Our church and campuses are located in the very diverse D.C. Metro area. As a result, we have people who visit us from all different cultural and faith backgrounds. Most people who visit immensely enjoy their experience while some may recognize that we do things a bit differently here at New Life. Dress is casual, food and coffee are allowed in the worship area, the message is to the point (and can be quite humorous), and the only thing louder than the adult worship is the children’s worship in the next room. Early in my ministry here, I received a very nice and respectful email with concerns about one of the above issues, and ultimately, the way we do ministry as a whole. The concern was that our casual nature might compromise the truth that we’d hope to share with those who come. As I replied, I realized that not everyone might know the reasons behind why we do what we do in the way we do it, so I thought I’d share my response below.
Dear Bill, (Name is fictional. Not intended to convey anything about those named Bill.)
I understand where you are coming from as I, too, grew up in a very traditional church and attended a Christian school. I also pastored a very traditional church before coming to New Life. We always welcome feedback and will use it in our conversations about the church’s direction. We know that we don’t have everything figured out and are always seeking God for His guidance. A lot of times that guidance comes through individuals like yourself, so thank you for sharing with us.
The two issues you addressed in your email are compromise and contextualization. Every ministry has to wrestle with the tension between these two concepts, and have done so since the book of Acts as the Jews wrestled with the correct way to minister to the Gentiles who were coming to faith in Christ. I can promise you that we have wrestled with these issues in prayer for many years. We do not take them lightly, but the wrestling has brought us to this place. We have decided that the issues we must not compromise on are our core beliefs in the unconditional Love of God, the Gospel of Jesus, the Power of the Holy Spirit, the Truth of God’s Word, and the Hope of New Life. A more comprehensive description of the Truths we must not compromise is found in the Apostles Creed:
“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” – English Language Liturgical Consultation Version
This is not necessarily an exhaustive list, but it gets us off to a really good start. We believe the truths contained in those statements are life changing. As a result, they are truths that must not be changed or compromised. I appreciate that you noted in your email as a compliment that from your perspective it does not appear that we are compromising on those issues.
The second issue is contextualization. That’s a big word to say and it’s the way we communicate truth. We take entire classes in seminary on how to intentionally package or communicate these uncompromisable truths to different cultures. This might be on an overseas mission field or the mission field of our own local community. In each culture, a different cultural “language” is spoken. It doesn’t matter how powerful our truth is if we can’t connect with the one hearing it. Contextualization goes beyond the words used to convey the message and includes the way it’s conveyed and the environment in which it is conveyed. At New Life, we have decided that issues of food, drink, shoes, clothing, songs, music, volume, lights, furniture, decor, style, humor, etc., are contextual. These things are not the message. They are the means by which we communicate the message. You have actually pointed out something that we have done very intentionally, but I can promise you it was not to simply “attract new potential attendees.” We hope to see the young and the lost, who may not feel comfortable approaching God in a traditional church setting, find Jesus in an environment where they feel more comfortable.
A praise in this area. A month ago, a man entered in shorts and a T-shirt with tattoos all over his body and his first words to me were: “I don’t want to be here. I’ve got issues with God and I’m skeptical about all of this.” We welcomed him and he returned! On the second visit, he was much more open and friendly, and after his third visit, his family was looking for places where they could get involved! I have seen the lives of this family continue to change as they learn more about a relationship with God. I have to believe that this has to do with the environment we created and his ability to relate to and connect with those here at New Life.
I want you to know that I am not saying all of this to argue our point. I don’t believe you are wrong, because I don’t believe this is an issue of right and wrong. We believe this to be an issue of personal preference, of which we are glad we are a part of a much larger body of Christ. We celebrate the fact that there are hundreds or thousands of churches that contextualize differently and thus connect with a different person. I can understand that we might not be right for you, but I celebrate that we can be there for the man and his family mentioned earlier. I hope you would consider praying for us as we continue to seek to reach this rapidly changing culture with the uncompromisable Truth of God, the Gospel of Jesus, the Power of the Holy Spirit, the Truth of God’s Word, and the Hope of New Life.
Campus Pastor at New Life Gainesville