Adopt Missional Gestures, Beware of Missional Postures

By Keelan Cook

“Don’t make that face! If you do it enough, it’ll get stuck that way!”

If I heard that once, I heard it a hundred times as a kid. My grandmother loved that line. Of course, it wasn’t true. There is no hidden quota for grimaces, after which your face hardens with a disgusted look for perpetuity. Or is there? I know as a child, uncertainty crept in every time my sagely grandmother would utter those words. I know there were times I wanted to make that face, but I didn’t want it stuck that way. What if I could only have one expression for the rest of my life no matter the situation?

In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch taps into this very idea when discussing our interaction to culture. Crouch says a lot of things concerning our relationship to the culture around us, our context for mission, but one of the most profound is a simple distinction between gestures and postures toward a given culture.

Gestures

Gestures are movements and reactions to a particular occurrence. You taste something you don’t like and your face reveals this. You stumble over a crack in the sidewalk, and you reach out to catch yourself on something. You want to emphasize a point when telling a story, so you raise your arms in excitement. These are all gestures, and we use dozens of them every day in response to a myriad of experiences.

Postures

Our postures are different. A posture is a consistent stance that is developed over time. People who sit at a desk for years looking over a laptop tend to develop bad postures.

Crouch writes, “Something similar, it seems to me, has happened at each stage of American Christians’ engagement with culture. Appropriate gestures toward particular cultural goods can become, over time, part of the posture Christians unconsciously adopt toward every cultural situation and setting. Indeed, the appeal of the various postures of condemning, critiquing, copying and consuming—the reason that all of them are still very much with us—is that each of these responses to culture is, at certain times and with specific cultural goods, a necessary gesture.” (Crouch, 95)

Essentially, appropriate gestures toward culture and context are good. The problem occurs when gestures become postures.

A local church’s context (and the various cultures co-existing in that space) will throw myriad concepts and circumstances at the congregation and leadership. Crouch lists several gestures appropriate to adopt toward aspects of a given context: condemning, critiquing, consuming, and copying. I would argue there are probably other gestures as well.  At times, though, it is completely appropriate for the church (or Christians individually) to condemn an aspect of a culture or to happily consume or copy another aspect of a culture. However, the problem occurs when one of these gestures becomes a posture toward culture overall.

Culture is Dynamic, not Static

For churches young and old, our tendency is often to stand either in fundamental opposition or uncritical acceptance to the cultural context. While a number of appropriate gestures can be made toward culture, contextualization is significantly hindered when a fundamental posture toward any culture is adopted. It is easy to always assume the response to a particular culture should be one of opposition (perhaps a culture very different from our own) or one of acceptance (like our own culture). Neither stance will do for gospel ministry.

Churches have a disciple-making mission. In fact, the mission of the church is a biblical given. Every church has the same fundamental mission. However, every local church has a unique context, and that requires a fresh look at culture and community. What is more, one context may have many overlapping cultural groups.

Given this amount of diversity, merely adopting a general posture toward one culture (or several cultures) hinders the ability of that church to adequately incarnate the gospel.

Culture and context are dynamic, not static.

Any particular context may serve as home to multiple cultural groupings of people, and every one of them is adjusting and adapting through time. Attempting to contextualize the gospel to a cultural context is attempting to hit a constantly moving target. When a church, young or old, adopts particular missional gestures toward their context (a particular style of outreach, certain kinds of events or events at all, a particular liturgy for the corporate worship) they run the danger over time of developing a particular posture. That posture may be appropriate for a given group of people at a particular time; however, that context and even that group of people are in the process of changing.

The North American landscape is littered with churches that adopted a posture toward their context that was effective at one time and has now ceased to be so. Consider that once vibrant local church in your area that can only see faithful ministry in the rearview mirror. First, their ministry and gospel impact on the community began to plateau. Eventually, they entered a season of prolonged decline. The neighborhood around them looked less and less like their congregation. While the natural dynamics of culture and community continued, the church took a largely static position concerning the way they approach their mission in their context. Their gestures became postures.

Adopt Missional Gestures, Beware Missional Postures

In a dynamic context, local churches should adopt missional gestures and beware missional postures. Know, as best you can, the cultural landscape of your context. Odds are, your context has more than one cultural grouping of people. As a rule of thumb, we tend to assume there is less cultural diversity in a given neighborhood or community than is present.

This often results in whole groups of people who are essentially hidden, causing churches to unintentionally overlook cultural communities within their context. What is more, no culture is monolithic. In other words, cultures are made up of many different beliefs and artifacts, requiring different missional gestures. Within any given culture there are probably things to oppose, things to accept, things to consume and to copy. So your context most likely has multiple cultural groups, each with multi-faceted aspects. And on top of it all, they are all dynamically shifting as time moves forward.

After considering well the different facets of your context, adopt missional gestures based on two factors: appropriateness to the particular facet and faithfulness to Scripture.

Does your response result in making new disciples through the proclamation of the gospel in a way that makes sense to specific groups within your context? One cultural method of gospel proclamation will not engage a diverse cultural context, and different gestures are necessary for different groups. Are you celebrating the aspects of a given culture that align with a biblical worldview and opposing the aspects that do not? In addition, consider partnerships with other local churches. Diverse churches partnering together will provide more cultural manifestations of the gospel in a given location. No single church can reach the radical diversity presented in the contemporary North American urban center.

Finally, beware the warning signs of a developing posture. Does your conversation about your context tend to conflate different groups of people into an “us versus them” understanding? If so, then your language may be betraying a monolithic understanding of your context that will inevitably result in a general posture toward your neighborhood or community. Often missional postures hide inside of longstanding traditions that become sacred cows over time. Churches who approach their context as a static mission field will continue using the same missions methods even as the culture of the people around them transitions.

The challenge for leaders is to instill a spirit of discovery within the congregation. Celebrate the missions methods that have worked in the past, but lead the congregation toward a willingness to experiment. A dynamic context requires a nimble church.

 

Keelan Cook
Author

Keelan is a Senior Church Consultant with the Union Baptist Association in Houston and is working on a PhD in Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He spent time as a church planter in West Africa with the IMB and doing ethno-graphic research in Washington, DC with NAMB. His focus is urban and diaspora missions.

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