We began our blog series with this statement, "The gospel is never planted in a vacuum, but always in a context. We looked at personal story as a starting point for the discipleship journey. Now we circle back and address the collective story that makes up a cultural context.
The fourth aspect to our discipleship process at Soma Asheville is called contextualization.
This blog post is a tribute to Lesslie Newbigin and his lasting work as a Missionary to the West. I heartily recommend his works for anyone who is serious about recovering the gospel in the West.
Contextualization is faithfully giving people the Bible's answers (both in doctrine & practice) to the questions people in a particular culture are asking (all things God-related), using language, forms, appeals, and arguments that correspond to their culture (not the host culture).
Now that's a mouthful! Why is a word I have never heard before and have such a hard time pronouncing so critical to my discipleship journey? I hope you have an answer by the end of this post. Let's get started.
Contextualization understands faithfulness to Jesus as obedience within a particular worldly context. Eugene Peterson begins A Long Obedience in the Same Direction this way:
"An old tradition sorts the difficulties we face in the life of faith into the categories of world, flesh, and devil. We are, for the most part, well warned of the perils of the flesh and the wiles of the devil. Their temptation has a definable shape and maintains a historic continuity. That doesn't make them any easier to resist; it does make them easier to recognize. The world, though, is protean: each generation has the world to deal with in a new form."
According to Peterson, "the world" is an ever-shifting target. Just when the Church zeros in their sights and takes aim…SHIFT! Up arises a new generation requiring the re-calibration of our scopes. Faithfulness in one age does not guarantee faithfulness in the next. What got you here will not get you there; sacred cows anyone?
The Word of God does not change. The gospel does not change. However, the context in which we are called to be faithful to Jesus does in fact change.
In Revelation 2-3, the 7 Churches represented 7 unique contexts in which the Church was called to be faithful. If it was possible for the Churches the Apostle Paul planted to suffer rebuke after being in existence only 35 years, rest assured your Church's relationship to culture needs attention. Contending for the gospel today requires taking sharp aim at cultures in rapid motion, while not falling captive to them.
Contextualization necessitates taking a long hard look in our own cultural mirror. A grievous error both in Israel's past and the Church is the total identification of the Kingdom of God with our own host culture. Where is the Kingdom of God? Well, come on in here and we'll show you around. Nothing needs attention; it's all set up just like Jesus wants it (any lingering humility just exited the building through the back door). Contextualization helps sniff out the putrid tribalism and narrow nationalism that creep into our cultures over time.
If you are living in the North American context and have never wrestled through terms like individualism, secularism, pluralism, consumerism, pragmatism, or good ol' Southern religiosity (to name a few), then you might be swimming in dangerous waters. Chances are the Jesus you are offering to your people has been domesticated by the host culture. You're saying all the words, but the life and power of Jesus has been lost. The scary thing is that many of us don't even know we are doing it, which leads to our next point.
Contextualization ensures the potency and purity of the gospel remains protected. Let me speak to all my evangelical friends who have raised eyebrows at this point. Depending on your tradition and the generation you belong to, contextualization comes with baggage. There is a checkered past. In the name of contextualization, the gospel often became acculturated into the milieu of the day. Contextualization equaled compromise.
Wise contextualization does the exact opposite. We can lose the gospel by falling subject to the Galatian heresy and we can lose the gospel by becoming Corinthian. Contextualization sheds light on the narrow path. It helps protect that which is most precious to us over the long haul.
Contextualization is the outworking of an operative missional ecclesiology. Any meaningful engagement of culture necessitates that contextualization on some level is already taking place. However, when the Church is able to exist where mission becomes an optional add-on, viruses and parasites abound. Let me explain.
When the Church functions in a missionary posture [minority position] towards the culture, contextualization instinctively takes place because the Church is forced into a posture of humility, of listening, of learning. The Church is forced to live via the gospel or perish. The Church is surrounded on all sides. The culture sets the table. The Church then brings the gospel as the feast. So it is the culture's questions, hopes aspirations, dreams, and idolatries that create the occasion for the Church to speak good news. The Church not only survives, but advances.
What happens historically when the Church becomes the dominant culture [majority culture]? It is at this very moment the Church faces her greatest temptation and is most vulnerable. Why? Now as the dominant culture, the Church no longer HAS to be loving, HAS to be serving, HAS to listen. Another path to victory is available. The Church can get its way by imposing its will.
The Church no longer is forced into the weak work of contextualization. The Church operating from a posture of strength wields its way externally and culturally. The Church imposes its will on top of culture rather than planting the gospel from within culture. The easier path is then rubber stamped with Jesus.
The Church forgets what she just "learned in Babylon." When the Church abandons the perch of humility, she is right back on the trajectory of losing the very thing she has just gained. By adopting a heretical means of advance, the Church betrays the very gospel it preaches.
Newbigin says true contextualization only happens in the life of a community which remembers, rehearses, and lives by the story which the Bible tells and of which the central focus is the story told in the New Testament, i.e. the story of the gospel. When these conditions are met, the sovereign Spirit of God does His own surprising work. Amen. This will be the subject of our next post.