There are several buzz words that have emerged in recent years within the Christian community. Emerging, emergent, relative, missional, postmodern…all words that will commonly be mentioned in conversations about ministry in the 21st century. Frequent many Christian blogs and you will find several occurrences of these words. Another such word is contextualization. This word is born out of a particular question. How do we effectively communicate the gospel within the context of our communities, cultures, and lives? It is an extremely valid question that has been asked by missionaries for many years. It has often been ignored by the church within the American culture. The assumption has been made that American culture is homogeneous. It is all the same. If this is true, then a canned product can be used by every American church to reach its community.

However, this is a grave error. American culture is extremely diverse. Smalltown Indiana is very different than inner city New York. This means that a canned product will not be sufficient. In fact, a canned product may prove to be harmful. Each church, each believer needs to thoughtfully consider the make up of its surrounding community and find ways of communicating the gospel in a way that connects with people within that context. So we must be open to people using different methods in different locations. But can there be a danger to such openness, critical evaluation, and willingness to change? So here’s what I’m getting at:

At what point does contextualization cross the line into compromise?

5 Replies to “The Monday Muse: Contextualization

  1. I totally agree. Another closely-related question and one you may have asked on here before: what is the place or is there one for making our churches/services/sermons/ministries culturally relevant?

  2. What exactly does it mean to make our churches/services/sermons/ministries culturally relevant? Can I answer a question with a question? Can I make this entire response a series of questions? How much longer can I keep it up?

    Seriously…I ask myself your question and several other questions as it relates to connecting with the surrounding community. The difficulty is found in drawing boundaries. Some might say that boundaries are unnecessary. Some would say that we need more boundaries. What’s the answer? I think the proper response is to remind people that thoughtful discernment is necessary in most situations. Black and white is easy. It is the gray areas that require more work. Unfortunately, many people are not willing to take the extra steps to be thoughtfully discerning. We want a quick, easy answer and we want it now. (I think that was a bit of a tangent…possibly)

    I think Mark Driscoll has a great way of explaining this dilemma. You have two hands: one closed and one open. The closed hand holds the message. The message of Christ, the Gospel, is closed to outside influence. It is closed to change. It is never changing. The open hand holds the methods…how we communicate and live out the message. It is open to influence and change. As long as the message remains the same, the methods can change and should change as the culture changes. When we start “rethinking” some of the core doctrines of Christian faith, then I believe we have crossed the line from contextualization to compromise. I know that is surface level explanation and we can dive into some of these things further.

    What do you think? What have you noticed up in Washington that has been different from back home in Tennessee? Observations? Bueller…Bueller?

  3. I don’t think it’s possible to shared a “contextualized” gospel that is compromised. Context speaks to the packaging around the message – not the message itself.

    Analogy: You can serve prime rib any number of ways – on a fine silver plate, on a plastic plate, chopped into small pieces and dumped in a Styrofoam cup. You can serve it rare, you can serve it well done. You can serve it at a restaurant, at home, at a nursing home. It doesn’t matter how you serve it, it’s still prime rib.

    But the moment you take ground beef, roll it into a patty, grill it and serve it to a friend calling it “prime rib”… well, that’s no longer prime rib. You have compromised prime rib.

    You can “serve” the gospel any number of ways and it remains the gospel – some of these ways may be more effective or less effective, but it’s still the gospel. But at the moment the gospel becomes compromised, it’s no longer the gospel that you’re teaching.

  4. I totally agree with both statements and applaud you guys for the relevance (I think I’m still allowed to use that word) of the metaphors. Driscoll’s one of the main reasons I asked the question. I know their church’s push towards making the gospel culturally relevant is one of the concerns of many of his critics. But I think I agree with what you guys said about the message not changing, the Gospel not being corrupted. I don’t have any heartburn if that’s the case. I think as long as we keep preservation of Truth without dilution a primary objective, we’ll be okay. As for the great state of Washington (State with the highest unchurched population in the Union), I haven’t come across many people that are passionate about doctrine. I can’t tell if it’s because they don’t know it or it’s just not a focus of the Christian culture up here. We’re much better at community and fellowship (as opposed to the Bible belt) than communicating meaty Biblical Truth. It’s new for me, but I like the opportunity to be a catalyst.

  5. Yes…preserving the truth is vital. If the message changes, what do we have? Not Christianity. Once the gospel changes, it ceases to be the gospel. If you reimagine Jesus, he ceases to be Jesus. No Jesus, no gospel.

    Since so many people are unchurched in your state, it makes sense that sound doctrine is in short supply. However, you and I both know that sound doctrine is not guarenteed in highly churched areas either (i.e. Bible Belt). The Bible Belt is great at programs. We have it nailed. But you’re right, we are terrible with community. What is the church? It’s a living, breathing body…not a building. People in the south need to hear that message over and over. While you may battle unbelief, biblical illiteracy, and secularism, we battle complacency and pragmatism. What’s the solution to both? The Gospel. Preach it, teach it, proclaim it, live it. The gospel will change things. It will change people.

    As a side note, I love the fact that you use words like “bombin'” to describe a sermon you heard recently. You are so ghetto fabulous L-Dub.

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