Christian worship, at the end of the second millennium, stands at some unique junctures. As never before, hymns, prayers, and litanies from all over the globe are appearing in many North American denominational hymnals and books of worship. These new resources are available because worshipping communities all over the world are exploring indigenous Christian worship and sharing it with the global, ecumenical community. This exploration has led to the introduction of new musical instruments into worship. It has also led to the creation of much new music for the church in local contexts.
The increase in electronic media, computers, and the Internet have also all aided this process, bringing resources to our fingertips which were previously thousands of miles away. Recent changes in copyright licensing has made it easier to have a wider selection of hymns available than any one hymnal can contain. Today, congregations across the globe can share hymns and prayers which just ten years ago they could not even have been aware of. The opportunities to engage the Word from beyond one’s local community are enormous. There is an ever-increasing potential for local communities to participate in global contextualization.
At the same time, many Christian congregations are experiencing an internal crisis on the local level. For some North American congregations this crisis takes the form of the loss of a congregation’s identity as the social and moral center of the community. For others, it is the struggle with loss of members as the church loses the central place it had in the community just a generation ago.
There is a pressing need for North American congregations to begin to look at their own context and consider how to address the crises of identity present within it. This requires, first of all, a look at the “word” upon which the community has focused. What is the Word which is present in this community? Then, who are those present, and what does their worship tell about them? What are their questions of identity? How are those questions addressed? This is the process of local contextualization.
The possibilities are enormous. This situation can be as baffling as it is exciting. How does one make choices for worship which have integrity for a particular context? How does one sift through and decide among the many choices that which will speak in the local worshipping congregation?
Entering into another’s cultural tradition offers the potential of seeing God’s pattern of unity in a new context. It may not be immediately recognizable or easily discerned. If we patiently learn the cultural patterns, however, the underlying unity will begin to emerge.
At first, the terrain feels unfamiliar and disorienting. After we enter into another’s culture, learning and participating as we go, we begin to discern patterns and contrasts we previously could not. We find new ways to discern the patterns which reside in another culture as we set aside our own for a time. The multicultural church is a process of learning one another’s patterns, and discerning God’s unity within them.
I propose a process with which any local worshipping community can engage new worship materials. Responsive contextualization is a way of presenting the local community with resources outside its own borders. Through this process, a community articulates its own sense of identity and meaning, while coming into contact and interacting with materials from other worshipping communities. In the process a community develops meaning with new materials as it brings them into its own particular context.
In the following paragraphs, I will outline six steps in the process of responsive contextualization. After the description of each step, I will offer reflection questions. These are intended to help a congregation get in touch with its own particular process of meaning-making. The questions are intended for individual or group reflection, and are not intended to be an exhaustive list. A worship and music committee, or other group with some responsibility for the worship life of the congregation, would be a good place to begin this process.
When crossing cultural borders, responsive contextualization is made up of several steps. First, a local community needs to know and identify itself as a specific context. Understanding itself includes awareness of the range of individuals within the community; what unique talents and gifts they possess; what are the community’s identifying marks.
- What is the size of the worshipping community?
- What are unique talents and gifts which individuals or groups possess?
- What would this community believe to be the most important elements in worship?
- What style or styles of worship does this community experience?
- How is the community’s leadership affirmed and expressed in worship?
Second: A community identifies what it is that creates and holds meaning for this community. At this juncture it is important to consider to what kinds of truth claims the community regularly assents; recognizing those worship forms to which the community attaches meaning. A community that is self-conscious about these aspects of worship will be able to clarify its unique identity.
- How does the congregation find meaning in these elements of worship?
- Holy Communion
- Holy Baptism
- Sharing of the Peace
Third: A community seeks a more diverse expression of itself by encountering a resource from outside itself. This could be through a song, prayer, or litany from another culture; it could also be a resource from another denomination or church. By seeking a greater contrast with its own identity, a community opens itself to a potentially more diverse identity. By continually seeking things outside one’s own community, an expanding potential for diversity and variety increases.
- What are some natural points of connection outside the local community?
- What ethnic groups are represented in the congregation?
- What ethnic groups are represented in the neighborhood around the church?
- What does the congregation do especially well in worship?
- What does the congregation do poorly, or not at all in worship?
Fourth: A community begins to learn what it can about the context from which the resource originated. Issues of language and culture, performance practice (in the case of music), theological ideas, would all contribute to understanding what one can about this worship element.
- What is known about the singing style of the people from which the resource came?
- How would music be accompanied and led?
- What potential is there for using the original language of the resource?
- What theological ideas are presented in the text, and how do they interface with this congregation?
- What images of God, creation, or humanity are used?
- Could they complement, add to, or diversify the community’s self expression?
Fifth: The resource is introduced in worship. Care is taken to prepare the community so that the new element can invite everyone’s participation. Its place in worship is chosen to give it the opportunity to fit into the community’s worship and speak meaningfully.
- Will this resource be able to bear repetition in the community?
- What points of contact can the community find with the resource?
- Does this resource reinforce, challenge, or confront the community’s normative expressions?
Sixth: There is reflection on the introduction of this new element.
- Did it communicate and engage the worshipping community?
- Was its meaning able to connect with the meaning of the local community? Was there a fusion of horizons in bringing this new element into a specific contextual community?
- What was the meaning created by this new occasion?
- Were truth claims presented and experienced?
- If so, how was the community’s expression of meaning expanded through the experience?
These six steps offer a middle way between two common options. Resources from other contexts are sometimes simply not considered because leaders realize they do not know enough about the cultures from which they originate. Rather than present a new hymn without authenticity, new hymns are simply not presented. Responsive contextualization reminds us that when a worship resource crosses out of the borders of its original context into a new one, it becomes an expression of that new community. It is no longer limited to an authentic representation of its original community. While it does not have authenticity, it can have integrity when it is brought into the community through such a process.
A Hispanic hymn presented in an Anglo community, for instance, is no longer the same hymn it was. When it crossed out of the borders of its original, community context it became a part of another, different community. Its presentation in the new community will give it a new treatment, creating varieties of the hymn. In each new community the nuances will be slightly different and the results will be slightly different. These variations are no longer the authentic presentation of the hymn as it was in its original community, but become presentations with integrity in their new community.
A second option is one which does not recognize the borders that are crossed when a resource from another community comes into one’s own. Without this recognition, a new resource is simply presented the way all resources are presented in that community, without regard for its original context. Responsive contextualization reminds us here that a resource from another context is indeed different, requiring its own form of presentation. One needs to know what one can so that the meaning of the resource can be carried into the new community. Without this, there is a flatness about a new resource which reduces its ability to form a contrast with the new community. Responsive contextualization names the process in which contrasts are introduced into worship. It also consciously values those expressions that come to a community from outside its own circle. New expressions give the possibility of new contrasts. This places the community in the position of seeking, inviting, welcoming and receiving new expressions into itself. This process gives impetus to a dynamic sense of worship, with fluid borders and constantly new expressions.
There is a wealth of material for Christian worship at this edge of a new century. Let us embrace and welcome the greatest diversity into our worshiping assemblies. In the process we may show ourselves hospitable to the stranger, and inclusive within our Christian fellowship. Responsive contextualization gives us a way for meeting this encounter with others which respects all cultures and contexts. It gives us a way to express the diversity of the body of Christ in the context of worship. God provides the unity through Christ; we express that unity through our great human diversity.