!
The corps does not have traditional Salvation Army choral groups, but the corps does have a sports group. We have found this community is not interested in concerts, but they do enjoy a simple barbecue on the beach. We did run into some difficulty in bringing people together. As a result of racially motivated riots, we started to concentrate on activities that promoted racial acceptance. Being flexible is just how the corps makes an extra effort to be part of the community.
Living with a commitment to contextualisation requires an unshakable commitment to effective communication of the gospel. After 10 years, this corps should look nothing like it currently does. We will keep evaluating and changing our methods so that the message of Jesus Christ is heard and understood.