Church Planting

Contextualization in the City

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New York City can be an intimidating place for many. For my family, it was home. Over the course of eight years, we planted a multicultural church there in partnership with the North American Mission Board. It was an exhilarating, joyous, and challenging experience. I learned a lot about church planting and mission work, and I discovered the value of contextualization. In this article, I will share how contextualization made a difference in our church plant. Building upon the theoretical foundation established in the first post in this series, we will explore what contextualization can look like in cities.

We planted a church in a Brooklyn neighborhood called Crown Heights, which was known for its history of uneven racial progress (Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball there, and the 1991 race riots also occurred there). In a historically West Indian and Jewish community, we had an opportunity to plant a church for all peoples. And that is exactly what happened. But our church did not emerge in a cultural vacuum. Our city (and even more, our neighborhood) shaped the way that we served on mission.

Contextualization drives missionaries to embrace unique strategies that make sense in their local context.

The city shaped our church planting strategy.

A city like New York has an instant impact on strategy. Urban geography is crucial for church planters. For instance, we discovered that our neighbors were not interested in walking half a mile to our church, but we could engage them through an outdoor worship service two blocks away in a neighborhood park. In selecting a venue for our church, we always had to consider public transit routes. Where are the closest subway stations and bus stops? These were existential questions in a city where most churches do not have parking lots. Walkability suddenly rocketed up our list of important ingredients for our church plant.

The neighborhood also shaped our planting strategy by leading us to embrace a multicultural missional model. The community was incredibly diverse but mostly English-speaking, with a majority West-Indian diaspora. So, our church became a multicultural church that worshipped in English, evangelistically engaged non-English speakers (primarily Muslims), and was about 50% West Indian. This approach worked for us, and it emerged from deep reflection on both Scripture and our local community. But our neighborhood was distinctive, and not every church plant in NYC looked like ours. Contextualization drives missionaries to embrace unique strategies that make sense in their local context.

Crown Heights also shaped our planting strategy by showing us where we could serve. In the urban jungle of Brooklyn, people cherish green space. Neighborhood parks are a treasure, and tree-lined sidewalks are celebrated. We became known in our community as the church that plants flowers and waters trees. In our neighborhood park, we became the leading organization mobilizing volunteers to serve. We then utilized that same park for evangelistic worship services. We preached and evangelized against the backdrop of flowers and trees that we had planted. Our neighborhood cherished this park, and people came to faith in Christ because our church plant cherished it too.

The city shaped our communication strategy.

Hipsters populated the gentrifying western edge of our neighborhood, where wine bars and cheese shops dotted the landscape. The eastern half of our community was what people usually call the ‘Hood’, and it was there that a massive section-eight housing complex towered over our family’s first apartment. I took the theological concepts that I learned in seminary and translated them for the cityscape. That means that my sermons contained references to both The New Yorker and Kanye. Since our church consisted of people from around the world, I embraced the theological category of pilgrimage (Hebrews 11) and focused on our heavenly citizenship (Philippians 3). My sermon illustrations drew from Caribbean history. I focused stylistically on crafting sermons that engaged the creative class through artistic allusion. If this sounds like hard work, you are grasping the challenge of contextualized preaching.

But our context-driven communication was not limited to preaching; it also included our evangelism. To the Chinese children in the laundromat at the corner of our block, I learned to explain that the Son of God was shamed before his Father (at the cross) so that they would never have to be ashamed before the Father. This approach to sharing the gospel makes sense in most honor-shame cultures.

I once shared a meal with a Muslim man from Africa who was loosely connected to our church. He explained to me that his royal family held a position of prominence in their tribe but that every generation struggles because of an ancestral curse. After listening carefully, I explained to my neighbor that this ancestral curse was like the story of the Bible. I explained that Christians believe their distant ancestors committed a sin, and every generation has since been cursed. Try as we might, we cannot lift the curse under our own power because we committed the same sins as our ancestors. But the good news is that someone came under the Law, someone called the Second Adam, and he redeemed us from the curse. He undid what was done by our ancestors. He forgave us through the cross. This approach to sharing the gospel is not necessarily my default way of explaining the good news. But it made sense to my acquaintance. This example is one of the many ways our neighborhood shaped our communication strategy.

The city shaped our worship strategy.

Our church plant was Southern Baptist, meaning we embraced the doctrine and mission of the Southern Baptist Convention without reservation. But when denominational partners would visit our church, they would encounter a worship service that felt foreign to them. One told me: “I feel like I’m in another country.” I said, “That’s good. That means we are contextualizing well.” Our songs would sometimes feature multiple languages. Some of our anthems had a reggae feel to them. Rap occasionally made an appearance in our Sunday worship services. As a brand-new church plant, we had few established traditions. But there was one that we cherished. Whenever someone got baptized, we would gather around the baptistery and sing a Jamaican-style song about choosing to follow Jesus.

Why? Why not just copy the worship I had grown up with? The answer is that context drove our worship strategy. The city (and our own local neighborhood) shaped how we expressed ourselves as a community of the gospel.

Contextualization makes a difference in cities, but it also matters everywhere. In the final article in this mini-series, we will explore what contextualization can look like where I currently live and minister: the secular “None Zone” of the Pacific Northwest.

Check out Part 1 of this article series HERE!

  • Church Planting
  • Diaspora Missions
  • Great Commission
  • Other World Views
Stephen Stallard

Stephen Stallard is the Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He served in NYC for eight years, where he planted a multicultural church. Stephen earned a PhD in Applied Theology from SEBTS. Trained as a missiologist, he enjoys exploring a rich diversity of cultures. Stephen is married to Sonya, the love of his life. They have four children: one girl and three boys. Stephen's hobby is making hot sauce.

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