What do you think of when you consider a church that contextualizes the gospel?
Maybe you think of some uber-contemporary worship service with a pastor arrayed in trendy fashions and a band with just the right blend of tattoos, skinny jeans, and facial hair. “Contextualization” equals “cool.” Or so we seem to think.
But what if that perception misses the point completely? What if equating contextualization with the coolest version of ourselves actually contradicts biblical contextualization altogether?
Perhaps our poor assumptions about contextualization are why many view the concept as a perversion of the gospel. But this view fails to see that contextualization is found all across Scripture. Even the traditionalist pastor who preaches against contextualization while leading a congregation of formally dressed hymn-singers contextualizes the gospel.
In light of this observation, I’d like to commend an understanding of contextualization shaped by God’s Word.
Missiology of License
It is vital to pay careful attention to the gospel and to develop a robust theology and a sharp ecclessiology. Yet these efforts should not come at the expense of a gospel-shaped missiology.
First Corinthians 9 outlines a biblical theology of contextualization. Paul describes all the freedoms available to him: the freedom to take a wife and a salary, and to eat and drink. Yet he doesn’t admonish them to celebrate these freedoms. Rather, he points out that he voluntarily restricts himself for the sake of the gospel. This view shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus took this same approach:
Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Unfortunately, this denial isn’t what happens in many churches. Far too often, churches preach self-denial and cross-bearing from a platform on which they model a kind of gospel that makes you into the coolest version of yourself—or the most traditionally comfortable version of yourself. Methods are shaped more by preferences of the leadership than needs of the context.
In other words, while we preach a gospel of self-denial, we practice a missiology of self-satisfaction.
While modern contextualization often asks, How far can I go with the gospel?, biblical contextualization asks, How much can I give up for the gospel?
Slave to Everyone
One of my heroes is my dad, and he’s a man who models biblical contextualization well. You’ve never heard of him, since he pastors two small churches in southwestern Wisconsin. Though he spent 20 years in the military and doesn’t hunt or fish, he’s now in a small, mostly rural environment where relationships matter more than almost anything else.
The rodeo is one of the biggest cultural events in his community—certainly not the urban context that comes to mind when you think “contextualization.” I love watching my dad pastor these churches, though. They’re not cool or hip. He doesn’t wear ripped-up skinny jeans or have a tattoo. Instead, he’s prone to wear boots and a cowboy hat (even though he’ll never identify as a cowboy). He preaches the gospel using agricultural references (even though he’s not a farmer). Though not naturally inclined to this environment, he knows the people he serves hear the gospel best when it’s presented in a language they understand. In many ways, my dad’s ministry is one of sacrifice—and it looks a lot like the biblical model because of it. Rather than a ministry that serves to make him appear attractive, my dad sacrifices in his particular context to ensure the gospel appears attractive.
Consider again Paul’s words: He becomes all things to all people so that some might be saved (1 Cor. 9:22). And he says this on the heels of declaring that he voluntarily restricts his personal freedoms for the gospel’s sake. Shortly thereafter, he explains how this approach requires him to “discipline [his] body,” reminding us that contextualization is inherently about discipline, self-sacrifice, and others.
A key element of Paul’s argument is this idea that he’s made himself a slave. Slave language is nothing new in the Scriptures; they describe us as slaves to God, and slaves to righteousness, and so on. But Paul does something different in 1 Corinthians 9. He points out that he’s a slave to “everyone” (v. 19) for the sake of their salvation. Based on the context, I would suggest that “everyone” refers to the lost population of the world—and out of this group he’s enslaved himself to, some will be saved. But this particular interpretation is less significant than the fact that Paul has enslaved himself to others; he has made his desires, his preferences, and his expectations subservient to others in an effort to preach the gospel and save some. This is a gospel-shaped view of contextualization and missiology.
Watch Your Aim
Such an approach to mission means that Christians have an obligation to surrender freedoms and preferences so that those who’ve yet to believe might have an opportunity to understand and embrace the gospel.
Gospel-driven missiology, then, can look like a traditional worship service or a modern contemporary one. The form isn’t as important as justification for the form. Are we leading churches that help us to be the most satisfied versions of ourselves, or are we practicing self-denial as we seek to become all things to all people in an effort to lead the lost to Jesus?