On April 26-27 I will have the privilege of joining men I admire and respect at the Advance the Church conference in Durham, North Carolina. My assignment is to speak on “contextualization without compromise.” I address this very issue at length in my book Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different. The organizers of the conference have asked me to share some of my thoughts on contextualization. So, for better or for worse, here they are (taken straight from Chapter 8 of Unfashionable).
The principle behind Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 9:22 to “become all things to all men” is what Christian thinkers call “contextualization.” Contextualization is the idea that we need to be translating gospel truth into language understood by our culture. Cross-cultural missionaries and Bible translators have been doing this for centuries. They take the unchanging truth of the Gospel and put it into language that fits the context they are trying to reach. Contextualization simply means translating the Gospel—in both word and deed—into understandable terms appropriate to the audience. It’s Gospel translation that is context sensitive.
Genna, my eight-year-old daughter, loves going to her Sunday school class for various reasons. She loves seeing her friends and singing her favorite songs. But she also loves to learn from her capable and creative teacher. He works hard to use language, concepts, and illustrations that she and the other children in the class will understand as he faithfully teaches them the Bible. And as a result, Genna gets it. She walks away Sunday after Sunday excited about what she’s learned. This thrills Kim and me. We’re both grateful that her teacher understands the need to contextualize.
Similarly, every English Bible translation is an effort to contextualize the Scriptures (originally written in Hebrew and Greek for ancient peoples) for an English-speaking audience of today.
Contextualization also involves building relationships with people who don’t believe. We don’t expect them to come to us; we go to them. We meet them where they are. We enter into their world by seeking to identify with their struggles, their likes, their dislikes, their ideas. Chuck Colson speaks of it as entering into people’s “stories”:
We must enter into the stories of the surrounding culture, which takes real listening. We connect with the literature, music, theater, arts, and issues that express the existing culture’s hopes, dreams, and fears. This builds a bridge by which we can show how the Gospel can enter and transform those stories.
Edith Schaeffer, wife of the late Francis Schaeffer, wrote about a visit the two of them made to San Francisco in 1968. One night they went to Fillmore West to hang out with the druggies and hippies and take in a light show. She records how heartbroken they were as they witnessed on that night “the lostness of humanity in search of peace where there is no peace.” She concluded, “A time of listening is needed—listening to what the next generation is saying, listening to the words of the music they are listening to, listening to the meaning behind the words. If true communication is to continue, there is a language to be learned.”
Contextualization begins with a broken heart for the lost and a driving desire to help them understand God’s liberating truth. Only by real listening and learning can we hope to persuasively communicate God’s unchanging Word to our constantly changing world.
Sadly, some well-meaning Christians conclude otherwise. For these Christians, contextualization means the same thing as compromise. They believe it means giving people what they want and telling people what they want to hear. What they misunderstand, however, is that contextualization means giving people God’s answers (which they may not want) to the questions they’re really asking and in ways they can understand.
This misunderstanding of contextualization has led these people to argue that cultural reflection and contextualization are at best distractions, at worst sinful. They admonish us to abandon these things and focus simply on the Bible. While this sounds virtuous, it ends up being foolish for two reasons. First, as we’ve already seen, the Bible itself exhorts us to understand our times so that we can reach our changing world with God’s eternal truth. To not contextualize, therefore, is a sin. And second, we all live inescapably within a particular cultural framework that shapes the way we think about everything. So if we don’t work hard to understand our context, we’ll not only fail in our task to effectively communicate the gospel but we’ll also find it impossible to avoid being negatively shaped by a world we don’t understand.
In a recent interview, pastor Tim Keller put it this way: “to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there’s no avoiding it.”
Whether translating the Bible or developing relationships with non-Christians, we’re to be missionary minded in everything we do. That takes work—the hard effort of maintaining the big picture and communicating comprehensibly and compellingly to those who don’t share our convictions and worldview. Therefore, every day and in every circumstance, we need to be consciously and rigorously translating our faith into the language of the culture we’re trying to reach.
This is the challenge: If you don’t contextualize enough, no one’s life will be transformed because they won’t understand you. But if you contextualize too much, no one’s life will be transformed because you won’t be challenging their deepest assumptions and calling them to change.
Becoming “all things to all people”, therefore, does not mean fitting in with the fallen patterns of this world so that there is no distinguishable difference between Christians and non-Christians. While rightly living “in the world,” we must avoid the extreme of accommodation—being “of the world.” It happens when Christians, in their attempt to make proper contact with the world, go out of their way to adopt worldly styles, standards, and strategies.
When Christians try to eliminate the counter-cultural, unfashionable features of the biblical message because those features are unpopular in the wider culture—for example, when we reduce sin to a lack of self-esteem, deny the exclusivity of Christ, or downplay the reality of knowable absolute truth—we’ve moved from contextualization to compromise. When we accommodate our culture by jettisoning key themes of the gospel, such as suffering, humility, persecution, service, and self-sacrifice, we actually do our world more harm than good. For love’s sake, compromise is to be avoided at all costs.
As the Bible teaches, the Lordship of Christ has a sense of totality: Christ’s truth covers everything, not just “spiritual” or “religious” things. But it also has a sense of tension. As Lord, Jesus not only calls us to himself, he also calls us to break with everything which conflicts with his Lordship.
Contextualization without compromise is the goal!