over-contextualization: an obstacle-less christianity

The gospel is an affront to all men.  An easily accepted form of Christianity is not indeed a form of Christianity.  

image courtesy of revmocat

On Friday I defined contextualization as the way in which we share the truth of the gospel in any given culture.  We seek to present the gospel while removing as many obstacles as possible, always aware, though — and not making excuses for the fact — that the gospel itself is never going to fit into a non-Christian’s current system of belief.

Paul described contextualization as being all things to all men — a Jew to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles.  Contextualization is crucial because there do exist so many barriers to the gospel in cultures around the world.  Here are just a few that come to mind:

  • language
  • race
  • gender
  • age
  • nationality
  • socioeconomic background
  • political affiliation
  • dress
  • music preference
  • favorite sport
  • shoe size

 And it would be a shame to allow the above obstacles to deter non-believers from becoming disciples of Christ.  

But today I’m afraid many Christians over-contextualize the gospel in attempts to make it more attractive to their target cultures.  Rather than study a particular culture’s language and thought processes in attempts to make the Bible easier to understand, they have gone the route of simply modeling the gospel after a target culture. As a result their churches look and act exactly like the cultures in which they serve.  

These churches demonstrate an approach to mission which consists of grace without truth.  When we masquerade the gospel in the costume of our day and culture, we are removing truth.

We should not seek to remove EVERY existing obstacle when presenting the gospel to an unbelieving world.  Because the truth of the gospel is itself always going to be an obstacle.  It represents a whole other belief system and worldview — one which is in constant conflict (or should be) with any culture in which it is presented. 

Our task, then, is to remove as many obstacles as possible… without hiding (or apologizing for the fact) that the gospel is never going to fit into a non-Christian’s current system of belief.  The kingdom of God will not pledge allegiance to, or be ruled by, any other kingdom.  Yet that is what we often see today: a version of the kingdom of God which is willing to bow down to the kingdom of local culture.  We are increasingly seeing a culture-shaped Christianity — rather than a Christ-shaped culture.

A quick example:  Any objective reading of scripture would tell us there’s no room in Christianity for materialism and greed — and that the Christian should be satisfied with less “stuff,”  always progressing toward a more simple life.  Yet our culture tells us we need the latest computer technology, social media gadgetry, and some new shoes.

So what do our churches do?  Do we model simplicity and contentment in a lustful and materialistic world?  Do we exhort our adherents to be filled with the Holy Spirit and not fulfilled by Apple?  No, we use the collection plate money to buy the latest techno-gizmo devices, huge audio-video equipment, and Britney Spears hand-free microphones.  Many of our churches might as well be advertisements for Best Buy (or whatever store you buy that kind of stuff in).

Culture is shaping Christianity, and not the other way around.  And this is all in the name of contextualization.

But I digress.  I’m not nearly so concerned with worship screens and money spent on video cameras as I am with a form of Christianity being offered that borders on syncretism.  Syncretism is when you blend cultures, thoughts, or worldviews in an attempt to reconcile beliefs that are actually contrary.  In the name of contextualization, many of our churches are attempting to sell their neighbors a syncretistic version of Christianity.  ALL obstacles to faith have been removed — and I don’t mean language and hair color.  We’re removing barriers like:

  • God is the one true God.
  • Jesus is the only savior of the world.
  • God will judge all humanity.

In efforts to offer a palatable Christianity, I’m afraid some of us have stopped offering Christianity.  And we’ve done so in the name of contextualization.



Filed under evangelism, missions

4 responses to “over-contextualization: an obstacle-less christianity

  1. Right on, Brett.
    “We are increasingly seeing a culture-shaped Christianity — rather than a Christ-shaped culture.” – that sentence resonates with me.
    Well said!

  2. Pretty heavy stuff to throw down for a Monday morning… 🙂

    Yes, indeed, there are subtle attacks on those final three. In some circles, perhaps, serious attacks.

    Yet, we are frail human beings and we all run into things we don’t understand.

    Some propose that we “default” to accepting a certain interpretation of the Bible as “correct” when we don’t understand, just accept it on faith, and resolve our questions like that. Let’s call these the Stubborn Blind Faithers.

    Some propose that we allow for the possibility that a certain interpretation may be incorrect, but that the Bible is ultimately perfectly true when interpreted correctly. These could be called the Imperfect Readers.

    Some propose that we discredit the Bible as necessary while still regarding it as inspired but not infallible. These folks might be thought of as Imperfect Biblers.

    See, as for these barriers you reference, all of them are founded in one thing.

    Scripture. The Bible. God’s Word. 66 books. Or more, if you’re apocryphal. Whatever that means.

    Your critique here is founded upon a certain interpretation of Scripture, I’m pretty sure you would agree. Without that, why would you propose that someone else is teaching things contrary to Scripture?

    Most of us carry some form of the Bible to church (less and less in modern techological times….), yet we really don’t know how to regard it, do we? Is it really completely true? Does it all really completely apply? Can we leave out the Old Testament ceremonies or not? Is Genesis 1 literal? Is Revelation 20 literal? Do the “days” in Daniel 7 really mean “years”? Did God really appear as a cloud and a fire? Was the lion’s den and the fiery furnace really a miracle? How much water did the Egyptian army really drown in? Does archaeology really verify all the things that Ken Ham says it does? Will America really disappear from world events at some point simply because Revelation doesn’t mention it? Did the sun really stand still? What was Jesus wearing when Mary saw him in the garden, since his clothes were still in the tomb (that one REALLY throws me a loop)?

    My point is that every breakdown I’ve ever seen goes back to how we regard Scripture.

    And I simply don’t know how to deal with the results. Do I hold Scripture in high enough regard? I do not worship it. It is not God. I respect it. Pinned to the wall, I would say that I trust it and hold to it as the most authoritative document that we have, yet I find myself baffled by the fact that there are so many crucial things that I can find absolutely no answer for in its pages. (Much of this, likely, from incomplete reading and study, admittedly.) So much that exists NOW simply did not exist when the Bible was written, it’s bizarre. No cars. No cell phones. No Internet. No GPS. No television. No cameras. No audio recordings. No publishing companies. No newspapers. No pornographic films. No Coca Cola. I mean, just for instance, when the Bible says that Jesus endured every temptation “common to man”, what does that mean? Did He REALLY endure the temptation to be gay? Not saying He didn’t, just asking – DID HE? Did He really endure the temptation to surf the Internet instead of being a good employee? I don’t see how He possibly could have endured the temptation to be angry at a child. What about cheating on his spouse?

    How we regard Scripture controls everything. Everything. Everything. Especially these contextualization things.

    And I don’t have the answer.

    And by the way – it is possible to contextualize with a civilization that no longer exists. Most of the “Old Fashioned, KJV Only” churches are simply trying their dead-level best to contextualize with the Southern America of the 40s and 50s. They want to remain stuck in that era. Much of “Protestantism” is attempting to contextualize with a certain time frame of “how we do church”. Even our definition of “the Gospel” is hopelessly tied into how we regard these things. When a KJV guy says he’s “preaching the Gospel”, he means something entirely different than Perry Noble does when he says he’s “preaching the Gospel.”

    I gotta shut up. 🙂

  3. John Guthrie

    Just discovered this site. Had checked a post at Bernard’s and saw the link. It seems we are pretty much on the same page. However, you have succeeded in stating something that has been stirring in me for some time and could not put into words. Here in the midwest they are very much into what I call the “rock concert and pep talk” mode. Contemporary ,so called Christian music, is very popular and so are the contemporary services. If one voices his opinion criticizing such activities, then he is described as an enemy of change. But the fact remains that the Message of the Bible is timeless and is relevent today as it was at It’s writing. When we stand before God, we had better be ready to explain why we had to water down the Message, soften the major points, and tried not to offend anyone. I hear repeatedly that we must reach more people, do things that will attract members. Excuse me. Who does the Bible say “attracts members”. We have a “form of Godliness, but deny the power thereof”. Jesus always stated the facts then let whatever happen. He offended many and never worried about it. We need to have that attitude. Not in a holier than thou way, but simply state the truth. The Gospel needs no help.

    PS. for those of you who might read this, stop and think about the impression you have of me, right now. I would bet that most are wrong.

    I’ll be back.

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