Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Biblical Support for Contextualization

When it comes down to it, Scripture and its principles are the foundation for all our thinking on the church. How refreshing that Scripture supports wholeheartedly the idea of contextualization.

Here are some arguments:

1) Paul circumcising Timothy in order to contextualize his witness to the Jews (Acts 16).
2) Paul adjusting his speech before the learned folks at Mars Hill (Acts 17).
3) The gospel narratives being written in different styles with different content (The gospels) (haha).
4) Paul teaching that he became all things to all men in order to win some (a slam-dunk) (1 Cor 9).

There are four very good biblical arguments for contextualization. The Bible nowhere presents one particular cultural approach to church and evangelism. The Bible gives trans-cultural principles that inform our witnessing and churching, but it nowhere lionizes any one culture and holds it up as sacred. So first century culture was not sacred, tenth century culture was not sacred, the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries were not sacred (ahem, Reformed types), and the 1940's were not sacred. The culture changes, and that's fine. We are free to match it, as we see in the New Testament. It is the truth that must remain. It must remain, and it must remain unchanged.

We are totally free, though, to adapt our churches to certain cultures to reach them. Let me give you another example that illustrates my point. If you wanted to be a missionary to India, you would likely study the culture of India. You would study its style of dress, food, social customs and so one before you went there. Then you would go, having adapted yourself to its culture as much as possible in order to be an effective witness and not erect needless stumbling blocks to the gospel because of food, clothing, etc. And--note this carefully--if you were going to Northern India, you would most certainly tailor yourself culturally in a different fashion than if you were going to Southern India. Though the regions are part of the same country (India, in case you're struggling to follow), they have, I'm sure, different customs. What is typical in one region may well be taboo in another. You, in order to be an effective witness, would wisely tailor yourself accordingly in order not to be a stumbling block. Though the people of India may look similar and generally have some other similarities, you would have been wise to realize that there are in fact important cultural differences depending on where you go.

In the same way, we are wise to tailor our churches culturally in America. We would not plant the same style of church in Harlem that we would in Appalachia. That's foolish. In the same way, we would not plant the same style of church in Cambridge, MA that we would in the potato country of Maine. In none of these churches would we cater only to one group of people. No way, just as the Indian missionary would not seek only Brahmins. But with the Indian missionary, we would wisely tailor our church to the culture in which we ministered. So far from being harmful, that would be wise.

I do hope that this is stimulating thought. The traditional church is undergoing a revolution in America, and it doesn't sit easily with many at first thought. But this is a new era. Tomorrow, we'll examine how things have changed in our culture, and how that changes the way we do church--though the foundation, the ground beneath our feet, is always the hefty concrete of God's word.


Blogger Rusty Langford said...

Owen, than you for writing some helpful things regarding the issue of contextualization. I think it would be helpful to include some not so clear cut examples. I'm not sure that I've met anyone who would attempt to take Bill Gaither into the hood in an attempt to not compromise the truth. Could you give some case-studies that lay out practical guidelines in situations regarding methodology. My take on the biblical passages you've cited seem to speak only to a contextualized message and not to contextualized methods refering to externals.
As all cultures carry worldviews that are far from neutral how does one keep from adopting methods that are laden with worldview presuppositions antithetical to the gospel? If the answer is a strong biblical worldview, then what does it look like when one ministers in a community that loves Bill Gaither, Snoop Dogg, Pedro the Lion, Kenny Chesney, Gwar, Fall of Troy, etc. I'm just thinking of my small town in GA where one who would be attempting to contextualize to a place with very little unified culture. The message could be contextualized, but attempting to contextualize music, preaching style, architecture, or dress would be a hilarious attempt of one bizarre blended worship experience.
I agree with you that contextualization is inevitable. At least at this point I just don't see the majority of communities in my corner of the south are so easily divided into cultural segments. If targeting is going to be attempted culturally and not specifically then one has a problem when there is no common culture. If targeting is going to be specific then one has a problem because the church suffers from a lack of intergenerational community, giftedness, and leadership.
I may be idealistic, but I would like to see communities without a unified culture, worshipping together and living in loving and accountable Christ-centered fellowship. Granpa Jones sitting next to Tyrone Jackson who has just finished discussing his Bible reading with Alisha Silverstone. What does contextualization look like in this setting that I'm so familiar with? How does one avoid being "bland" and "vanilla" in seeking to contextualize to this diversity of culture? How does one avoid being fake? Is contextualizing methodology necessary?
Just some late night ramblings.

10:26 PM  
Blogger Dad said...


I think you are offering some helpful discussion, and I, along with Rusty, would like to see a little more down to earth, or maybe home-town, details.

At this time, my only comments would be that a lot, too many, churches, at least around here, need to first take a look at the Word, and seek to bring themself into line with the Word. As each practice, ritual, message, song, ministry, etc. is looked at - asking is it Biblical? Why or why not? And yes, I believe regarding some issues churches may differ because the Word is not clear or churches will have different levels of maturity.

Also, and maybe you are getting to this, our culture is changing. I know some churches, religious groups, seems to have picked a time in the past as being 'holier' and want to stay there. The Gospel is offense, but you have a good point, the church should not be needlessly offensive.

Probably both of the above points need to be examined at regular intervals, least one gets stuck in a rut.


3:59 AM  
Blogger Jed said...

Before making your next post, could you (re)read J. Ligon Duncan's chapter, "Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship" (esp. 65-73 if pressed for time) in "Give Praise to God" (I know you own this book)? Duncan argues for great cultural diversity of worship within the confines of the regulative principle of worship, as found in the Westminster confession of Faith (or London Baptist Confession of 1689). I think you would be sympathetic to his argument and to the vision of worship that he presents.

5:33 AM  
Blogger blake white said...

Good Word! Christendom is over. It is time to approach America as a mission field. That will require contending and contextualizing (Stetzer).

4:57 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home