Contextualizing the Gospel (Or, There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Cat)

Five months ago I moved my wife and two young daughters 1,500 miles away from the only home we had known in Nebraska. We moved because God called us to move. We believed that then and still believe it now.

We moved to what’s known as the Capital District in New York, a conglomeration of four counties surrounding Albany, the capital. The Capital District was recently ranked as the least Christian area in the United States by Barna. The region is an odd mixture of urban, suburban, and rural areas mashed and intertwined. Geographically, the Capital District is considered “the Northeast.” Culturally, however, we are continually reminded this is “New England” (as proof, there are a lot of Patriots and Red Sox fans). All of these factors present huge obstacles, yet promising opportunities, when it comes to contextualizing the gospel.

Tim Keller has said that contextualizing the gospel means that we provide “God’s answers to the culture’s questions.” In other words, we don’t change the message of the gospel, we change how we deliver the message. The hard part is figuring out how to deliver the message.

Why do we need to contextualize? Well, the truth is, there really is more than one way to skin a cat. There is no one-size fits all for gospel ministry because every person and every community is different. We expect overseas missionaries and church planters to contextualize (e.g. evangelism to Iranian Muslims looks vastly different than evangelism to ancestor-worshiping South Africans). But domestically, we often forget contextualizing is still a necessity. Simply holding to orthodoxy is not enough. Simply doing what is “hip” is not enough. Simply copying other “successful” churches is not enough. It would be unwise and unfaithful to simply try to reproduce in your church what another ministry is doing in their context. If I do that, I’m being an unfaithful minister and a poor (read: lazy) analyst of culture.

We get our cue for contextualization from the gospel itself, the apex of contextual ministry. The eternal, infinite Son of God incarnates (i.e. takes on flesh) so that he might accomplish redemption in time and space. He becomes like us in order to redeem us. He comes into a human family. He learns a trade. He speaks human language. He observes holidays, festivals, and traditions. He makes friends. He has conversations. He shares meals. He does, in a specific context, all the things gods in other religions don’t do. Jesus is the ultimate contextualizer.

This is what motivates the Apostle Paul to contextualize his message (see 1 Cor. 9:19-23). He “becomes all things to all men” in order to reach them. Yet Paul doesn’t twist or manipulate the gospel message. The message is the same, but the manner in which he spreads the message has a different nuance. Why does he do it? For the sake of the gospel, he says.

How does all this play out in the Capital District–culturally New England and a mixed bag of urban-dwellers, urban-escapees, suburbanites, engineers, web/software developers, state employees, snow birds, retirees, outdoor adventurists, and on and on?

I don’t know.

And for now, that’s okay. I’m learning what it means to be a missionary-minister in this culture. I’m learning what it means to become a New Englander to reach them. I’m learning the cultural narrative: What do people believe their purpose is? What is wrong with life here? How can things be made right? In what do people ultimately place their hope? I’m trying to discern cultural idols. I’m trying to understand why New Englanders are a bit terse and impersonal and what that means for discipleship and evangelism. I’m trying to understand what can be received in the culture, what must be rejected, and what needs to be reshaped. Figuring out this is contextualization.

As I’ve heard before, the question is not whether or not to contextualize, but whether or not we will contextualize well. This all takes time, and by God’s grace, little by little, I’ll make progress as the months and years go by. I’m confident the God who ensures his gospel will spread also provides the means and power for his people to do the spreading.

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