There is a thin line that separates communicating the gospel in a contemporary context and crossing over to embrace the spirit of the age.
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It is appropriate for us to contextualize the gospel.
Some people don’t like that way of thinking. Since Jesus is “the same yesterday, today and forever” they say, we don’t need to contextualize anything. “Just teach the word!”
But in what language? Aramaic? That’s the language Jesus used.
The fact that our Bibles have been translated into English means that someone has decided that God’s word needs to be presented in a way that allows English speakers to understand it. In other words, the original language has to be contextualized.
But contextualization goes beyond translation. And when it does, some folks get nervous. John MacArthur defined contextualization as “the pragmatic approach to evangelism that says the gospel can be made more powerful by adapting it to cultural contexts.” He asked “Where did Christians ever get the idea they could win the world to Christ by imitating it?”
It’s a fair question. Because it’s easy to cross the line between appropriate contextualization of the gospel and “imitating the world.”
When a prominent pastor in South Carolina opened his Easter Sunday worship service with AC/DC’s song Highway to Hell, they easily profaned the message of the resurrection with a lyric that is clearly blasphemous.
The Bible says that when we still dead in our trespasses and sins, we walked according to the spirit of the world (Eph. 2:1-2). Now, as children of God, we have received not the spirit of the world but the Spirit of Christ (1 Cr. 2:12). Paul tells the Romans that we are not to be conformed any longer to the thinking of the world, but we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).
Anytime we modify the message of the gospel to make it easier for people to accept or believe, we have crossed the line.
But when we look for a ways to help people understand how the unchanging, unaltered gospel makes sense in a contemporary context, we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing. That’s what Paul did in Acts 17 when he preached the gospel at Mars Hill. He explained the gospel in the context of the polytheistic culture in Athens. He even quoted the pagan poets of his day.
That’s part of being a missionary. It’s what living on mission looks like for all of us.
It’s been my observation over the years that many churches and organizations, in a desire to reach a culture with the gospel, find themselves seduced by the spirit of the age.
How do we recognize the line between appropriate contextualization and syncretism? Here are thoughts from Tim Keller:
“There is a tendency either to overcontextualize … (which usually leads to weakening or relativizing a church’s commitment to orthodoxy) or to undercontextualize (which leads to inward-facing churches that reach only certain kinds of people and fail to advance a movement of the gospel in the community).”
“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.”
“To the degree a ministry is overadapted or underadapted to a culture, it loses life – changing power.”
That narrow space between overadaptation and underadaptation is tricky.
The more a ministry or a church is focused on doctrinal precision in every area of ministry, the more likely they are to under-adapt and under-contextualize.
But the more the ministry is focused on outreach and evangelism, the more they are prone to over-adapt and over-contextualize.
As followers of Jesus, and as a church, we must be careful not to become so focused on the pursuit of absolute doctrinal purity in every area of ministry. Those who have followed that path have often drifted away from the priority of the great commission and have wound up as exclusivists or hyper fundamentalists.
At the same time, we have to be on guard against thinking “We can’t be bogged down by all these picky areas of doctrine. We need to reduce the gospel message to the bare minimum in order to win as many people to Jesus as we can.” That kind of thinking can lead people into dangerous territory and away from an anchored faith.
Are you still with me? If so, when you see me on Sunday, come up and tell me that you stuck with me all the way through the first part of the newsletter. I’ll give you a coupon that’s good for a ten percent discount on your tithe.
Okay, that took contextualization too far, right?
Our goal – as believers and as a church – should be to first understand and know how to communicate clearly the gospel. Then, we must try to understand the hopes and dreams and fears and motivations of the culture in which we live. Right there in the middle, where the gospel and the culture intersect, we will find a fruitful place for carrying out the commands of Jesus’ Great Commission.
Are you ready for some football?
Okay, not an actual game. But a movie.
This Sunday night we’ll get together at church to watch Woodlawn, the true story of how God brought revival to a high school in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1970’s. We’ll start with ice cream at 6:45, and show the movie at 7:15.
Is it an appropriate movie for kids? Here’s what Focus on the Family’s Plugged in movie review has to say about the content.
And there’s still time to sign up for our upcoming new members class that happens next Saturday, August 12, starting at 9:00 am at the church.
We’re asking anyone who is interested in finding out more about what membership at Redeemer is all about to do a little homework ahead of our Saturday meeting. We’ll have videos for you to watch and a few things for you to read before you come to the class. That way, we can get you the information you need to make a membership decision without needing a whole series of meetings. You do a little work ahead of time, meet one time on Saturday morning, and you’ll be done.
Find out how to sign up for the membership class and about the pre-work you need to do before the meeting when you scroll down to the bottom of this newsletter.
Paul says in Romans that all who have union with Christ are dead to sin.
Are you dead to sin? Just exactly what does that mean?
That’s our topic on Sunday.
Oh, and just FYI – we’re starting the sermon early this week. You might want to arrive a few minutes ahead of time.
See you in church!
Soli Deo Gloria!