Dropping my daughter off at a recent youth group event, we drove through a nice
neighborhood on a hillside in our rural West Tennessee context. Every house in the neighborhood was unique in its architecture, size, landscaping, and use of the hillside. In contrast, I recently drove through a nice suburban neighborhood in which every house looked exactly the same: same architecture, same size, same landscaping. I suppose there would be advantages to living in a neighborhood like that, but it looked like someone had hit the “copy and paste a house” key about 100 times.
While there is nothing wrong with that in a neighborhood full of houses, “copy and paste” church planting strategies are potentially dangerous because they fail to fully wrestle with the implications of the host culture. You’ve seen it before, and it’s not just the architecture. Church A has significant growth and success in city A, so church planters in cities B, C, D, and even city E in a different country assume that doing a “copy and paste” church plant will be similarly successful. But while churches B, C, D, and E look nearly identical to church A, growth is much slower and the church planters become increasingly frustrated.
In Sean Benesh’s Exegeting the City, he describes the difference between manufactured homes and custom homes, and parallels those homes to churches (pg. 25-26). In my illustration above, churches A through E are like manufactured homes that look exactly the same. A custom home, however, is designed intentionally to uniquely reflect its neighborhood.
A contextualized (or “custom”) church does not “copy and paste” a church planting strategy. Good contextualization demands that every expression of the local church is designed intentionally to reflect its neighborhood. My somewhat long and boring definition of contextualization is: “Contextualization is the process by which the Word of God is faithfully communicated and obediently put into practice in constantly changing human cultures in ways that are sensitive, understandable, and meaningful to any one culture so that the members of that culture may follow Jesus without leaving their culture.”
In other words, don’t copy and paste church planting strategies. Learn from them. Borrow ideas. But for the sake of the Gospel and the local culture (wherever that culture may be) make sure it’s a “custom” contextualized church, not a copy and paste “manufactured” church.
Get to know Matt
Matt is an assistant professor of Missions and Bible at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, TN. He also serves on the Board of Directors at Kindred Exchange and is the co-host of the Missio Pop podcast alongside our Director of Missional Development, Dr. Aaron Wheeler.
Matt and his wife Charla served as church planters in Cusco, Peru. Since his return to the United States, he has developed a passion for diaspora missiology, especially rural areas. Matt has a Ph.D. in Missions with a minor in World Religions from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and wrote his dissertation on diaspora missions among Asian Americans in southern, rural contexts.
He is happily married to Charla and has 2 kids and 1 crazy dog. He and his family love to camp, hike, play disc golf, and visit National Parks. Matt is a proud native of West Virginia and loves to cheer for the WV Mountaineers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Dive deeper on the Missio Pop Podcast
Missio Pop is a podcast of two overeducated white dudes talking about all things in the world of missions, missiology, and God’s hope for the world. Dr. Aaron Wheeler and Dr. Matt Cook look at what God is doing both around the globe and in our own backyard. This first season will focus on the missionary task of contextualization - the way in which culture shapes and forms the way in which we share God’s truth.
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