In continuing my short series of articles on mission and the missional idea, today we turn to contextualization.
Contextualization is a lightning rod. For some, it is a four-letter word. For others, it is the most obvious thing in ministry. The reason for this divide is that contextualization, like missional, means different things to different people.
For some, contextualization means things like using the language of the people you are speaking to (like Spanish instead of English) or applying the Bible to problems people are actually facing in their lives. For others, it means getting tattoos, using street slang, referring to current pop culture, and dressing a certain way. (In fact, some contend that even the wearing of a suit to church is contextualization. They usually claim it is contextualization to a culture that no longer exists. Someone recently suggested I was capitulating to the world by not wearing a suit and tie, itself an acknowledgement about their understanding of the meaning of a suit.)
The rub is that everyone does the first (language) but not everyone calls it contextualization. And some think contextualization only means the second, and they reject it as compromise.
So what does contextualization mean? Well, it depends on who you ask. But I like the simple way that Darrin Patrick puts it in Church Planter: The Man, The Message, The Mission when he says “Contextualization is speaking to people with their terms, not on their terms” (p. 195).
Tim Keller says, “Contextualization is not ‘giving people what they want’ but rather it is giving God’s answers (which they may not want!) to questions they are asking and in forms that they can comprehend.” (This quote is in numerous places including here and Patrick’s book. I first heard it in a series of talks he did on urban church planting in South Africa.)
In order to understand this, we have to first talk about the idea of culture. This is obviously not the place for a full-blown discussion of culture, but for our discussion let’s say that culture is the milieu in which people think and live. It is shaped by numerous forces, both inside and outside of the individual. Everyone lives in culture and everyone, at some level, interacts with culture. This is typically what is meant by “engaging the culture.” The question is, How do we as Christians committed to the gospel interact with people around us in the way that they think and live?
It should be noted, at this point, that engaging culture is not (necessarily) the same as adapting to culture, or transforming culture.
I think engaging the culture can be simply summed up as speaking to the people around us out an understanding of the way that they think about their lives. Or to rephrase Keller, contextualization gives the Bible’s answers to the questions that people are asking in language that they understand.
To further that (and I believe Keller says something similar), it is understanding their questions, then reframing their questions in light of God’s Word, and then answering the reframed questions in a way that exposes and meets their deepest needs from the gospel.
Some point (and IMO with good reason) to the fact that the NT books are contextualized—that is, they are written to a particular audience in terms that they understand, answering the questions they are asking or should be asking, and applying God’s truth to their situation. In fact, the contextualization of the NT is part of what makes preaching difficult: We have to take what was said to a different people in a different time and explain and apply it to the world that we live in. I would go so far as to say that if you think the NT is not contextualized, then we are working from different definitions of contextualization.
You see, the very act of application in preaching is contextualization. It takes the message of the passage and applies it to everyday life in our culture using the ancient Bible to speak into the situations of our contemporary lives. That’s why we can speak of things like the dangers of Facebook or social networking in a message from the Bible written two thousands years before “social networking” was a common phrase in the culture.
So I agree with those who say that everyone contextualizes in some way. We just don’t all call it contextualization.
The question is which culture we contextualize to, and to what degree do we contextualize? And what are limits or constraints on contextualization: How far do we go? Where do we stop?
Most advocates of contextualization run quickly to Acts 17 which tells the story of Paul on Mars’ Hill. It’s a fascinating and instructive story. There, Paul speaks to a culture of idolatry, quotes their own poets, confronts them with bold language, and calls them to repentance. There, they say, Paul contextualizes the gospel to the culture.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 is another frequently invoked passage. There Paul models for us change in order to adapt to the Jew, the free, the weak, indeed all people. Therefore we, they say, should be willing to adapt our lives wherever necessary in order to communicate the gospel to people wherever they are.
However, is all of the preaching and teaching on contextualization I have heard and read, I do not recall ever seeing 1 Corinthians 2 included. I think this is the most overlooked passage in the contextualization debate. Here, Paul specifically avoids a practice of ministry that may be successful but in fact may fail to demonstrate the power of the Spirit at work through the preaching.
Contextualization-ists seem to fail to consider the fact that Paul intentionally avoided things that would be more readily understandable and acceptable to the culture because he wanted to make sure the offense of the cross made effectual by the power of the Spirit was front and center.
To be fair, I have never heard anyone suggest that we should compromise the gospel. In fact, they often emphasize the desire that the only stumblingblock be the gospel. Our language, our cultural traditions, our preferences should not be the stumblingblock. On this, I think they are right. Yet there is some legitimate debate about what cultural artifacts may compromise the gospel. And we need to be aware of that.
So here’s my conclusion (and let’s be honest, some of you jumped to here to see what I would say, but that’s fine; now go back and read the basis for what I am about to say): I think contextualization is not only unavoidable, it is necessary. We have to preach the gospel to people in terms that they understand, applying it to the problems that they experience, reframing their questions by the light of the Bible’s revelation about needs, and showing them how God’s Word answers the real questions they should be asking.
I think everyone recognizes that we must contextualize. It’s why the 1st grade Sunday School class in your church does not have lessons on how to be a better husband or wife. It’s why the application of the Bible’s teaching on obedience in your pre-school class doesn’t include teaching on tax evasion. It’s also why your Senior Saints’ class does not include lessons on the necessity of obeying their parents.
But in our contextualization, we must take great care to understand the Bible and the culture that we live in. We have to speak into the culture, not out of it. We need to walk beside the culture, not in the culture. We must not confuse or compromise, even unintentionally, the message of the gospel.
And quite frankly, I am suspicious about the value of South Park references or “Resurrection” tattoos for the carrying out of biblical mission. We must recognize the radical call of the gospel to transformation, and the radical sufficiency of the gospel for salvation and discipleship.
I think the paradigm Marva Dawn offers is helpful here:
We need both words, alternative and parallel, for describing the church. To be parallel will deter us from being so alternative that we do not relate to our neighbors; to be alternative prevents our parallelism from moving closer and closer to modes of life alien to the kingdom of God.
I think the contextualization debate needs a robust interaction with 1 Corinthians 2 and 2 Corinthians 4:1-6. I fear that too often, contextualization-ists are trying to turn the light on for blind people. And it matters not how bright the light is. If a person is blind, they are not going to see. And the new Calvinists should believe this more than any, I would think.
I fear too often that contextualization-ists are becoming the show—they are the attraction and their speech, even their “hard words”—their calls to gospel faith and repentance—are couched in verbiage and rhetoric that hides the power of the Spirit.
My encouragement to us is simply this: Know your mission field and speak to them and to their needs in ways that they can understand. Be wary of employing their sinful worldview as an argument for the biblical worldview. Learn their culture enough to be able to use it to show how they are asking all the wrong questions and looking for an ultimately unsatisfactory answer.
Above all, trust the power of the gospel clearly proclaimed. After all, the gospel, not our cultural awareness and homiletical creativity, is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). And how shall they believe without hearing, and how shall they hear without a preacher (Romans 10:14).
Dawn, “Worship to Form a Missional Community,” (Direction 28/2 ), p. 141. Dawn highlights the need for churches to teach people how to worship in the language and customs of the new life, something with significant implication with cultural issues.