Contend and Contextualize

Posted: March 10, 2011 in church planting, culture, evangelism, gospel, missions

Ed Stetzer recently began a series on the importance of contextualizing in engaging culture with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In his first post, Stetzer discusses the importance of culture, carefully defining what he means by the term.  He reminds us that it is important to understand the culture that we are engaging with the Gospel, not because the Gospel message will change, but because the way we communicate the message is impacted by the people we are ministering to.  He writes,

It is easy to develop a solid, theological grasp on the essential components of the church, and the nature of the gospel without understanding the ways in which a biblically-defined church will look and function in differing cultural contexts. The Bible-only folks are convinced they only need to know Scripture in order to reach the people in a given community. I think we all need more scriptural fidelity, but unless they can also exegete the culture they will be ill-equipped to identify idols and understand the ways in which sin has brought ruin to the community. (emphasis mine)

Stetzer does not seem troubled by those who would argue that Christians are not called to “engage the culture,” saying that they are not using the term (culture) the same way that evangelical missiologists are using it.

In his second post, Stetzer goes on to explain the danger and necessity of contextualization and engaging the culture.  He first notes that some things should not be changed for the sake of engaging a culture:

Evangelicals tend to believe that we don’t change the gospel because we don’t own the gospel. We don’t change or alter the gospel because the gospel is history. The gospel is the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that rescues sinful humanity from eternal ruin. (emphasis mine)

Yet he is quick to remind us that,

Contextualization matters because we are not eternal, timeless, and a-cultural. Some of the ways we worship, how we present eternal truths, and how we live in and relate to society all must be considered. We live in a culture. How we see things, understand them, and present them to others must take culture into account. (emphasis mine)

Again, commenting on those who say that Christians do not have an obligation to understand and engage the culture that we are ministering in, Stetzer writes,

It is odd for me to hear people say we should not worry about culture. It seems like a fish saying we should not worry about water. You LIVE in that water. Thus, you have to redefine the term culture to say it must be avoided and not engaged.

I think part of this faulty reasoning derives from ignorance regarding how a person’s own culture has influenced and shaped them personally.  It seems that we are often somewhat blind to our own culture.  The more different another person’s culture is from our own, the easier it is to “see”.  But that doesn’t mean we are any less shaped by our particular culture.

Stetzer recalls two principles that guide his thinking with regard to engaging culture.  First, Scripture calls us to contend for the truth (Jude 3).  This must not be overlooked.  But it also calls us to contextualize (1 Corinthians 9:22-23).  This is important as well.  And it is the tension that these two principles inevitably produce in which the faithful Christian must labor.

Stetzer closes with this good reminder:

Contextualization matters to those concerned about clear gospel proclamation. Yes, contextualization is a dangerous thing. It is also a necessary thing. Without contextual considerations, we do not transmit the gospel, but we transmit more of our cultural adaptation of that gospel.

Can’t wait for more installments!


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