Objections to the Results of Contextualization

The first half of the objections we’ve overviewed centered on perceived errors in the methodology of contextualization. In this article, I’d like to address the perceived errors in the results or aims of contextualization.

Contextualization produces personality cults

I guess the snarky side of me would reply that if contextualization results in personality cults, Paul and Apollos must have contextualized par excellence (1 Cor. 3.4).  But in all honesty, I’ve seen plenty of churches that don’t consciously contextualize to the culture around them and still form into personality cults. I tend to think that personality cults either result from pride in the leadership (which can enter when one contextualizes well or when one bucks contextualization) or from idolatry in the congregation (as in Corinth). I don’t think we can make a 1:1 correlation between contextualization and personality cults.

Contextualization will never attract the world

There are so many errors in this claim, but let’s deal with the obvious ones. First, attracting the world isn’t the aim of contextualization. Our goal is communication to those in our culture. Second, with this objection, we’re back to this sort of angst over the use of means in order to communicate the Gospel. No one ever said that because we’re doing what the Apostles did that we’re going to get apostolic results. Our goal is obedience to the Great Commission and faithfulness to the presentation of the Gospel as shown in the Scriptures. The results are God’s. Lastly, although I hesitate to argue to the contrary (in order that someone were to assume that I’ve proven a result orientation), I think it should be noted that contextualized ministries tend to see great organic growth rather than the transfer growth of ministries that don’t consciously contextualize. I’ve mentioned Tim Keller’s church before, and I think that the way in which Redeemer Presbyterian is able to communicate and connect the Gospel with men and women who should have hit all sorts of roadblocks in terms of worldview in other ministries is nothing short of impressive. This shocking effectiveness of contextualization as a God-ordained means to communicate the Gospel makes me wonder if lack of intentional contextualization is partly to blame for so many churches’ abject failure to fulfill the Great Commission.

Contextualization changes the shape of the church every generation and excludes generational outsiders

Several observations: First, the shape of the church has always changed with the culture around it. Even the Anabaptists (Mennonites) changed with culture until the 19th century. Our churches are inherently culturally-bound expressions of Christianity in community. We can, Amish-like, revere and contextualize to a holier era of the past or we can missionally speak truth into our own era. God didn’t drop down a heavenly cookie cutter in order to make a series of identical churches from the first century until now. He gave us the organic makeup of the Church in Christ and the structure of the Word upon which it flourishes. And that’s why a church in Jerusalem didn’t look like a church in Colossae. And a church in Greer, SC doesn’t look like a church in Cape Town or Berlin or Hong Kong.

Contextualization has resulted in shallowness and sin among young evangelicals

Real contextualization is a focus on the clarity of the communication of the Gospel message into the sitz im leben of the culture around us. I honestly struggle to see how clarity of the Gospel results in shallowness and sin! I think I have an idea of what these generic fears are reflective of. They are fears of the big box church down the street that holds concerts for teens and college students. You and I see tons of people filter through these churches and then practice sin in their daily lives. I would argue that (a) the practices of individuals do not always align with the teachings of their churches, (b) the percentage of non-practicing but professing Christians in these churches is probably roughly the same as in smaller traditional churches, but the number is higher, and (c) there’s a great likelihood that the feel good churches aren’t really practicing biblical contextualization, because biblical contextualization communicates even the truths that people don’t want to hear in language and forms toward which they can respond understandingly. When contextualization is practiced (not simply accommodation or syncretism), Christians and non-Christians are confronted with the life-changing message of the Gospel.

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