Moving from the theological tower of seminary to the worn-in trenches of church planting, much more than my clothing had to change. The transition exposed me to the broken-in look of various theological concepts, particularly in the field of missiology. As an interdisciplinary academic discipline, missiology is robust. However, its street-level expression—-missional church—-can be a bit thin. After five years in U.S. church planting trenches, I’ve watched “missional” unravel from missiology through a gross misuse of contextualization.

What Is Contextualization?

Missiologist Ed Stetzer underscores the role of culture in grasping what it means to be missional. In his opening chapter of Planting Missional Churches he writes: “The first major message of this book is to understand missional. Establishing a missional church means that you plant a church that is part of the culture you’re seeking to reach” (latter emphasis added). [1] Churches should be a part of culture, not separate from it. Stetzer grounds this view in the mission of God : “a church or church planter who is missional is focused on God’s mission, being aware of what God is doing in the culture and joining him in his work.” [2] If God is at work in culture, right down to embedding himself in it in the person of Jesus, then we should be there too. Missional churches should be engaged with their target cultures—-a thoroughly biblical idea. The aim in joining God in this endeavor, of course, is to communicate the gospel in ways that make sense to our listeners. This is where contextualization comes in.

Contextualization is the intentional process of communicating the historic gospel and teachings of Jesus in contemporary cultural forms. [3] This may result in churches gathering in white tents or rodeo arenas, to hear how the grace rebuffs bootstrap religion among country folk in rural areas of Texas (also known as Cowboy churches). Alternatively, it may result in people gathering in a theater to hear how Christ is unique in comparison to other spiritual leaders among professional urbanites in progressive cities like San Francisco, New York, or Austin. The unchanging gospel has to be communicated in changing cultural forms to changing cultural issues if we are to join God in his work in this world.

Superficial Contextualization

Yet most of what is done in the name of contextualization isn’t contextualization at all. Two misuses of contextualization among so-called missional churches are, first, a superficial approach to culture and, second, gospel contamination that results from this approach. In the superficial approach, “contextualization” addresses a subset of American culture (e.g. white, suburban, middle class). It is surprising to me that so many churches engaged in contextualization look the same, regardless of their location or cultural context. Moreover, the gospel communication among these varied churches is often identical, using pre-packaged sermon series, teaching materials, and discipleship curriculum in order to “contextualize the gospel.”

What passes for contextual is not only narrow but also bland. Bland, of course, is not a crime. But when blandness presents a generic gospel regardless of cultural context, forms of church and expressions of the gospel will continually crop up that surrender the particularizing power and beauty of making disciples in context. We end up with a new cookie-cutter church. This misrepresents missional ecclesiology. As a result, missional is devolving into a codeword for Western, ethnocentric, bland church. Bad enough. But the problem runs deeper. Superficial contextualization can actually lead to gospel contamination.

A New Consumer Christianity

Superficial engagement with culture actually has its roots in the church growth movement. The homogeneous unit principle (HUP) [4], a central tenet of the 20th century church growth movement, still informs the methodologies of many 21st century missional churches. [5] The HUP essentially advocates church growth strategies along the lines of ethnocentric mission, targeting a single, homogeneous group who share common culture, beliefs, and interests. Peter Wagner, a staunch advocate of the HUP, offered the following prescription for urban evangelism: “Try not to allow diverse social and cultural elements to mix on the congregational level any more than necessary. Churches must be built as much as possible within homogeneous units if they are to maintain a sense of community among believers.” [6]

Although many North American churches and church planters have abandoned this principle, opting for more diverse, multi-ethnic churches, the monocultural mettle of the HUP appears to have weathered the missiology of the missional church movement. Here’s how: missional churches try to grow through bland cultural forms that appeal to consumers, not by contextualizing a gospel to make disciples. The main impetus behind superficial contextualization is church growth, not gospel communication. As a result, missional may mean: “You can grow your church by getting a cool worship leader, an edgy venue, an anti-religion message, and a preacher with hip clothing.”

When we become primarily concerned with church forms—-building, music, service, website design—-we dip below superficial contextualization into syncretism, blending Christianity with another religion, in this case consumerism. Christian consumerism gives people what we think they want, instead of calling them to what they need: repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. Instead of cracking the missional code, many churches have cracked a consumer code, attracting people to culturally bland but comfortable services while occasionally injecting them with the feel-good serum of social justice. But if Jesus Christ is Lord, his lordship should produce particular expressions of the gospel—-music with local flavor and gospel-rich lyrics, community that incarnates grace in the neighborhood, culture-making that reflects his grandeur, and fresh language that awakens locals to grace.

Some versions of missional are simply a new form of church growth that caters to consumer Christianity. Underneath superficial contextualization lurks a consumeristic impulse that gathers people around church forms instead of Jesus Christ as Lord. This misuse leads us to contaminate both contextualization and the gospel. We try to get people to buy in to a new form of church instead of dying so they might live for Christ. This is troubling.

We need churches more concerned with gospel faithfulness through true contextualization. We need to preach, teach, train, and disciple the church to communicate the historic gospel of grace in creative cultural forms that awaken people to Jesus, not just lure them into bland services. May we retrieve the true gospel, expressing it in wonderfully creative ways, in order to awaken people to the grace and truth found only in Jesus.

[1] Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006).

[2] Ibid, 20.

[3] A broader and more technical definition of contextualization: “the attempt to communicate the message of the person, works, Word, and will of God in a way that is faithful to God’s revelation, especially as put forth in the teaching of Holy Scripture, and that is meaningful to respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts.” David J. Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2003), 200.

[4] This term, minus the “principle,” was coined by Donald McGavran, first appearing in Church Growth and Christian Mission (Pasadena: William Carey, 1965). However, it was McGavran’s colleague, Peter Wagner, who turned the “homogeneous unit” into a “principle,” concretizing the formerly descriptive terminology into prescriptive ecclesiology.

[5] The following material regarding the HUP is largely drawn from Chuck Van Engen, “Is the Church for Everyone? Planting Multi-Ethnic Congregations in North America” Journal of the ASCG vol. 11, Spr. 2000.

[6] Donald A. McGavran and Win Arn, How to Grow a Church: Conversations about Church Growth (Glendale: Regal, 1973), 47-48.