Three ways to live

Which is your way?

Contextualization

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 11:12 pm on Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Our bible study group has just split into two and I will be leading one of the groups starting this August. In preparation, I am revisiting theological foundations of small group meetings and planning a series of posts on some of the things I learn on the way (in no particular order). In this post I cover the “hot” topic of contextualization.

Contextualization is typically defined as adapting communication in the body of Christianity to the culture by selecting some practices, some concepts, some words, as appropriate vehicles to convey your ideas. The reason this is a hot topic today is because many feel that this adaptation is equivalent to “selling out” or “dumbing down” to the culture and hence carrying a danger of losing the original truth and force of the message. A notable speaker in this camp is John MacArthur, who published numerous books on this topic, the latest being “Fool’s gold” (to my knowledge).

In the other camp is Rick Warren, the author of bestseller “Purpose Driven Life”, who insists that the Christian message in its original form is not relevant. Warren was heard saying: “I’ve heard pastors proudly say, We’re not here to entertain. Obviously they’re doing a good job at it. A Gallup poll a few years ago stated that, according to the unchurched, the church is the most boring place to be. . . . To the unchurched, dull preaching is unforgivable. Truth poorly delivered is ignored. On the other hand, the unchurched will listen to absolute foolishness if it is interesting. . . . When God’s Word is taught in an uninteresting way, people don’t just think the pastor is boring, they think God is boring!” Another supporter of this approach, William Hybels states, “Unchurched people today are the ultimate consumers. We may not like it, but for every sermon we preach, they’re asking, Am I interested in that subject or not? If they aren’t, it doesn’t matter how effective our delivery is; their minds will check out.”

First thing we must understand is that contextualization is inevitable. For example, translation the Bible from Greek to English is an example of contextualization. Pastor who choses an appropriate example, relevant to the audience, to illustrate his point is contextualizing. So the question should be not whether we should contextualize (we must!) but where to draw the line.

In this respect, I find comments by Timothy J. Keller, a senior pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, very helpful. His definition is “Contextualization is not giving people what they want. It is giving God’s answers (which they probably do not want) to the questions they are asking and in forms they can comprehend.” This means that some parts of the culture you use and adapt, others you reject. It means becoming like culture in some ways, yet challenging it in other ways.

He proposes two basic principles that should guide contextualization:
1) Do not remove offensive essentials of the Bible (sin, repentance)
2) Do not bring any non-essentials that may confuse people

Contextualization is necessary and its correct implementation depends on how well we understand the gospel and the culture. It requires an ability to see the good things that the culture has to offer (something that MacArthur seems not to be able to do) as well as the things that need to be challenged. Finally, it requires a great deal of apologetics – ability to address difficult questions that the culture is asking.

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