Why Contextualization is Scary

The word Contextualization will get you shot in some areas. “The gospel doesn’t need to be contextualized” is the mantra.

I definitely recognize the inherent feeling of uneasiness about it because it sure does seem like the gospel itself is somehow being modified to suit a particular audience. But that is not the heart behind proper contextualization.

To be simple and to the point: contextualization is best positioning the proclamation of Christ to gain a favorable reception without adding to or taking away from the basic content of it.

Here’s the kicker: everybody has a context. This is so obvious that its easy to overlook. Here are some traits of the modern evangelical context, and a brief challenge for each.

1. We must conclude our church services with an altar call.

The altar call is an invention of the emotionalism of the 2nd Great Awakening and was popularized by the likes of Charles Finney. What was once an effective strategy has become methodological dogma.

2. The Sunday School is a necessary part of church life.

This is also a recent innovation since the 2nd Great Awakening.

3. Christian Education is one of the single best means of life change.

Although theological training is of the utmost significance, it cannot be divorced from practical and personal discipleship, evangelism, and service in the community. Many conservative churches have education programs, but very little to offer in terms of the other items mentioned above.

4. A “good witness” means that I appear to be moral and upright.

Jesus was called a drunkard and a glutton, who hung out with tax collectors and sinners. This would be considered a poor witness. But our witness is determined by our words and our actions as well as our friends. Of course, bad company does corrupt good character, but that shouldn’t be read as a mandate to avoid sinners.

The bottom line: contextualization is necessary for Jesus Christ to be embodied in our world. The model of ministry popularized 150 years ago does not communicate to our culture with the same power it did back then.

But God doesn’t change does he? Isn’t this ‘selling out’?

Let’s say one were a missionary to a tribal village that has no concept of a “king.” Would it be appropriate, in that situation, to refer to Jesus as the “chief of chiefs?” I think so, because that is the best way to communicate the authority of Christ. Using their own cultural language and expectation of authority and showing how Christ is Lord over all authorities.

Many complain about contextualization because it sounds scary. It sounds like we’re selling out the gospel. But I believe that the Bible demonstrates time and again how Christ is Lord over every culture, language, and expression. This will necessarily mean entering into a culture, and expressing Christ within its own language and culture, and showing how he is superior.

Tim Keller says that in some cases we will adapt the culture as we enter it, and other cases we will challenge it and confront it.

  1. 1. We must conclude our church services with an altar call. – I see good and bad in this. I think it can invoke thoughtless, emotional responses. But there also needs to come a point where unbelievers are called out on the carpet and challenged to make a decision. What alternative is there in the modern church? (not meant to be a rhetorical question)

    2. The Sunday School is a necessary part of church life. – I disagree. I think DISCIPLESHIP is a NECESSARY part of Christian life. The church should work to promote/incorporate that in some manner. Sunday School can work towards that end for some. But I don’t think it is the only or even the most effective tool in creating, promoting, encouraging discipleship.

    3. Christian Education is one of the single best means of life change. – I disagree with this statement in that the life change should come from the Holy Spirit, not attending Theology U. Theology U. should reinforce existing schemas, refind critical thinking, and teach information useful for apologetics, evangelism and discipleship training. That by itself shouldn’t be “life changing”, I think, more like “life focusing”. The life change should have already happened.

    4. A “good witness” means that I appear to be moral and upright. – I think we need to shake up a lot of stodgy old churches and redefine what it means to be a “good witness”. If you think loving the Lord and then others makes you a good witness, then I think you have it right. If being a “good witness” means not drinking, smoking, watching television, avoiding R rated movies, not doing to parties, etc. to you, then I think you must be awfully happy in your little bubble where you never interact with the lost. Forget about that pesky “great commission”. Just drop your twenty in the offering plate for Lottie Moon at Christmas time and let the missionaries save the sinners. (can you smell the sarcasm?)

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