"Don't mess with a missionary man.Don't mess with a missionary man.
Well the missionary manHe's got God on his side.He's got the saints and apostlesBackin' up from behind.Black eyed looks from those Bible books.He's a man with a missionGot a serious mind.There was a woman in the jungleAnd a monkey on a tree.The missionary man he was followin' me.He said "stop what you're doing.""Get down upon your knees.""I've got a message for you that you better believe.
A few years back, Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics sang this song. I really don't know the story behind it, but I was always amused by the lyrics. It's been running through my head lately as I think about the challenges that the 21st century church in America faces. While there are many exterior challenges that come from a culture in crisis, a crisis brought on by its refusal to seek God in all things, I'd like to focus for a few moments on an interior crisis the church is facing, what I will call the high-falutant term, Contextual Irrelevancy.
It was in college I first heard the term "Contextualization". It was a big word the mission majors through around and simply meant this. When entering a different culture, and seeking to share Christ with a people that had not heard the message, it was first necessary to "Contextualize the gospel". This means simply to put your message in a context that the people will understand. This can begin with the obvious need to learn the language of the people, be it Swiss or Swahili, but goes on to learning its customs, mores, beliefs, history, etc. Being a missionary can mean being a linguist (learning the language), a sociologist (learning the culture), and an anthropologist (understanding the history behind the present culture). One great historical example of this would be Hudson Taylor's work as a missionary among the Chinese. While all of the missionaries up to Hudson's time lived on the coast of China in English style homes, drinking English tea and wearing English clothes, Hudson took a very different approach. He moved in among the Chinese, living in a hut in the core of one of its cities, he ate the same as they ate, grew his hair long and braided it into the traditional chinese male style, and wore their clothes. The other English missionaries were aghast, and Hudson was thrown out of the missions organization. But guess what? Hudson Taylor is considered the father of modern missions, because it was his example that led to contextualization of the gospel. And now missionaries around the world work very hard to put the gospel of Jesus Christ in context to reach those across the sea.
My point: What about contextualization today? In America? Are we are on our way to "Contextual Irrelevancy" in many ways as we create a church culture that has its own language, it's own mores, it's own history, etc? What is the language Romeo and the surrounding area speaks? Of course it's English, but it is much more than that. How does the church contextualize today? How does it exist and labor "in the world", without becoming "of the world"?
The Bridge is a movement of people seeking to understand the culture around us, so that we might contextualize the message of Jesus Christ in such a way that they will understand. It is only in this way that we will not find ourselves completely irrelevant in our community. One final, uncomfortable story may help us understand. A Christian leader met with a group of church leaders and gave them this challenge. "Put an ad in the paper," he said, "announcing that in 30 days your church will be holding its final services and closing it's doors. Let the community know that you will no longer be present through the local newspaper, radio, etc. Then, wait and see if the community cares whether you are open or not. If the community doesn't care if you're there or not, than why do you exist?" The Bridge is a mission outpost, not a local American church. Think about it, and "Don't Mess With the Missionary Man" :)
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