Our new home, Heber Springs, AR, is different from Memphis. Heber Springs is more politically conservative, ethnically homogenous, and, well, rural. We live in a new context with unique values, beliefs, behaviors, and points-of-view.
In Memphis I had only heard of what is known as "Cowboy" churches. Now, I live a few minutes from one: Mountain Top Cowboy Church. It has been in existence for several years and has grown to the degree that the congregation has purchase 16 acres, built meeting place, as well as facilities for...well...horse stuff (full-disclosure: I'm not a cowboy).
My family and I attended an activity on church property last week. It wasn’t a church service, but an event for folks that own, ride, and train horses. A pastor opened the event by reading from the book of John, explaining the text, and prayer.
Notice what the pastor is wearing and where he is standing. Notice what's missing. There is no pulpit, no pews, and no hymn books. He didn't use powerpoint and he was accompanied by a band.
So how should we understand this sort of expression of faith? Is it a gimmick? Is it trickery? Is it pandering to the preferences of the world?
No. It’s none of those. It’s an authentic contextualization of the gospel into a particular sub-culture in rural Arkansas. It may seem strange to you and me, but that's because we have different cultural filters and preferences. Our conception of "cowboy" is probably based more on Hollywood than the hard-scrabble, down-to-earth living that these folks experience and associate with that term.
In trying to discern the appropriateness of any cultural expression of Christianity we should ask two fundamental questions:
- Is it effective (numerical/spiritual growth)?
- Is the integrity of the gospel maintained?
In the case of Mountain Top Cowboy Church, as far as I can tell, the answer is YES to both questions. In fact, the two times I have experienced MTCC have greatly impressed me as being both gospel centered and culturally appropriate.
Contextualization is simply "putting the gospel into . . ." I often use the illustration of an empty glass and a pitcher full of water. In order to fill the glass, we must first extract water from the pitcher (we call this "pouring"). We may try to force the pitcher containing the water into the glass instead of pouring the water, but this probably won't accomplish the desired result. This is similar to what can happen when we share the message of the scriptures with other cultures. We may unwittingly force forms along with the content and end up with a big mess.
Paying attention to culture can be immensely helpful in our efforts to teach the gospel to people. Even in our own society, we can see sub-groups or sub-cultures. These need to be taken seriously and honored when we teach and disciple within them.