Monday, October 02, 2006

Everybody Contextualizes

Subtle title, I know. I go for the tricky stuff on this blog.

Seriously, everybody contextualizes. If you're not familiar with this term or this conversation, I'm saying that everybody adapts the gospel to their own particular region and culture. Not that we know that we're doing this, necessarily--my whole point is that most of us don't realize that we're contextualizing. Even when we criticize other churches for contextualizing, we don't realize that we ourselves have already pre-fitted our church to reach the surrounding culture.

Many will still argue that contextualization of the conscious type is off-base, that we should simply seek to make our churches as vanilla as possible to reach as many palates as possible. How interesting, then, that we do not expect such behavior of our missionaries. We rightly laud our missionaries to foreign countries for their willingness to lay aside styles of dress, food, and so on to fit in with their target culture. We hold up such figures as William Carey as worthy of emulation, men who when in Rome, lived as the Romans. Yet when it comes to our cultural contexts, we contract amnesia. We would not fault a missionary to northern India for dressing, talking, and behaving (in some ways) in Northern Indian ways. We would not chastise them with "Jew and Gentile" arguments, telling that they are surely going to achieve only a separated, culturally segregated congregation. We would encourage them in their efforts, applaud them for their work, and send them on their way with love and goodwill. Why, then, do we look down on those in America who do the same?

America needs all kinds of churches. There is not one right kind of church when it comes to culture, dress, tone of service, and so on. The Presbyterians alone do not have it right. The Southern Baptists alone do not have it right. The Acts 29 churches alone do not have it right. There is room for everyone. There is not one church that will perfectly reach every lost person in the world. It is right for churches not to needlessly segregate themselves from certain aspects of the population. It is wrong for churches to seek only a certain type of people. But it is not wrong for churches to adapt themselves to a particular culture in order to better connect with the lost and win them to Christ. In fact, so far from being wrong or harmful, this is right. It is biblical.

Perhaps we have fallen in love with our own style of church. If so, we could receive correction from the words of Acts, where we discover that the apostles tailored their messages to different contexts. If we still take issue with contextualization, I suppose it's not those who do so that we quarrel with--it's the apostles.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think these are good thoughts. It really is hard to figure out when to contextualize and when not to, though. We would never want, in the name of evangelism, to pursue the following as the ideal: spearate congregations for white over 60, black over 60, middle-aged upper middle class, middle-aged lower middle class, divided again by race, Gen X church, college-educated, less educated, etc. We'd want these groups of (now converted) Christians worshipping and serving together in congregations, because this is a better for God to get praise. So I think the contextualization is good for evangelization, but you don't want that mentality to spill over into church life. There's no neutral context, I know, but (and I know you agree) we want Christians to learn to compromise their "contexts" in order to love other Christians from other "contexts" who are in the same congregation.



9:55 PM  

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