Missional Worship: Contextualizing through identifying, becoming and begetting

Lately, I have been wrestling with what it means to delight in God, and what implications that has for our practice of worshipping Him, both individually and corporately. Currently, I am reading through John Piper’s Desiring God for the first time (It’s about time, I know), but his message is not new to me. On various occasions over the past four years, I have set under Dr. Piper’s preaching and have been profoundly impacted by the Holy Spirit through these encounters. Consequently, this notion of forsaking all that which competes for my pleasure in God has been a fierce aim of mine, though I have too often failed miserably at it.

Just a few days ago, I thought to myself, “If this is true—that delighting in God is our highest calling—then it has implications of immense proportion for the Church, and therefore for me.” One of the primary implications, I thought, was our corporate experience of God. If it is true that God is not pleased, as He confesses in the first chapter of Isaiah, with worship that is done properly but without the whole of our hearts, minds, and souls, then the Church had better listen up. [For those whose weakness is not lack of zeal in worship, God likewise warns us against self-centered worship (Isa. 48:11), “false fire” (Lev. 10), and chaotic worship (1 Cor. 14:33, Lev. 1-27), so don’t assume too quickly that you’re off the hook. Nevertheless, that’s a topic for another time.]

Now, before anyone mistakes me to equate music with worship, let me offer this preface. Music, the arts, and even language itself, are but media through which we express our thanks, adoration, confession, and supplication to and of God. In other words, they are means of prayer and magnification. But if we are familiar with the twelfth chapter of Romans, then we know that prayer is but a part—albeit an instrumental part—of worship. Abstinence from worldliness, immersion in Scripture, engagement in charity, and stewardship of blessings (material, financial, intellectual, skillful, social) complete the chain. All of these make up the Christian act of worship. But neglect one link, and the entire chain is weakened, sometimes broken altogether. Or in the analogy of a puzzle, one missing piece skews the picture. And when the picture is Jesus Christ, it becomes surpassingly important that it be accurate, complete and unambiguous.

Each of us should be able to identify with relative ease which of our links is weakest… which of our puzzle pieces is missing. But the focus of this post is the corporate expression of worship—in particular, artistic prayer. One cannot deny the place of art in all cultures throughout history, from North to South, East to West. There is no culture void of artistic expression. Could anyone deny this evidence that God, the supremely creative Creator, created creative beings in His image (say that five times fast)? For those of us who have “eyes to see” and “ears to hear”, we cannot deny it.

And neither can we deny its importance in both communicating and shaping culture. All one needs to do (with rare exceptions) to identify what is important to a cultural “people group” is study their art. It will tell you much more than a 15-minute conversation (particularly if that conversation is with someone whose language you do not comprehend) will communicate. In the realm of communication (my collegiate field of study), nonverbal elements speak foremost. They achieve primacy and maintain priority throughout the communicative process. What you say, the acute communication student will tell you, is not nearly so important as how you say it. And the majority of us recognize this as common sense. But how is this played out in our lives? How is it played out in our churches? In our worship?

This question becomes increasingly difficult to answer amidst the ever-evolving face of Western-American culture. As the United States attains exponential growth in ethnic and cultural diversity (among numerous other forms), a uniform “American” culture is rapidly ceasing to exist. In reality, it has already passed on. But what has the response of the Church been to this persistent reality? How have the circumstances in which we find ourselves shaped the efforts of God’s mission in the world, on which He has commissioned us (co-missioned… isn’t that neat?) to join Him?

Wherever you are, I want you to interact with me for a moment. Pick your feet up off the floor… about six inches will do. Now reach down and grab ahold of them… ‘cause I’m about to step on ‘em. ;-)

Have we forgotten why we are here? That this world is not our home? Oh, the old hymn that sings, “I’m just a passin’ through” may be quite familiar to you. But brother, sister, we aren’t just passin’ through. We’re here to stay for an appointed time for a specific purpose, or mission, if you will. We aren’t here to just enjoy ourselves, our families, friends, places and things.

Every moment of every day of every year of our lives must be leveraged for the glory of our great God, the giver and taker of life. And as such, we are commanded in Philippians 2:3-4 to live for others (as I will later refer to as “the other”). Jesus explained that no greater love exists than that one lays down his life for others, as He did. In Mark 8:34-36, He warned us that if we live to please ourselves, we will forfeit the eternal rewards stored up for us (or reveal that we are not even truly His).

Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 9:19-24 to lay down our priorities and preferences for the sake of identifying and connecting with others different from us, that they might know the Good News of Jesus. Though he was free to dress, speak, eat, drink, and worship as he chose, he forsook his freedom out of a loving compulsion to administer God’s grace to the lost. Are we not likewise obligated? And if so, what does that mean?

First and foremost, it means that we, as individuals and as the Church, must accept that we are called to be missional—people commissioned to advance the Kingdom of God on earth until the day that Christ returns to complete the work He began at incarnation. It means that we are to live selflessly, surrendering our rights for the sake of others and, ultimately, for the Kingdom. You may have heard it said that the Church is the only organization that does not exist for itself, but for others. Well, that’s only partially true, as there are many service organizations staffed by people with a commitment to help others as their chief aim. But it is true that the Church does not exist for herself. She exists for God.

So what does the worship of a church look like that realizes it exists for God and not itself? First, it absolves to forsake anything that would hinder others from seeing a complete and vivid picture of Christ. This means that it does not slap things together last minute or with little effort or ingenuity. It means that it is keenly aware of the social, physical, spiritual, intellectual, and creative environment that it sustains, and seeks to keep these elements from distracting those outside itself from Jesus Christ.

Secondly, it is proactive in its efforts not only to avoid watering down, distorting, or concealing the Gospel, but to bring the Gospel to life, to incarnate it. This means that it employs every available means—and frequently goes beyond what is currently available to obtain better resources—to make its message understandable, credible, and desirable. I do not, for a minute, imply that the Gospel is somehow incomplete and that it needs us to add to it to make it more attractive. Rather, I am referring to the necessary process of “contextualization” or “incarnation”. The written account of the Gospel was composed and recorded in a language and culture unfamiliar to us, which required faithful servants of God over the years to translate it for us that we might receive it. It behooves us to do likewise for others.

Let’s talk about contextualization for a minute. The “modern” church has recently come under attack for being overly concerned with “relevance”. And, to the degree that they have taken their eyes off of Jesus and placed them on pleasing people for the sake of attendance and giving—in order that they might reap the benefits of prominence, wealth, and self-esteem—the criticism is justly warranted. But for those churches and movements which recognize the necessity of contextualization (it is not an option!), and yet have maintained their focus on Christ and His Kingdom, we should think twice before casting stones of judgment. In fact, we may have a great deal to learn from them.

Now that we have a pretty good picture of what contextualization is, and recognize that it is not optional when translating the Gospel for people unfamiliar to it, how do we go about doing it? Contextualization happens in three stages: identifying, becoming, and begetting.

First, we must identify with the specific person or persons God has called us to reach (this goes well beyond culture and gets very personal). This begins when we feel compassion towards them and proceeds as we seek to understand who they are, how they interpret the world, and what makes them tick. It’s the basic principle of empathy.

Second, we must become like those whom God has called us to reach, insofar as we do not compromise our devotion to Christ. You see, empathy becomes a reality only when we immerse ourselves in the world of the other by, quite literally, walking in their shoes. As Paul said, “To the Jews, I became like the Jews to win the Jews,” and so forth to the different people groups to whom God called him to preach the Gospel.

And third, through identifying with and becoming like the other, we naturally begin to beget our message and experience of God in ways that connect with him or her. Now, if you try to skip to stage three without doing time in stages one and two, you will encounter insurmountable difficulty. Not only will you do an embarrassingly terrible job at contextualization, you will feel completely inauthentic doing so, and you will be right. There are no shortcuts when contextualizing our message and experience of God for the benefit of those who do not share our culture.

So that’s contextualization on the basic level. But what does it look like in everyday life? How does it play out in our worship? Well, if you’ve caught on to what I’ve said thus far, it should be obvious. If you want to be a missionary to India, you’d better learn Hindi, Punjabi, Tegulu, or whatever native tongue the people to whom God sends you happen to speak. You’d better get rid of your Abercrombie, Eddie Bauer, Sean Jean, Billabong, or whatever your fad is, go to an Indian clothing store and pick yourself out a new wardrobe. You’ll need to get a decent grasp of Indian history, economics, and philosophy as well. If you’re a musician, you’ll need to learn the sitar or the tablas, the vocal stylings, and lyrical, melodic, and harmonic structures of Indian music. What makes us think it’s any different when God calls us to translate the Good News for the person across the street, across town, or across the country? It is all too common for us to (mistakenly) take for granted that all Americans—even citizens of our own communities—share a unified cultural experience or worldview, particularly with regard to age and socioeconomics.

Who is it that God has called you to reach personally (and don’t say “everyone”, because it’s not true)? Where are you in the stages of contextualization? If you’re past stage one, have you rushed through it? If you’re at stage three, is it working, or do you feel like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole? Finally, can you say, along with Paul, that you “put up with anything rather than hinder the Gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12)? Or are you so preoccupied with how the music, or the sermon, or the lighting, or the d├ęcor, or the temperature suits you? Could it be that we have taken our eyes first, off of Christ, and second, off of others, and have been looking in the mirror, telling ourselves that we deserve this or that?

NEWSFLASH: we deserve eternal hell and nothing more. By His incomprehensible mercy and grace, He left the splendor and holiness of heaven to identify with us, become one of us, and beget the Living, Incarnate Word who brought the Good News of salvation to a world who hated Him. The least we can do is “lose our lives” for the sake of others meeting the Living God and entering into an eternally satisfying relationship with Him. To do anything less is to forsake Christ Himself.

You see, God doesn’t call some people to be missionaries and others to be something else. Through the Great Commission, He has called each and every one of us to be missionaries. The question is simply where and how. And if we see ourselves as a people on mission, it will follow that (1) we actively seek to identify with others who are different from us, (2) we mentally, emotionally and physically place ourselves in their shoes on a consistent basis, and (3) we communicate our message and express our worship in ways that yield in them discernment and awe. This is our requirement if we are to be missional worshippers.

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