If you aren’t familiar with Jackass, I can sum it up for you in a phrase: “Don’t try this at home!” Which is another way of saying, “Many young men are morons and are more than willing to prove it in front of a camera and an audience for not much money.” Known for its objectionable humor and its dangerous homemade stunts,Jackass provided an odd gathering tool for a start-up church. But when young men who embodied my target demographic started showing up and engaging in conversation, I felt like a cutting-edge hipster who happened to be a pastor. This was, in my mind, confirmation of my down-to-earth personality and general awesomeness, and I was convinced that I was the best pastor even without an official church in town. This über-missional event would be the beginning of conquering St. Louis for the gospel by means of shrewd cultural engagement. The night was young and the sky was the limit for ministry victory.
Prior to the official launch of The Journey [Patrick's STL-area church plant], we held Bible studies and missional events to encourage our launch team and to draw in non-Christians interested in learning more about our community. One of the most memorable of these “missional events” was the time when I decided it would be a wise to gather all the men of the church in the basement of my home for a marathon viewing of the Emmy-worthy MTV “variety show,” Jackass. We sent out a general invitation to the community, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Nothing attracts a bunch of dudes to a basement like the opportunity to watch a group of irreverent grown men prolong their adolescence by acting like middle schoolers, all on national television.And then the wheels came off the church bus...
Patrick goes on to describe the event as having devolved into a chaotic, drunken debacle which did seemingly nothing for the sake of the Kingdom. It is sad to me that in certain circles (especially hipster, American church-planting circles), such an event is what passes for contextualization these days. Contextualization, from a Biblical and missiological perspective, is related to the incarnation of Jesus Christ and may be understood as the intentional pursuit of incarnational life in a given cultural context. It has to do with missional "entering in" -- that is, how do I as an outsider to a particular community enter that community as a follower of Christ so as to remove those barriers to the gospel that arise from my foreignness. Contextualization also has to do with the new disciple's "staying in" -- that is, how does a new Christ-follower in a particular context remain in that context as an insider so as to faithfully live out his/her discipleship among his/her neighbors, friends, and family who are still without Christ. Contextualization efforts usually fall into one of two overlapping categories. The first is social-relational contextualization. That is, what does it mean for disciples of Jesus to live out their commitment to love their neighbors in a particular cultural context so that their loving might be truly understood as loving? The second category is spiritual-liturgical contextualization which has to do with how followers of Christ can love, worship, serve, and communicate about God and the Bible within their particular context.
The Jackass event, as described, doesn't seem to have had a spiritual-liturgical component at all. We are given no information about how worship, prayer, Bible study, or other spiritual disciplines were conducted. There is a suggestion that spiritual conversations may have happened, but we are not told the content. At best, this seems to have had something to do with the social-relational side of contextualization. From that perspective, Patrick and company may have had some right ideas. They considered the community they were seeking to engage and planned an event that would be attractive to them. While this thinking has something to do with contextualization, it wasn't "over-contextualization" that led to the disaster described. On the contrary, I would argue that this is an example of "under-contextualization."
I would thus suggest that what is going on here has to do with the "staying in" side of contextualization. For Patrick and his fellow Christ-followers, the operative question related to contextualization should be, "How do I live out my faith in Christ within my own cultural context and community?" I would suggest that the decision to spend several hours watching a television show that they admit to be "objectionable" indicates that they didn't fully examine this question. Their thinking centered on how to gather a group of non-believing people from their community together. This isn't true contextualization. Contextualization would seek to bring those people in contact with Christ and Christ-followers in contextually relevant ways. So, the corporate viewing of Jackass as a cultural element opposed to Christ and his revelation is antithetical to the pursuit of contextualization because it fails to bring people into contact with Christ. Writes Patrick:
My failure was classic over-contextualization. Over-contextualization is when you view missional opportunities primarily through a cultural lens instead of a gospel lens. In this instance, I was more concerned with providing a cool, “unchurchy” environment than I was with making sure the environment didn’t reflect poorly on the gospel. The guys I tried to reach needed healthy gospel boundaries around their newly discovered Christian liberty. I failed to provide that for them. I over-contextualized in my approach because I tried to make the gospel submit to the culture rather than letting my pop culture sensibilities submit to the gospel.
I think I basically agree with Patrick's assessment of his experiment with the exception of the phrase "over-contexualization." As I have been trying to point out, the use of this term indicates that Patrick is missing the point regarding contextualizaiton. Contextualization, we must understand, always has a context. There is always the target context and the thing to be contextualized -- i.e. Jesus. If you forget the latter -- Patrick's real failure -- you are no longer practicing contextualization.
Consider Jesus during his incarnation. He often opposed certain elements of the 1st century Jewish culture, but he always did so as an insider. When people got angry with him, the charge was never, "Who is this foreigner coming in here to tell us what to do?" Rather, the charge was, "Is not he the carpenter?" (cf. Mark 6:1-6). Pursuing contextualization as an imitation of Christ's incarnation means not simply assimilating with the culture in a purely human sense. Rather it means entering or remaining in a context as an ambassador of Christ -- bringing Him, his revelation, his prophetic word, his life and love. Patrick's failure was that he didn't adequately do that. This is a failure to fully contextualize the revelation of Christ, not some kind of "over-contextualization".
In answer to the oft-repeated question, "How far do we go with contextualization?" I do not point to fatally flawed contextualization scales. I point to Christ. How far did he go? How human did he become? How Jewish? How Galilean? If we are to imitate His example, we must go all the way. And going all the way is more than simply skillfully adapting to a particular cultural context. Going all the way requires bringing Christ and bringing his message to bear in that context -- to give them the opportunity to experience Jesus as the word made flesh for them.