I’m a big advocate of contextualized ministry. Churches in the city need to be positioned to appeal to and reach people in the city. Churches in the suburbs need to be positioned to appeal to and reach people in the suburbs. Churches in the mountains of Haiti need to be positioned to appeal to and reach people in the mountains of Haiti. This is what I believe the apostle Paul set as a precedent for us in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22:
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”
Whoever his intended demographic was at the time, Paul “became” what (or who) he needed to become in order to reach them for the sake of Christ. Although he never compromised on his convictions, he didn’t let morally neutral cultural barriers prevent him from gaining the ear of anybody he ministered to. Paul, who was set free from the pressure to conform to any certain image, didn’t require anybody to conform to his cultural tradition or likeness in order to receive Christ. Instead, he was able to assimilate into any cultural situation he found himself in. What mattered wasn’t his image or his reputation, what mattered was the Gospel.
I’ve been engaged in conversations lately about “niche” churches and, let’s just say, I’m a big fan. For example, I’ve been made aware of the First Heavy Metal Church of Christ in Dayton, Ohio. This church is full of tattoos, leather, and Black Sabbath shirts. The worship is heavy, aggressive, and loud. They are also baptizing untold numbers of people who, in any other context, would never have stepped foot in a church; people that Jesus loves and gave Himself for; people that you and I will be standing (or moshing) next to in heaven. I thank God for this church, because they are reaching people on the fringes of society, not by requiring or even encouraging them to change their lifestyle, but by becoming like them in order to reach them. Rock on, Heavy Metal Church.
There’s also Level Up Church in Memphis, TN. One of my good friends from seminary is actually an associate pastor there. They are a church “by geeks, to geeks, for Jesus.” Their goal is to “make a place for those on the outside looking in.” Their small groups are affectionately referred to as “guilds” and they have LAN parties instead of potlucks. They also adhere to the Baptist Faith and Message and preach Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins. Man, I love that!
If your first instinct is to turn your nose up at either of these churches, then I would submit that you don’t quite grasp the fullness of God’s grace that is available for not only every nation, tribe, and tongue, but also every clique, culture, and interest group.
I personally owe a debt to unconventional churches like this. Before I came to know the Lord, my expectation of the church was one that didn’t include a place for people like me. I had long hair, gauged ears, played in various local metal bands, and did too many drugs to even feel comfortable driving through a church parking lot. Then a friend invited me to Generation North Church (now Rehoboth Church) and when I showed up everyone “looked” like me. So much flannel and skinny jeans. The music was unlike anything I’d heard in church and the preaching felt like the preacher actually cared about those who he was talking to. And everyone enjoyed this church. This experience played a huge role in breaking through my preconceived ideas about what it meant to be a Christian and how “clean” I needed to be in order to come to Jesus. I ended up getting saved and baptized in this church. For some reason they felt led to allow me to teach the Bible and serve in the worship band. They believed in me and my potential and now I’m literally getting paid to teach the Bible and lead a worship band. Where would I be today if God hadn’t impressed upon the hearts of these people the compassion and love that God has for those outside the fold?
The body of Christ is incredibly diverse, but I fear that the major expression of it in America has become incredibly static. I’d love to see more “niche” church planting efforts spring up. There are countless people out there that are being hindered from coming to Christ by needless cultural pressures to look a certain way or do (or not do) a certain thing. This is a shame. The only barrier that should exist between the world and Christ is sin, and therefore the only weight we should put on people is the weight of a cross. Everything else needs to just die. And those of us who have been crucified to the world, who have been given a new name and a new identity that is secure in heaven, should be all the more willing to become whatever we need in order to reach the world.
Also published on Medium.