Ministry in Context: What I Don’t Mean

ContextIn many ways the church I served in last year and the place that God has brought our family to now could not be more different. Revolution was a place for dechurched and unchurched people, primarily men and women going through addiction recovery. We met in an abandoned JC Penny’s department store that was often crumbling down around us (literally pieces fell from the ceiling while we sang in worship). Our church was full of young men and women with tattoos and piercings, who had to take smoke breaks between the sermon and the worship set. Cornerstone, on the other hand, gathers for worship in a large, state-of-the-art complex. Our congregation is composed of mostly families coming from a large range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. While both churches worship the same Jesus, and believe the same gospel, it is clear to me that they do not approach ministry the same way. In fact they can’t and shouldn’t. Ministry should always be done according to context.

It’s important for me to qualify this statement. The Internet is full of trolls and trolls will make assumptions and write full-blown blog responses where the slightest lack of clarity exists. So let me explain what I don’t mean before I address the reasons for contextualized ministry.

First, I don’t mean that we ought to negate the Scriptural teachings on the church or on the mission of the church in order to accommodate our context. The one true gospel is the same for everyone everywhere. It requires no additions or subtractions and is always relevant. Humanity’s problem has not changed over the course of history: we are alienated from God and in desperate need of restoration.

Furthermore, I believe God has set down some basic guidelines about the church in His Scriptures. He has communicated the significance and importance of preaching and singing. He has outlined the qualifications for and the roles of pastors and deacons.  I do not believe that we have the freedom to make changes to these basic ideas. God has established them for our good and He knows what’s best.

Second, I don’t mean simply that we should utilize different musical styles. Music is an important part of the worship of the church, and there is no sheet music in Scripture. So that certainly gives us freedom to cultivate a musical culture relevant to our context. But far too many people think of ministry relevance as simply an issue of music. Your ministry is far bigger than the musical styles you utilize in corporate worship. To narrow our focus simply to music would be incredibly reductionist.

Third, I don’t mean that our preaching should incorporate more pop-culture references. In fact not only would this be an asinine thing to write a blog post about, I actually think lacing sermons with pop-culture references could make you less relevant. Popular culture is most frequently only popular to specific niches of our culture. The lyrics of one of your favorite songs may provide a great illustration for your sermon, but it may also distract those who’ve never heard of nor cared about, your favorite band. I do make references like this from time to time, but to build a philosophy of ministry around something so minute would be ridiculous.

Fourth, I do not mean that we should be a traditionless culture. Tradition is a good thing, even while traditionalism is not. It is important, I believe, for a church to have roots that go deep into the history of Christianity. I love the Creeds and Confessions of the church throughout the centuries. I find great expression given to my theology and my convictions in them. I find great joy and comfort in knowing I am uniting to those who have gone before me, that I am not the first Christian and will not be the last. Traditionalism can lead us into sin, but we should not ditch the whole all our roots by the roadside because some abuse them.

Lastly, I do not mean that the church should “act like the world.” I am not entirely sure what this means, but it is a common fear I hear from many church-goers. I am not proposing that the church should adopt the culture’s stance of sexual ethics, abortion, or other such things. I am not proposing that the culture dictate how we live, what we believe, or how “flexible” we are in convictions. God’s Word is our standard, and that’s the solid ground of the church’s beliefs and actions.

Having said all that, it is important that we recognize no two churches are the same. There are many similarities that a congregation my share with another congregation, those are realities of our common heritage and our common foundation. But they are still unique congregations. That is because the people who compose those congregations are unique, the places in which they exist are unique, and the leaders who influence them are unique. And such differences are not only okay they are proper.

The Scriptures give us a great deal of freedom on how our churches do life and ministry together. The Bible does not give us much detail on the specifics of what the early church did when they gathered, and the missionary accounts of Paul reveal a variety of approaches to ministry. Each church then was, as each church is now, unique. Next week we’ll begin to support that statement with some deeper analysis and discuss the implications of this for our churches and our ministries. At this point I simply want to stress what I don’t mean. Trolls, you have been forewarned.

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