Ministry in Context: Why there is no One-Size-Fits-All Ministry (Part 1)

ContextMinistering in rural southern Ohio and ministering in the Detroit metro are very different. They do, of course, have many things in common. It would surprise many to know that many rural towns have serious problems with drugs and with homelessness, and that hasn’t changed since moving to the metro. And of course people’s basic needs for acceptance, identity, and forgiveness are universal, and the gospel is the answer for all people’s needs. But it would surprise no one to say that these two locales are very different. Doing ministry, then, is naturally going to be very different in each of these contexts.

There is no one-size fits-all-ministry. As we serve we need to understand our context and appreciate the uniqueness of it. I have clarified what I don’t mean when I speak this way already. I should not be confused as a foundationless pastor. But the fact that the gospel is the answer for everyone means we need to make sure we communicate it in a way that people will be able to relate to it and connect with it. A one-size-fits-all approach to ministry can obstruct people’s access to the gospel.

We should begin by clarifying what it means to “do ministry.” The phrase is ambiguous and it will cloud our discussion if we don’t nail it down. By “doing ministry” I have in mind the life and practices of the corporate church. This would include everything from the music of our corporate worship, to the method of preaching, to the focused outreaches, and the in-house discipleship. It includes both stylistic features and theological vision. I can anticipate resistant to what is being proposed here, so let me flesh out why this is necessary.

I know from experience that “contextualization” gets a great deal of pushback. I recall an older gentleman approaching me in the middle of our corporate worship one Sunday to inform me that he believed our church was leading people to hell. His reason was our worship band played “rock music.” As we discussed it became clear that he didn’t have any doctrinal or Scriptural grounds for his complaint, it was just different from what his church practiced. That is a common response to the idea of a uniquely fitted ministry. People often confuse methodological differences with theological differences. Tim Keller has keenly observed:

Some churches believe nearly all popular culture is corrupt, and therefore they will not use popular music in worship. Others have no problem doing so. Why? It is not merely a matter of personal preference. Implicit questions of theological vision are being posed and answered when we make such decisions. The fundamental differences are often between competing theological visions, yet because theological vision is largely invisible, people inevitably (and unfortunately) conclude that the differences are doctrinal. (Center Church, 19)

It is not doctrine that we are seeking to reformulate or adapt, it is our approach to communicating such doctrine that we are seeking to put into context. If we don’t do this how can we expect people to grasp and understand who God is and what He has to do with their lives?

Ministry contextualization means communicating God’s Word in the way we do ministry so that people can readily understand it. It means that the life of our church should be relevant to the people we minister to. People in the jungles of Africa should not be forced to look like rural Ohioans when they gather for worship. God is not bound to the cultural construction of 21st century Ohioans. The worship of God is relevant for all peoples in all places. Keller defines contextualization carefully for us. He writes:

Contextualization is not – as is often argued – “giving people what they want to hear.” Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with the force they can feel, even if they reject them. (89)

In summary, we might say it this way:

Sound contextualization means translating and adapting the communication and ministry of the gospel to a particular culture without compromising the essence and particulars of the gospel itself. (89)

When we think of it this way we can see clearly why a one-size-fits-all model of ministry is deficient.

Such a model of ministry assumes that all people think and act the same. They don’t. The questions that some people are asking, which the gospel answers, are not the same questions others are asking. To assume they are is to miss the opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of the gospel for all people. The cultures of the deep south, where everyone believes they are already Christians, needs to be addressed in ways uniquely different from blatantly and happily secular contexts. Understanding that people are different, and the cultures they inhabit are different, requires us to do ministry in relevant ways.

Such a model also assumes that there is only one way to reach people. We will explore this next week, but suffice it to say that Paul certainly did not believe there was only one way to reach people with the gospel, or disciple them along the process of their Christian growth. Diverse and contextualized approaches to ministry are found within the pages of the Bible.

Simply put, by not understanding the value and necessity of contextualized ministry we may be failing to responsibly and sensitively reach the people in our own communities. We may be failing at evangelism, or failing at discipleship because we are applying a one-size-fits-all model of ministry to our church. Such an approach may be harming your community more than you know.


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