I never thought moving from one suburb to another would make me reconsider my approach to contextualizing the gospel. That stuff is for missionaries and urban church planters, right?
It turns out it’s also for a junior high pastor from a formal church in a conservative Midwest suburb who takes an associate pastor role at a casual church in a liberal suburb in the South.
I immediately enjoyed adapting to my new context. Being in a progressive part of the country, I felt closer to the “front lines” of the battle for the kingdom. My assignment to teach a Sunday school class of young adults—many earning MAs and PhDs—allowed me to indulge my theological and exegetical nerdiness in a way that I couldn’t with my former junior highers. The switch from preaching in suits to an open collar was a nice perk. (And I chuckled to myself when I checked the weather up North.)
Who knew contextualizing the gospel could be so great?
Then one morning the next empty box on my Bible reading plan sat beside 1 Corinthians 9. Though I had read this passage countless times, I noticed something I never saw before: sacrifice was the hallmark of Paul’s contextualization. Verse by verse, the Spirit began to show me that my enjoyment of my new context—even if not in egregiously sinful ways—betrayed more of a concern for my preferences and pride, not the lost.
Although my theology of contextualizing has remained intact, since that morning I’ve been forced to reconsider how I go about doing it. Despite how selfless “becoming all things to all people” sounds, our deceitful hearts enable us to apply the principle selfishly.
Are you contextualizing the gospel in a way that is more about you than the people you are ministering to? The following three questions that rise out of 1 Corinthians 9 will help you find out.
Are You serving Others or Yourself?
“I have become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22) is a theme verse for contextualizing the gospel. Paul determined to meet people where they are. If we are not willing to bring the gospel to unbelievers in the midst of their mess—just like Jesus met us—then it will be hard for unbelievers to see that Jesus can save them out of the mess they are in.
But when you scan your eyes up a couple verses, you see the way Paul becomes all things to all people: “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Cor. 9:19, emphasis added). Contextualization starts with service. Becoming all things begins with serving all people.
When you start with “becoming” instead of “serving” you run the risk of picking a context in order to acquire an identity. For example, consider urban church planting. One person has in mind the artists, the entrepreneurs, the sexually broken, and the homeless. He wants to meet their need for the gospel. Another person wants to escape what he perceives to be suburban superficiality. He is attracted to the urban lifestyle, with its cultural richness, diversity, and trendiness. Planting a church, to him, seems like a meaningful way to move to the city.
The first church planter becomes all-things-urban to serve the people there. The second becomes all-things-urban mainly to gain an all-things-urban identity. The first person is focused on others, while the second person, though perhaps not entirely narcissistic, is serving himself. Paul exposes the distinction between these two mindsets when he describes contextualization as “becoming” by serving, not “becoming” alone.
Are You Claiming Rights or Giving Them Up?
Over and over Paul shows how he set aside his preferences to see others believe the gospel. How can you know if you are serving others? The key is to give up your rights:
“Do we not have the right to . . . ?” (9:5ff)
” . . . we have not made use of this right” (9:12)
“But I have made no use of any of these rights . . . ” (9:15)
” . . . I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel (9:18)
What rights might you need to give up in order to bring the gospel to others? Your right to a certain standard of living? Your right to buy groceries without being asked for spare cash? Your right to preach without a tie?
One of the ironies of the gospel is that when you give up your rights you sense that you’ve received more from the experience, not less. Sacrificing to proclaim the gospel is immensely satisfying.
Are You Contextualizing to All or to Some?
In every sport I’ve played I’ve been coached to stay on the balls of my feet. Back on your heels, you are unprepared to react. But if you stay on the balls of your feet, you are ready to move toward the action. For Paul, contextualization was about doing gospel ministry “on the balls of his feet.” He was ready to serve anyone at any time in any way.
This is different from how I often hear people discussing contextualization. People often talk about aiming at one context: the poor, the city, the university students, and so on. But Paul was ready to contextualize the gospel to anyone at hand:
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:19-22)
Wherever you live—whether city, suburb, or rural—are you willing to contextualize the gospel to all, even people you don’t like so much? Or are you merely willing to become some things to some people, that by some means you might save some?
If you have an overly defined segment of the population that you are trying to reach, it is possible you are merely trying to reach people whose company you prefer.
Jesus Served Us
In Philippians 2:7, Paul describes the incarnation as Jesus “taking the form of a servant.” At the outset, Jesus looked to the needs of others. Moreover, Jesus was a servant through his death, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42). These bookends show that Jesus’ entire ministry—from birth to death—was marked by giving up his rights as the eternally begotten Son to serve sinful people like us.
How do we respond to the way Jesus served us? By giving up our rights and serving others, whomever they may be, to bring them the gospel. It will require sacrifice, to be sure. But that sacrifice does not come without a reward, as Paul says, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:23).