Is it appropriate to communicate the gospel message in a way that’s shaped by culture? This question reveals a certain naiveté about culture. The minute we open our mouths we shape the gospel with the cultural, linguistic forms, sounds, and meanings–language. Even the Bible contextualizes. The Bible is written in cultural language, reflects cultural forms of literature (Hittite treaties, Babylonian law codes, and Greek epistles). Everyday Christians swim in cultural forms: wearing pants, speaking in English, singing Amazing Grace (the original version, or Chris Tomlin’s recent offering). As my friend Dr. Alvin Reid likes to say, the very existence of four Gospels, written by four separate voices, to four distinct audiences, nuanced by the audiences who are receiving each message, shouts to us that God values the concept of contextualization. The question isn’t whether to contextualize but how to contextualize?
The how of popular contextualization is often code for, “We want to be cool and relevant,” a twist from its actual, missiological meaning. Ironically, the loudest proponents of contextualization often get it wrong. I am afraid that too often we seem to think contextualization is really an effort to make us and our churches into the coolest version we can create. The more I dig into God’s word, the more I am convinced that biblical contextualization is not a planned effort to maximize “cool,” but is a concerted effort to live out the gospel by “dying to ourselves” in order to reach those around us. No text seems to drive this point home more clearly than Paul’s words to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 9.
Paul begins the chapter by pointing out that he is a man of great freedoms. He understands the gospel rightly that his adoption as a child of God is not dependent on his behavior. As a result, he is free to take a wife, enjoy the comforts of food and drink, and even receive financial gain for his labors. These (and many others) are among the freedoms that are now enjoyed by every Christ follower. However, in spite of his freedoms, Paul advocates for the voluntary restriction of those freedoms for the sake of gospel advance. This passage is a strong reminder that there can be areas in our lives, which are not sin, but which can, at some point, be detrimental to gospel advancement. In order to make this voluntary decision, however, we ultimately must value God and his gospel more than we value our personal freedoms. Verses 14 and 15 expand upon this as Paul offers an explanation for why he gives up his income in his pursuit of the gospel.
Paul explains that his justification for this kind of voluntary restriction is because he has been given a stewardship of the gospel. Faithful contextualization is necessary as we grasp the weighty responsibility of the gospel that is entrusted to us.
Slaves to God
Paul points out that those who love God and love the gospel are slaves to God, and so we preach, as slaves, in an effort to see others respond in faith to Jesus. Verse 19, in particular, is helpful to this end. Paul specifically uses slave language to refer to his relationship with those who do not yet know Christ. We are often comfortable using slave language in respect to God (i.e. a slave to God) or even righteousness (i.e. a slave to righteousness), but the idea of using it in respect to those apart from God is a bit foreign to most of our vocabulary. Yet, this is exactly what Paul does. “I have made myself a servant to all,” Paul says, in a statement that is speaking specifically of the larger group of humanity who still do not know God. Paul’s efforts to contextualize the gospel rests under this presupposition that he is a slave to God and man as he endeavors to advance the gospel.
Paul points out (v. 20-22) that his efforts at contextualization come out of an understanding that he is voluntarily restricting his freedoms. By doing so he is a living example of the gospel on display. Luke 9:23 says, “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’”
Biblical contextualization is an effort to live out the gospel call in the ministry setting that God has placed us.
Finally, Paul notes that this effort to contextualize the gospel is not easy. Notice his language in verses 24-27 concerning his efforts. Paul exercises “self-control,” he “disciplines” himself. He keeps himself “under control.” Often we use this verse in an effort to inform our attempts at discipleship, but by doing so, we miss the point. These are Paul’s attempts to describe the process of dying to self that is implicit in biblical contextualization. The act of contextualizing the gospel is an act of self-sacrifice as we die to our own identity and speak faithfully the gospel in a manner that is most easily understood by our surrounding context.
Biblical contextualization is absolutely necessary, but anyone who understands it as an effort to see how far we can push the boundaries with the gospel is engaging in a theological exercise of missing the point. Contextualization should be an exercise in living out the gospel, allowing your comfortable identity to die as you find your identity in Christ. This may not result in a church full of indie rocker wannabes, but rather a multi-cultural church. Instead of a hip, cool leader that stands on cutting edge of fashion and music, a faithful contextual leader may look like a bass fishing, pearl snap wearing, southern gospel listening, country boy. They might even be a guy who wears a lemon yellow sweater vest, drives a Vespa or a Prius, and listens to Genesis or James Taylor.
The point, ultimately, is that who we are, and even who we want to be, should not really matter. What matters is that we are walking with Christ, loving those around us and dying daily, as we live out the gospel. We must speak the truth in a manner which may be uncomfortable to us personally, but which communicates powerfully to those around us.
Know your audience, know the gospel, and die to yourself as you preach the gospel faithfully to those around you.
Micah Fries is the Vice President of LifeWay Research. He has served as a Senior Pastor in Missouri and a missionary in West Africa, prior to coming to LifeWay. Connect with Micah on Twitter.