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.