Contextualization over technology

Holly Rankin Zaher challenged the PA Pastors' Conference to "do the hard work of contextualization" in crafting worship and community. Contextualization is really understanding what is happening in your community and why, and setting the church up to speak to the local dynamic, she said. It's hard work, and the modern paradigm of church busyness doesn't leave much time for reflecting and asking good questions, she said. "But if we don't do it, will we have congregations to care for in 50 years?"

Holly started by debunking several "myths" commonly held about worship in the emerging context:
  • It's all about the toys (technology)
  • It's for the under 35 crowd
  • It has to use fire and wax
  • It must be kewl, hip and trendy
"Is emergent a veneer we try on, or is it something else? I would argue that it is deeper," she said. The shift to postmodern culture is huge, she said, much larger than any generation, so it impacts people in many generations. She also noted that her Episcopal tradition thought the emphasis on liturgy and candles was good news, "but that is not what it is about." She also argued that it goes beyond coolness; "most of us sitting here do ministry regularly in emerging culture, whether we recognize it or not." Indeed, the worship she led us in after the presentation was more experiential than high-tech, and she blew out several candles when someone complained about scents, yet it worked for a group that averaged out, um, over 35. My experience confirms that people over 35 are just as, if not more appreciative of the ability to experience what is being taught.

Worship in the emerging context, she said, "is about contextualizing the good news in the midst of a community intent on following Jesus." There are 3 parts to contextualization, in her view:
  1. the context of the text -- our shared story
  2. the context of our times -- the emerging culture and world situation
  3. the context of our place -- local and particular
"I want the text to challenge me, to challenge my assumptions," she said. She gave an example based on 1 Corinthians 14, which is set in a larger context of the Roman empire, and Christians' struggle to let go of former gods. In the community Paul is writing to, there is in-fighting, class conflict, confusion about context, and battles about whose gifts really are better.

The text itself says nothing about leaders in the worship in Corinth; no music leaders, no sermon. "Paul doesn't say, 'Make sure you quote the Torah.'" Yet we have to wrestle with this in a context that professionalizes clergy and worship leadership. This doesn't mean we have to do it like the 1st Century, she says, but it does mean we can question why we do it the way we do.

The times we live in affect what we do because of information technology, consumerism, entertainment culture and globalization. "New media changes the way we give, receive and process information," she said, explaining that before the introduction of the printing press churches did not have pews. The press introduced a linear mode of thinking that organized the physical gathering of the community. "What can the internet, TiVo, and cell phones bring to the church?" And these major technology shifts, which most in the room had embraced at some level, mostly came about in the last 10-20 years. "Are your sermons like the ones given 20 years ago? Are they in a place where you can engage people on different levels" and via multiple senses? she asked.

Adult education theory now knows that "we really are all learners, and we all bring something to the table." If that is true, how does that change how leaders/preachers interact with the community?

On the local level, the main thing is to "learn to ask good questions." We need to be constantly asking "What's going on? Why?" about our communities. We also need to let congregations grapple with questions and resist the "temptation to tell them what to believe." It is better, she said, to step back and ask more questions, to let the person think on their own. We also need to look for the leadership structures that are organic to a given community -- is it government, church, or less defined social networks. "I have a hunch that the reason many of our churches were created with the structures they have is that at the time they worked." But are they the connections that work today?

So what does this mean for worship?

First, we need to seriously look at these issues of contextualization. She described one community she worked with spent a year looking at "people movements" in Luke/Acts, understanding how people came to know Jesus, and using that information to deconstruct their corporate worship.

Second, if the dominant images of our times are of empire and consumerism, we need to ask what are the alternative images that God might want us to offer people. "People want and need something to believe in. People know (our times') dominant story isn't going to pull them through. How do we offer them an alternative imagination from which to live?"

What if, she asked, worship in an emerging context...
  • was more about being missional than about style... more outward focused?
  • engaged the whole person, allowed space for us to worship with all of who we are, mind, body and spirit?
  • rediscovered the corporate idea of sin and salvation?
  • challenged current leadership structures... it was hard to tell who was in charge?
  • challenged the dominant image of consumerism and exposed the gods of power and greed in today's "throw-away" culture?
  • engaged the creative?
Good questions, all, with a lot of challenge in there for us. Truly missional worship wouldn't grow out of the experiences of a pastor or worship team but from deep understanding of the dynamics of both the gathered community and the community it is embedded in. In fact I love the word "embedded." Like the journalists who are "embedded" with combat troops, an embedded church would cast its fate in with the community and actually depend on the community rather than expecting the community to depend on it, and would actually live into the incarnational reality God has modeled for us.

Challenging consumerism and greed is a tough one; Holly says we have capitulated to the consumer model for church by packaging programs and actually encouraging people to "shop" for churches. We've allowed aspects of the American dream to coexist, however uncomfortably, with faith, and undoing that will make some (many?) uneasy, if not angry. And our professionalized ministry context makes challenging leadership structures difficult.

Her Hollyness then facilitated an experiential evening prayer, combining shared prayer, lectio divina, meditation on scripture and creed and experiential ritual, mostly in a self-selected, non-linear ordo. This is comfortable to me; we've been introducing many of these elements in the congregation I participate in. It appeared that many of the people in the room were also comfortable with this style, if not familiar with it. This might be a sign that we are more ready for the emerging culture than is commonly assumed.


Pat said...

Thanks for the notes on your recent learning!

One thing from Holly's time seemed a bit odd to me:

What if, she asked, worship in an emerging context...
* was more about being missional than about style... more outward focused?

My crew - strongly identifying ourselves as a missional community - still believes that worship must focus UP to God, rather than OUT in mission. Worship must be for God, and must be for our relationship to the Godhead. Otherwise, worship becomes watered down, 'seeker-driven' (seekers don't worship; they may observe though) and misses its purpose.

Can you clarify what holly meant by this? Did she mean that the flavor it takes is contextualized to the local community's styles and values and skills?

Bob said...


I'm sorry for the long delay in getting back to you. It's been hectic, and I had to go back to my notes to see if there was an answer to your question. And there is.

During Q&A, Holly was asked about the view of worship that Jesus gave, and she said that Jesus didn't define worship but talked about our posture of worship. That posture, she said, "is one of worship and reverence to God of creation, ...that is humble and wants to learn and grow… that’s what we have in terms of a clear picture in scripture." In response to a followup asking, as you did, whether the focus of worship is on God on on us, she said clearly: "The focus of worship is God." Worship leading and planning is about creating a space in which people can encounter God.

Hope this helps.