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How to contextualize discipleship | Simple Church tools pt. 4

Updated: 6 days ago

Introduction

We did house church for a season in my neighborhood in Redmond, OR. Most people participating commuted to my home from other neighborhoods in the neighboring city of Bend, rather than from Redmond where I lived. By having church there we did get a few Redmond friends to come over, but nobody in my immediate proximity. This was not for lack of trying, as we invited almost every neighbor at one point or another. Something about a church invite seemed to communicate a certain social context and expectation that they weren’t interested in. Where we got further was meeting neighbors where they were at, entering their homes, or praying for and serving them on their own lawns. When we had just a few disciples on a Sunday morning we were able to lean into personal conversations, vulnerability, commitment, and extended prayer all of which wouldn’t have worked in a larger public context. Not to mention, it sometimes seemed to work against our living room context to have one person preaching to ten people.


Two events got more interest than all the others. The first was Friendsgiving, in which about half our guests were neighbors, many of whom contributed their own food! It was a great social context and we had some spiritual conversations. The other event was assembling care bags for the houseless. Actually neighbors didn’t come to the care bag assembly night, but many signed up to be ongoing food donors, and four different neighbors donated goods and finances to the care bag assembly night. Aside from this we had some success in having Friday night parties, where we shared briefly from God’s word before having fun with each other.


These events aimed to be a social context catalyzing relationships. They prompted spiritual conversations by serving, blessing, reciprocating, and contributing with each other. It became clear that these expressions of church seemed to incarnate Jesus further into my neighborhood than the public context of Sunday morning church would, despite that church meeting in my living room. I had to recognize that the contextual rules that are in play will affect the outcome. Missiologist Alan Hirsch reckons that only around 40 percent of the population would consider coming to a traditional church service. Fruitful social context groups operate by a different set of rules than do public context gatherings, and they have the potential to reach the other 60% of the population.


Identifying how Jesus can incarnate and the good news can be translated to a local context is known to missionaries as contextualization. How many sub-groups, sub-cultures, affinity groups, neighborhoods, cracks, and crevices are there in your city? Each has the latent potential to see the Gospel incarnated in a very specific, contextual way that is true to who Jesus is calling them to be.


The following sections are titled “Word, Works, Wineskins, and Waiting”. The Word section shows that the step comes from the Word of God. The Works section shows what has worked previously for ourselves and others. The Wineskins section gives you concrete ideas, questions, and space to brainstorm how you can apply this step in your context going forward. The Waiting section involves being receptive to the Spirit’s prompting in prayer.



Word

Acts 8:1-4 “...And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”

Acts 8 describes the church's scattering, also known as the diaspora. The term diaspora comes from an ancient Greek word that means "to scatter about". In the Bible, the diaspora refers to Jewish people who were exiled from Israel by the Babylonians. The diaspora is also the dispersion of Hellenized Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire, with major communities in most of the Empire's large cities. It wasn’t only persecution or the priesthood of all believers that multiplied the church, it was their ability to contextualize the gospel to their own cultures, spaces, and existing household (oikos) relationships.

1 Cor. 1:22-25 “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

Acts 17:16 “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him.

Paul had just come from Philippi, where he freed a woman from demonic oppression. That act ignited a mob that shook the spiritual, economic and military structures of the city (Acts 16:12-40). But in Athens instead of provoking evil spirits, Paul’s spirit was provoked. He observed the idolatry of the city and changed his tactics to meet the culture. He contextualized the gospel by reasoning with the Stoic philosophers. He still reached the Jews in the Synagogue, but he knew that his gospel appeal to the greeks would need wisdom. As a result the church in Philippi looked different than the church in Athens. It was not one size fits all, but a church expression calibrated by mission calibrated by Jesus calibrated by context.

  • How did Paul's response to the Athenian culture demonstrate the importance of contextualization in effectively communicating the message of Christ?

  • What lessons can we learn from his example for our church engaging with diverse cultures in our context today?

  • Considering the diverse backgrounds and beliefs encountered by the early Christians as they preached the word in different locations, how can we discern and adapt our approach to church and preaching the Gospel to effectively resonate with our mission and culture?

  • How is Christ incarnated in our specific context?


Remember, this isn’t about growth, or getting big, or surviving. It is all about resisting the status quo, following Jesus’ great commission to go where the people are at and love them with a great commandment heart. Mission is all about following the Lord of the Harvest into the fields, becoming the answer to his (and our own) prayers, “Send more workers into the fields” (Matthew 9:37-38). In the diaspora they faced the dilemma of transitioning to a smaller form of church. How would they worship and gather outside of the existing synagogue institution in a new and foreign land? Well, what were the underlining values of meeting with God in that space and being a light to the nations?


They ended up gathering in natural relationships around meals, God’s word, worship, and listening to what the Lord was specifically saying to them and their context. They sought to be a blessing to the local community through acts of service to the lost, the last, and the least and found innovative and authentic ways to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. All of the "one another" commands throughout the New Testament are at a minimum intended to be expressed and worked out within groups of twenty to seventy people (the size of the oikos or household in the first century).


This Oikos social context is the most crucial space that exists for the formation of authentic community that is effective on mission. It is a low-risk place for neighbors to enter into your community and spiritual growth, especially when compared to the intensity of a small group or the formality of a Sunday worship service. This doesn’t mean the other spaces aren’t important, but they should be taken in stride. A Jew in the first century went to the temple only twice a year, with the local synagogue (a group usually consisting of fifty to sixty people) as the regular place of worship each week. Fast forward to the middle ages in Europe when the majority of people worshiped in a local village with an extended family. They made pilgrimage to cathedrals to connect with something much bigger that reinforced their day to day discipleship back home. The truth is we need big and small, gathered and scattered to work in tandem and recognize their unique purpose.


Works

The bigger and more established a church the more cemented and complicated their formula for ministry, precisely because of this, new house church families can excel at contextualizing with flexibility and creativity. This is a strength that can translate the good news to a greater diversity of people. With mobility and simplicity, a church that mobilizes every type of person can reach every type of person in every type of place. When a house church family attempts to do the traditional big church form uncontextualized and Biblically unprescribed, they can burnout by striving for an unrealistic expectation.


  • Simple church: replicates the mission based on values. Example: a group of people with the dna of worshiping together, committing to each other, and undertaking mission together (Communion, Community, Co-mission)

  • Prevailing/established church: replicates the formula based on tradition. Example: a group of people with the dna of going to church to listen to announcements, three songs, contribution, welcome, communion sharing, and a polished thirty minute sermon.


We have a natural tendency to define church by structures and the specific details of what we do (e.g., Sundays are 25 minutes of guitar-led worship, followed by 5 minutes of announcements, etc; mystically Acts 2:42-47 is usually cited as the rationale for this). None of those structures are wrong! Don’t knock down a wall without knowing why it was put up, but remember that that they are descriptive and not prescriptive. If you define church by the “what” then those structures will quickly be set in stone. If you define church by the “why”, the undergirding values, you will find freedom to innovate. Once you have settled on the irreducible minimum values of house church families (e.g. all churches must express community, co-mission, and communion somehow), the “what” of church, the rest is left to the localized disciples to dream, create, and contextualize (e.g. one church may express communion as musical worship, while another church may experience true worship and communion with God through serving the local soup kitchen, still another may decide to experience communion during a super by proclaiming Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, unpacking scripture and how they’re encountering him that week).


Localized autonomy over the “what” and “how” it is implemented gives disciples passion and ownership to be self-sustaining rather than burned out. Centralized support and shared agreement on the “why” provides values based accountability, encouragement, and a minimum standard to uphold. This ensures that the local church truly incarnates itself and is fully contextualized rather than just copying a brand. One of the most beneficial things a church can do to contextualize is simply to get out of the building and go to where the people are.

What is the measurement that will guide what we say yes to? Is our gathering goal “25 minutes of guitar-led worship,” or is our goal a deeper value? Is our goal to increase Sunday morning attendance or is our goal a deeper value?


Wineskins

In the 1960s, Edward T. Hall developed a theory based on the relationship between space and culture, coining the term “proxemics” for how we use space and build communities. This sociology has stood the test of time and has been used by hundreds of churches to test the effectiveness of their forms in their context based off of their size. Bobby Harrington of the Renew Network has added one addition “the divine context” to reflect the devotional relationship each disciple has with God. I have also added a bonus “transitional context” to explain the missteps, exceptions, and ways to innovate if you’re in between context sizes. These are the five spaces of relationship:

The Public Context exists where people gather in the hundreds around a shared outside resource. This might be an event, experience (fans at a pop concert), or influence (followers of the same public figure on social media). If the resource is physically present, people will generally be at least 12 feet away from it (think of your distance from the stage if you go to see a play). In this environment the focus is on engaging with the outside resource or consuming the service, rather than building relationships with others who also happen to be there.



  • The Social Context is the range between twenty and seventy people, where we seek to build affinity with others. Myers says that in this context (think of a backyard BBQ) three things happen: we build neighborly relations (people we can call upon for minor favors), we start to identify those with whom we’d like to become closer friends, and we reveal elements of our identity and our journey. We will be somewhere between 4 and 12 feet apart, about the distance of a hand shake which in a new relationship is a common preamble to testing the three things Myers lists.

  • The Personal Context forms in groups of four to twelve, where we feel able to share private information. Think, for instance, of good friends talking over drinks, revealing personal thoughts and feelings about their ongoing lives and relationships. Usually we are 18 inches to 4 feet apart in this context, which is both within comfortable touching distance and close enough to see the other person as they truly are—warts, wrinkles, and all! Such acceptance and physical closeness are representative of the emotional qualities of a relationship in this context, where we experience a genuine depth of friendship.

  • The Transparent Context is when you are with just one or two others, making a group of two to four people, your closest of relationships. In the Transparent Context, characterized by complete openness and candor, nothing is held back. This echoes the biblical ideal of being “naked and yet unashamed”—an ideal we live out literally in marriage and metaphorically with our best friends. You are 0 to 18 inches apart in the closest moments of these relationships, noting that at such proximity the other person’s flaws seem to fade away (since your eyes can’t properly focus on them). This blurring of flaws is a wonderful metaphor for what is going on relationally at these safest depths of human engagement.

  • The Divine Context represents God’s direct interactions with us, his people, at a one-on-one level. Our focus shifts from cultivating relationships with others to being alone with our Creator and Redeemer as he encounters us in our inner world. We delude ourselves if we believe there can be any barriers in this place; indeed, in this context we come face-to-face with our true selves, as reflected in the loving eyes of our heavenly Father. This communion with God in turn equips us to engage more fruitfully in each of the other four contexts.

  • The transitional context. What if you don’t have enough people to operate at the context that would be most effective for your mission? Act up. In transition, it may be appropriate for small churches to act up, acting as if they are the size they desire to be. For example a church of thirty may put out extra chairs and work to invite more people to fill in the public context they’re not quite big enough for. More than likely though, it would be more effective for this group to act their age and multiply the social context. A new group of disciples in their teens should act up as if they are twenty five people, creating a social context to accommodate who they’re reaching. If acting up is what will be most effective to make disciples in your context, then inviting more people to join should be top priority. Remember, not to skip contexts or act up too far (e.g. adding multiple programs), as a group in their teens may burn out in the public context acting like a group of seventy plus.


In the new urban world, the defining relationships are among friends and affinity groups rather than families, and people live incredibly busy lives, coming home tired after long workdays and stressful commutes to tiny apartments. In this culture, groups simply end up being smaller as that is what works pragmatically, although they are still defined by the key valued outcomes. If this sounds like your setting, the five contexts can work with lower numbers of people. Thus the social context kicks in at around fifteen people, while the personal context works best in the low single digits. Remember, the contexts are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

Missteps and dysfunction between contexts:

  • Public. Sharing private information with the person who has been placed next to you by chance. Simply because they happen to be sitting alongside you does not make them your friend! For example a Discovery Bible Study may be ineffective at the public level, because it requires commitment, consistency, and vulnerability.

  • Social. Expecting the gathering to be a performance that is consumed, when actually it is built around mutual interaction and shared contribution, like a potluck. You may make this space too personal too quickly for comfort, like sharing about deep hurts at a Bible talk or getting into a fight with your spouse at the BBQ.

  • Personal. Revealing to others what was shared in the privacy of the Personal Context. You may get too comfortable in this space as a holy huddle, rarely socializing outside of it. For example, when trying to make small groups missional, it’s easy to burnout with lack of momentum from smaller numbers. They often refuse the call and continue to stay inwardly focused, because it fits their personal context and resists the social. That very closeness is in conflict with the impulse to multiply. The thinking goes, "Once we have good community, then we will look outside ourselves." In reality, though, this almost never happens. There will always be another relationship to fix, or person to mend, or ready excuse to focus inward upon ourselves because we are always growing as individuals! That's why a missional focus and community life are both necessary. They shape each other.

  • Transparent. Talking solely about what you do on the outside rather than who you are on the inside will torpedo intimacy and relational discipleship. You may find the smaller the group, the harder it is to organize the group on behalf of someone else, like assigning someone a discipling partner: one of their closest and most intimate relationships.

  • Divine. Thinking that you can engineer or control this context, as if somehow you can hide from Jesus. For instance, when the Holy Spirit prompts you with a question, he is not doing it to gather information!


To contextualize in your own spaces, ask your group what your underlying Biblical values are, then calibrate your gatherings accordingly.


  • Try the discipline of deciding what are the three most important and distinct values for each level of gathering. Keep it simple, memorable, and clearly focused.

  • Which context should you multiply? what are the unique outcomes that you are looking to see at each size?

  • What are the core values that must be present on an ongoing basis at each size for it to be successful?


Waiting

Pray for Discernment in Contextualization.



A note for new leaders:

Leaders must realize what the group cannot do. It will not offer the polish or quality of the larger, more organized public context worship service if you’re just starting. Likewise, A missional community in the social context is not a place of raw accountability, since it includes too many people for such sharing to take place at a deep and consistent level. When you are new or small it can be challenging to form a leadership team and many can default to one leader doing everything leading to consumerism and burnout. Flattening the hierarchy may also fall flat if decision making stalls by committee. Shoot for a baseline of twenty people to build social context momentum. You might consider having every person write down the names of three people they can invite, then focus on throwing a monthly party for them to come and connect. You should seek advice from other house church families that are your size, or the size you desire to be. Remember that advice from churches operating at the public context size may not not be applicable if your church is growing into the social context.


Remember a missional community in the social context is not about hype, stress, or exhausting over commitment; rather, it should be a place full of fun, life, and authenticity, where no one wants to miss out on the next get together. All ages gather to both give and receive in inter generational relationships. The best missional communities are incredibly valuable for both the committed disciple and the newcomer. Also, the no-show effect isn't as much of a problem with a social context-sized group. If a few can’t make it that’s okay because you still have a good amount of people to have a good time. You also have room and enough people to include “crazy uncle Bob” who doesn’t have to work out their issues dominating the whole agenda of the group (that can happen in personal or transparent space).


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