Contextualization is Good, Just not at the Expense of the Church.

Erik Raymond —  September 16, 2013

Like many other things contextualization arises from a good seed (goal) but can sometimes grow into an unhealthy flower. We want to see people come to know Jesus so we work hard to remove the cultural hurdles that come into play when we communicate the gospel. Contextualization in its most faithful form aims to remain faithful to the text (Bible) amid an ever-changing context (culture).

There can be some unintended consequences to an overly acute contextualization. Perhaps “blind spot” is a good term to capture this. Let me provide an example. Let’s say First Baptist Church (FBC) is working hard to reach the 20-somethings in their community. They build their staff, gear their services, consider their language, and even tailor all of their communication towards this age group. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that they are being absolutely faithful to the text in this context. We have best motives and best practices, so to speak. After a couple of years of slugging it out they have 150 young people coming on a Sunday morning. Within 4 years this doubles. They are plodding ahead. Their contextualization at FBC seems to be well thought out, careful, and faithful.

What could possibly be a drawback or a blind spot to this? Whenever you focus on a particular group of people you will always exclude others. This may not be intentional, but incidental exclusion is still leaving people out. In my example above you may draw some people toward your fellowship who are outside of the focus but this will be the exception rather than the rule. This is the heart of the blind spot and the issue that I wish more mission minded, contextualized churches would realize: an over emphasis upon a particular “sub-culture” will exclude the majority of the types of people who “should” make up a church.

One might say, “Who are you to say what should make up a church?” Well, I can’t. I don’t. The Bible does though. Churches should reflect the people in the communities around them as new disciples are made, trained and sent out. As just one example, take a stroll through the pastoral letters and you will see this. In 1 Timothy 5 alone you have older men, younger men, older women, younger women, and widows. It is assumed that churches will reflect the normal rhythms of life experienced by the young and the old. Their should be births, marriages, aging, and death in your church. Think about that. One’s philosophy of ministry might unwittingly undermine a great design of God for discipleship and care within our churches.

I remember hearing Dr. Sinclair Ferguson say one time that one of his big concerns with over contextualization is that people rarely die in those churches. This, according to Ferguson, is unhealthy. That comment stuck with me for a few years and then quickly sprouted before my eyes. At Emmaus we recently had a dear brother called home to be with the Lord. In the events following his death I watched young and old grieve and serve alongside each other. From meals to prayer to cards to music for the memorial service our church family was greatly impacted by our brother’s death. I can now hear Ferguson’s words again and say “Amen.” He was and is exactly right.

I am all for contextualization for the sake of the gospel. I am not, however, for contextualization at the expense of the church.

Erik Raymond

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Erik has been writing at Ordinary Pastor since 2006. He lives in Omaha with his wife and kids while pastoring at Emmaus Bible Church. Follow regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/erikraymond

6 responses to Contextualization is Good, Just not at the Expense of the Church.

  1. You are right on the money. I wish more churches would hear what you posted here. Many who are trying to be “relevant” so to speak exclude the other groups outside of that sphere. On the other hand, there are some so caught up in Tradition, they aren’t willing to hear the truth spoken differently. Music is just one area I can think of. At my church, I think we are beginning to see a healthy view of this. In my Sunday School class we have older men who love Southern Gospel. We have younger men who love Lecrae and Christian Rap. You have some that like Modern Contemporary Christian Music. And you have old Hillbillies like me who like Bluegrass Gospel and really a little bit of everything. I am not much on Rap or Southern Gospel, but that’s ok. I love the brethren, and appreciate the diversity. God loves a variety, and so should we.

  2. What a timely and “relevant” message! I am sooo tired of the relevant movement. It seems every church in our area is battling to see who can out-relevant one another. Since when is preaching the Word of God faithfully no longer relevant? Don’t even get me started on the music, which is the new idol. Ok, rant over. Thanks, Pastor.

  3. Erik, you have fallen into one of the tragic uses of the word Contextualization–that is, that you can be more or less contextual. Oftentimes we erroneously use measurement words when discussing contextualization when we should be using quality words. Something cannot be more contextualized, it is either well contextualized or badly contextualized.

    As Christians, we have the task of discussing an infinite God, one God in three persons, in the limited and finite medium of human language. We imagine that we have a pretty good grasp on the facts, but oftentimes we are like the blind men with the elephant. We do our best to discuss with authority what we know only in part. Whenever we try to take abstract ideas and express them in a finite form we are in fact ‘contextualizing.’ We are putting them in context.

    We never stop contextualizing. In fact, I would argue, that a healthy change in the thinking about the issue of ‘Contextualization’ would be a realization by all sides that we are constantly engaged in contextualization. I advocate the position of ‘Always Contextualizing,’ in the same sense as the Protestant use of Semper Reformata–Always Reforming. That is, that we are constantly pursuing quality contextualization of the Gospel in both word and deed, in cultural ways that connect with those both inside and outside of the church.

    You have unfortunately added nothing to the debate, you have simply parroted a position that many within the Evangelical community have recently drawn together around–that is, that contextualization inherently leads to syncretism, when in fact, the misunderstanding of contextualization has the same inherent risk. It is a current Witch Hunt among pastors against certain schools of missiology which in many ways is not just uninformed, but also inconsistent with our Christian heritage (well, that’s not true, we have plenty of cultural compromise and anti-intellectualism there as well).

    I wrote a blog post about the idea of ‘Always Contextualizing,’ several months ago, I hope that you will read it and consider some of its points, and application as an American pastor: http://www.joyfield.org/2013/06/always-contextualizing.html

    • Ian,
      Your tone is ungracious. In addition to that, I think you have completely missed the point. We are not talking about syncretism here. We are talking about church bodies that full of one age group or one “Type” and churches deliberately pursuing this one demographic. It’s happening all over the US, and it’s not a Biblical model for the church.

  4. Yolanda,

    Thank you for your feedback–I was hoping to add constructively to the post by clearing up a common misconception regarding the use of the word Contextualization. Contextualization is a word that was birthed in the world of missions, a world that I am intimately acquainted with as a career overseas missionaries with a MA in Intercultural Studies.

    I understand that Erik is a pastor–and Contextualization is a word that is commonly being used (and misused) by pastors. My point was to properly define the word contextualization, and show that his dichotomy (i.e. Contextualization vs. the Church) is untenable. My desire was for him to understand that word which he was using undiscerningly. I have a different calling and ministry than Erik, but iron sharpens iron, and I would like to see him begin to see how other pastors have been misusing the word Contextualization.

    As for the ‘Biblical model for the church.’ There are tens of thousands of books debating exactly what the bible says about the church and just exactly what it is. What you see as black and white is really rather nuanced.

    In the first church in Jerusalem there were already divisions–between the Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews. Rather than preaching a sermon about how the Hellenistic Jews should learn to be more Hebraic, the Apostles appointed Hellenistic deacons to minister to the needs of the subgroup. They spoke a different language, had a different culture, in fact, for all intents and purposes they were a different church–one that needed their own leaders.

    Throughout the New Testament (the book of Acts and the Epistles) there are numerous indications that there was a great deal of flexibility in regards to the formation and makeup of churches–the constant, the core, was the Gospel. So a biblical model for the church would be one that is contextual, flexible and conscious of the needs of those that it is composed of.

  5. Thanks, Ian for the work that you are doing. I have many friends in missions, and I know they have been hammered over the contextualization debate, particularly my friends at Wycliffe and Wycliffe Assocates. So, I understand why it’s a sticky point with you.
    I guess it’s a sticky point with me because we have recently left a much loved church in part because of the marginalization of one group in order to “market” to a younger crowd. Whether or not this should be properly understood as contextualization, I don’t know. But I do know that our church body has been fractured by the forced, one size better fit all model of church growth. Good discussion. May God make your work fruitful.