Contextualization: “Positive” and “Negative”

If fundamentalists were reticent to engage culture, evangelicals are quick to boast in their adaptation to it. Central to that post-WWII plan has been the appropriate and measured contextualization of the Christian message to a(n increasingly) non-Christian nation.

Yet somewhere along the last seventy years or so, we evangelicals seem to have lost our way. Is it too strong to say that we’ve become intoxicated with contextualization? I fear we have. While attendance soared, budgets inflated, and political clout gathered, our disciples don’t look very different than their non-Christian family members, neighbors, and co-workers. Our disciples aren’t…disciples.

I contend that part of the problem has been a misunderstanding as to the nature of contextualization. What was meant to be a brick in the wall has become the foundation on which the whole house rests. Below I will exegete 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, define contextualization, critique the prevailing misunderstanding, respond to possible objections, briefly survey the effects of contextualization done poorly, and then apply this framework to five practical ministry examples.

Exegesis of 1 Corinthians

Paul begins his treatment of food sacrificed to idols, and the rights of Christians, in 1 Corinthians 8:1. He notes that eating food sacrificed to idols, though not actually to a “god”, can still cause weaker brothers and sisters to sin. He lays down the principle in 8:9, “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block (πρόσκομμα) to the weak (τοῖς ἀσθενέσιν).” His point is simple: Christian love goes out of its way to serve others.

Paul then spends the first half of chapter 9 defending his rights as an apostle. But, in love, he declares in 9:12, “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right (ἡ ἐξουσία), but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle (ἐγκοπὴν) in the way of the gospel of Christ.” As a Christian, no less an apostle, Paul has a rightful claim on things like eating meat, taking a believing wife, and being supported by the churches he founded. Yet, Paul realizes that doing any of these things might add a stumbling block to gospel growth. He is intent on minimizing obstacles, so he doesn’t act on his rights.

Verse 19 continues, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all (πᾶσιν), that I might win more of them.” Though Paul has all kinds of rights, his Christ-like love compels himself to surrender any right that would make it harder for others to follow Christ. Paul then proceeds to describe the two main ethnic groups of his day, and how he “contextualizes” his ministry to both. Paul states in verse 20 that he “For to the Jews (τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις) I became (έγενόμην) as a Jew.” Because his normal way of life would be offensive to Jews, Paul changes his behavior. He realizes that living by his Christian rights might create obstacles for belief for Jews; thus, he endeavors to remove those stumbling blocks (by living as a Jew).

In verse 21 he writes that “to those outside the law (τοῖς ἀνόμοις) [I became] as one outside the law.” Again, because his normal way of life would be offensive to Gentiles, Paul changes his behavior. He realizes that living by his Christian rights might create obstacles for belief for Gentiles; thus, he endeavors to remove those stumbling blocks (by living as a Gentile). He then circles back to ministry to the week in verse 22a, and states, “To the weak (τοῖς ἀσθενέσιν) I became (έγενόμην) weak, that I might win the weak.” Again, Paul “takes care” that his right does not become a stumbling block. By his new behavior, he tries to remove potentially unnecessarily offensive practices (to the weak).

In what has become the linchpin of contextualization talk, Paul concludes in 22b, “I have become (γέγονα) all things to all people (τοῖς πᾶσιν), that by all means I might save some.” Based upon the preceding verses, I contend that Paul is simply expanding his principle from 8:9, which has been applied to “the Jews”, “those outside the law”, and “the weak”. Now he summarizes that “to all people” he takes care that none of his rights “somehow become a stumbling block.” That is, Paul isn’t simply dressing like the locals. He is not simply adopting his target audience’s tastes and preferences. Rather, it is a deliberate attempt to not allow obstacles to impede gospel growth. In line with all three previous examples, he is seeking to remove any unnecessary stumbling blocks.

Definitions

My conclusion from this passage is simple: Paul commended Christians to not add obstacles to gospel growth, but to subtract obstacles whenever possible. Whether marriage, pay, or food sacrificed to idols, Paul wanted the Corinthians to follow his example and remove potential stumbling blocks of belief. Therefore, Paul’s “contextualization” of the gospel was ensuring that barriers were not added, and that, so far as it was righteous and faithful to the gospel, barriers were removed. Hence my definition: contextualization is “the deliberate changing of one’s behavior to reduce the number of obstacles to believing and obeying the gospel.” I call this “negative” contextualization because it seeking to reduce/decrease/remove/negate/eliminate barriers. This is my first definition, which I think is the biblically faithful concept of contextualization.

But I don’t think it is the prevailing evangelical understanding of contextualization. Notably, it doesn’t seem that most evangelicals have an explicit definition. Instead, they abide by a certain kind of ethos: “do whatever is necessary to attract people to the gospel.” This impulse then morphs into an even more unbiblical strain: “do whatever is necessary to make the gospel seem attractive.” (An extreme version of this will actually change the content of the message, as in classical Protestant liberalism. At present, I am only seeking to critique the mainstream evangelical perspective.) From this model, I derive my second definition. I call this “positive” contextualization because it seeks to add/increase/grow/enhance the appeal of Christianity. Here is my definition of “positive” contextualization: “the deliberate changing of one’s behavior to make the gospel more attractive.”

Put another way, those who employ “positive” contextualization, hope to win people by means of their contextualization. As if people will believe in Jesus, because of the church’s music, attire, pop culture references, etc.

The difference between these two understandings should be obvious. “Negative” contextualization exists to make the gospel known and understood more clearly, while “positive” contextualization exists to make Christianity, Jesus, and the gospel look better. Thus, “Negative” contextualization is good, I contend, and “Positive” contextualization is bad. I will now briefly respond to some possible objections, before turning to the deleterious effects of “positive” contextualization.

Objections

Objection 1: “But don’t we want to make the gospel more attractive?” Answer: yes and no. We certainly want people to perceive as much of the beauty of the gospel as possible. In that sense, we are indeed trying to “increase” their attraction to the gospel. But we want people to see the beauty that is already inherent in the gospel. That is, we want people to see the glory and attractiveness that is already there. We are trying to take away the blinders (barriers) in people’s hearts to perceiving the excellencies of Christ. But we should never try to “beautify” the gospel, as if it were lacking. This is, I fear, is the error of “positive” contextualization. In trying to commend the true gospel, via contextualization, churches have actually tried to improve it. To discern which type of contextualization is being considered, ask this crucial question: what stumbling block is this change going to remove? If no obvious barrier is being eliminated, it might be because you have drifted into “positive” contextualization. You’re trying to make the gospel more attractive.

Objection 2: “But don’t the ‘negators’ also try to make the gospel more attractive?” Answer: yes and no. Again, we want to do everything we can to communicate the gospel clearly and effectively, because we want people to behold the glory that Christ genuinely has. But where a “negative” contextualizer is trying to remove barriers to belief, so people can see the beauty of Christ, the “positive” contextualizer is searching for ways to be more relevant or impressive, as if by those things to attract people to Christ.

Objection 3: “So should Christians ever try to attract people to God?” Answer: yes! Jesus states in Matthew 5:16, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” The good deeds of Christians are meant to point non-Christians to God. Similarly, in John 13:35 Jesus states, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Christians are to so love one another, that such humble service and devotion is actually evidence that they are followers of Christ! Or consider 1 Peter 2:12, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God.” As Christians endure persecution, and continue practicing righteousness, they are glorifying God! My contention is not at all that Christians should not try to commend the gospel. Instead, it is that the gospel is already, inherently, commendable. It is glorious. And the way that the church commends the gospel is through the holy and loving lives of believers. It is not through our music, attire, pop culture references, etc., but the sincere love of Christ in us.

Harms of “Positive” Contextualization

I now move to explain the two undesirable outcomes that result from using “positive” contextualization. First, “positive” contextualization does not depend fully on God. A stronger way of putting this would recognize it as a lack of faith in God and his promises. God has ordained the gospel as the means of salvation (Romans 1:16; 1 Cor 1:18) because it eliminates human boasting (Rom 3:27; 1 Cor 1:29; Ephesians 2:9). It eliminates the boasting of the messenger, because it is a message of folly, and it eliminates the boasting of a Christian, because salvation is by grace, through faith, in Christ.

Therefore, when we don’t depend on the gospel alone, we don’t depend on God alone, and we end up relying on our own ingenuity or intelligence. And if our own ingenuity or intelligence win people, then our own ingenuity and intelligence gets the glory. For Paul was right when he wrote, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” (Rom 4:4). Thus, if people respond well to our impressive schemes, we get to boast in ourselves and our schemes.

Second, God has appointed the means of salvation, and we dishonor him when we try to improve that means as if it were insufficient. When God gives explicit instruction, we neglect that instruction, and follow our own wisdom and methods, we show a profound lack of trust in him and his word.

Third, “positive” contextualization is harmful because it doesn’t create true disciples. Since the gospel is the only means of salvation, all efforts that rely on other things cannot, by definition, grant salvation. Any change will only be temporary, external, non-spiritual, and eternally insignificant change, insofar as it has been technique-d by our methods. It is not really the Spirit of God that has changed the sinner’s heart, but some human-made innovation that brought excitement. For God alone gives spiritual growth (1 Cor 3:6) and opens people’s hearts to believe (Acts 16:14) the gospel. And the parable of the soils (Mark 4:1-20) demonstrates that some who seem like a Christian (responding with joy, initially growing up with the thorns) are not always truly converted. Thus, any method that depends, say, 80% on the power of God, as it were, and 20% on human ingenuity, might be predicted to create 20% false converts. Inasmuch as people are “converted” by something other than the gospel, they are still unconverted! Only the Holy Spirit gives true gospel growth, creating lasting gospel change.

Certainly, genuine Christians can be born again from ministries that use “positive” contextualization. But that will be in spite of, not because of, those efforts. For if those efforts were truly effective—in providing the decisive persuasion to the individual—then the sinner could not be made a saint. Only the Spirit of God, empowering the gospel of God, can do that work.

Perhaps all this has seemed a bit heady, and in need of practical examples. I will now seek to demonstrate five typical evangelical “contextualizations”, and how they fall squarely into the “positive” (that is, unbiblical) category.

Examples

First, consider humor in a church service. I recently passed a church’s prominent front sign that proclaimed this coming week’s sermon was entitled “My Name is Inigo Montoya.” It seems this kind of amusing language is all-too common among evangelical churches. While proponents would point to the ubiquity of humor in today’s culture, and the necessity of “contextualizing” to connect with the contemporary audience, this emphasis does not match Paul’s “negative” contextualization. For what stumbling block does humor remove for believers and unbelievers? It certainly makes the sermon more enjoyable, and thus crowds tend to get larger. But without a clear obstacle to remove, the profusion of humor seems more accurately like an attempt to make Christianity more appealing. That is, it is an attempt at “positive” contextualization.

Second, consider the emphasis of music in a church service. Music is a glorious gift of God, to sing his praises, declare his salvation, and encourage the saints. Yet I fear that, under the banner of contextualization, many churches have adopted a pragmatic style that seeks to improve upon the gospel. For the impressive worship stages, the professional musicians, the dramatic lighting, and the deafening choruses, what stumbling block do these things remove for believers and unbelievers? It certainly makes the service enjoyable, one’s emotions can be swept along quite easily, and crowds can surge quickly. But without a clear obstacle to remove, it seems that these techniques are promoted as if they could make Christianity cool and compelling. Instead, I believe it takes focus off of where it should be; namely, the gospel.

Third, consider the role of clothing and attire at a church. Often, pastors are known for dressing in a way that is impressive and hip to their target audience. This can sound very similar to Paul’s strategy in 1 Corinthians 9. Yet, when Paul contextualized, he did it by “negation”. He didn’t seek to win people by his contextualization, but used the contextualization to remove barriers to the gospel. I fear that many pastors, in the name of contextualization, partake in the “positive” vain. That is, they seek to win people by their stylishness. While Paul never mistook his contextualization with the power of the gospel, it seems that some pastors do confuse their clothing with God’s power. Again, what stumbling block do designer jeans (or tailored suits) remove for believers and unbelievers?

This is perhaps the thorniest example I analyze.  For the pastor has to wear something. Yet my analysis is meant to get to the root motivation of his decision: why does he choose one set of clothing over another? Whether jeans or a suit, the motivation can be a godly desire to be unremarkable (that is, “negatively” removing a potential barrier). So a pastor doesn’t want an elderly congregation to be offended by jeans, and he wears a suit. But there can also be an unwise attempt to “positively” impress the audience with the hipness of Christians. Again, is the pastor seeking to simply remove a barrier that certain clothing might produce? Or is he seeking to win people to Christianity by his coolness, as evident in his clothing?

Fourth, consider the general tone set by the lighting, stage, and other environmental factors. What message is it trying to send? In a modern church, with slick lighting, impressive stage props, and a lone stool for preaching, I wonder if pastors are seeking to “positively” contextualize the gospel in such a way as to make Christianity more appealing. But what barriers do slick lighting and professional music overcome?

Fifth and finally, consider how a church might avail coffee to Sunday churchgoers. Often, churches will put out inexpensive coffee to bless and serve those attending. At other times, churches will create entire coffee shops, with either free or discounted gourmet drinks. While the former set of churches seems to be motivated by Christian love and simple hospitality, I wonder if the latter group of churches sometimes seeks to win people through impressive and trendy coffee-shops. But what stumbling block does a state-of-the-art coffee shop remove for believers and unbelievers? This seems more like “positive” contextualization, in an attempt to make Christianity seem trendy and chic.

Notably, all of these examples have to do with aesthetics. This fits well with my goal of describing American evangelicalism. Cross-cultural “contextualization,” and the discussion therein, has been prone to much more like liberal Protestantism, with a tendency to change the message itself. But in our American context, evangelicals seem obsessed with changing the externals. Perhaps they know its wrong to mess with the message itself; or they think the medium doesn’t matter. In either case, these examples are fairly typical of the churches and conferences that promote “positive” contextualization.

In all of these situations, the lines are never black and white. But the more your coffee shop outdoes Starbucks, how much of a barrier are you really removing? And while the church has to play some kind of music, how much of a barrier does professional, concert-style music really remove? My position is that it does not. While purporting to follow the example of Paul from 1 Corinthians 9, such examples are actually unbiblical “positive” contextualization, and add to the gospel.

Conclusion

Evangelicals are right to engage the world with the gospel. Yet we must do so with wisdom. The gospel is not a product to be marketed, sold, or advertised. And we are not salespeople. Instead, with Paul, “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

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