Thoughts on being “Contextual”
“Contextualization” is an important principle in missions. It is the principle that the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ must be communicated in a culturally relevant way to the people group that the missionary is trying to reach in order for the gospel to be communicated faithfully and effectively. A missionary trying to take the gospel to a remote, primitive, animistic tribe in Papua New Guinea will have to take a much different approach to communicating the gospel than will a church planter trying to reach secular people in Boston, Massachusetts. Likewise, the missionary trying to reach Muslims in a Middle Eastern nation with the gospel will have a different set of issues to address in seeking to communicate the gospel than will a missionary trying to reach nominal Catholics in Uruguay.
We can see this principle of contextualization operating in the pages of the New Testament. For example, the great missionary Paul the Apostle sought to “become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22, ESV). This does not mean that Paul changed the message of the gospel to fit the group he was addressing, but rather that he sought to remove unnecessary obstacles to the hearing of the gospel by demonstrating cultural sensitivity. He did this by adjusting his missionary strategy when addressing different groups. When preaching to Jews he conformed himself to Jewish laws and customs and sought to prove that Jesus was Messiah by quoting from the Old Testament. When preaching to the Gentiles he focused more on proclaiming the one true God as Creator and Judge, and even at times quoting from their own literature in order to establish a point of contact (as we see him doing in Acts 17 where he addresses a group of philosophers in Athens; see 1 Cor. 9:19-23).
But while contextualization is a vitally important issue in missions, I believe it is often misapplied today in the American church scene, especially when it comes to church planting. Contextualization and being “culturally relevant” does not mean that the church should let the culture define or change its message or its basic biblical methods (namely, the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, biblically-regulated worship practice and faithful church discipline). It does not mean letting the culture, rather than the Scripures, define the church’s message and mission. Nor does it mean ignoring and not confronting the sins of a given culture. But, regrettably, “cultural relevance” and “contextualization” are often misused in the American church scene to defend unbiblical theology, worship and church practice.
As an example of bad theology and church practice in the name of “cultural relevance,” we recently received in the mail yet another ad for yet another new, non-denominational church in the area. As with similar ads we have received in the past from similar churches, the “target audience” of this church ad was obviously secular and nominally-Christian people who have been turned off by the church, for the ad strongly emphasized that visitors could dress casual, come as they are, and not worry about being judged. The ad went out of its way to stress how “unchurchy” this church felt. In addition, there was great emphasis on all the great things the church had to offer to visitors: “relevant” messages, a cool praise band, great programs, etc.
Someone might ask, “What is wrong with all of this? After all, we live in a consumer culture, and if you are going to contextualize the gospel effectively in a consumer culture, you’ve got to market the gospel to meet the felt needs of the consumer.” But this mindset is precisely the problem: the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a “product” to be sold, and people to whom we seek to take the gospel are not merely religious “consumers” who need to buy our product; rather, they (like us) are human beings created in God’s image, worthy of dignity and respect, as well as fallen sinners who desperately need to hear the good news about the Savior.
Therapeutic consumerism is one of the idols in our culture that we as a church must not cater to if we are going to effectively and faithfully communicate the biblical gospel. In addition, while Scripture does not require a dress code for church, it certainly does not permit a casual attitude in approaching God in worship. We don’t need to wear a three-piece suit or a fancy dress to church, but we dare not approach the infinitely-holy God of the universe with a casual, “laid back” attitude. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29, ESV), and corporate worship at church is a solemn, serious, holy assembly in the royal presence of our heavenly King and Lord, not a casual, laid-back “hang out” time with a chummy cosmic Pal.
In closing, let me be clear about a few things: I certainly recognize that many secular and nominally-Christian people today have been understandably turned off by the “traditional” church, and I commend this church for its well-intentioned effort to reach such people. I also recognize that sometimes “traditional” churches like the OPC can come across as overly-formal, cold and judgmental. We could do a much better job than we do of connecting with people in our communities and faithfully contextualizing the gospel. We could also do a much better job of loving and welcoming people. With God’s help, let us seek to better “contextualize” the gospel in the area where God has planted us. But let us do so, not by letting the local or broader culture define our mission or our methods, but by clothing the unchanging gospel in words, forms and deeds that effectively proclaim a serious God who is of infinite, white-hot holiness and amazing, sovereign grace!