Contextualizing the Gospel: What It Is and Is Not

contextualization

This Palm Sunday we heard a special sermon from Hope’s church-planter-in-residence, Jared Daugherty, and it really resonated with me. Keeping with the theme of the church he will be planting this Fall, he preached from Acts 17:16-34 about the provocative, revolutionary message of the Gospel, which contains one of the most detailed depictions in Paul’s ministry of an effective gospel presentation. I’m not going to spend time summarizing the sermon (which can be listened to here), but will instead focus on one of the main themes of Jared’s sermon that I’ve been feeling particularly strongly about lately: contextualizing the Gospel.

Before I go on, I’ll quickly define what I mean by “contextualizing the Gospel.” It does not mean, as Jared was sure to point out, simply changing or watering down the Gospel to be more palatable or appealing to peoples’ sensibilities. For example, twisting the Gospel to say, “God loves you and wants to bless you so if you pray to Him, He’ll give you lots of stuff and make your dreams come true.” Phrases like that don’t contextualize our faith, but destroy the gospel’s central point, by which Jesus becomes so valuable to us that it is in our best interest to give away everything else we have in order to receive Him. (As Jesus says in Matthew 13:44, and Paul in Philippians 3:8-9.) The very essence of the gospel is discarded and replaced with feel-good American materialism to sell books and fill church pews.

The currently-popular Christian maxim about how Christianity is “a relationship, not religion,” while true in its rejection of Pharisaical ritualism in favor of authentic faith, can also be used to support a blanket rejection of tradition or an individualistic, “just me and God” Christianity that goes counter to the idea of the body of Christ as a community (which is, after all, Hope’s middle name). The line between good and bad contextualization is thinner here, but I think it’s dangerous to parallel faith too closely to human relationships. It definitely makes Christianity more accessible to outsiders, but risks losing out on the mind-blowing reality and depth of knowing the infinite, majestic God of the universe.

What I do mean is the process by which we take the timeless truth of the Gospel and explain, in more detail, what it means to a specific group of people in a specific social/cultural/historic setting, meeting people where they’re at. I think many faithful Christians, rightly enamored with the Gospel and passionate about helping others to know God, often forget this step or see it as secondary to simply presenting God’s truth. For example, John 3:16, the “rainbow hair guy” verse, is one of the most succinct and complete statements of the Gospel in scripture. But it is not especially contextualized; it speaks to timeless spiritual realities that transcend human contexts and cultural blind spots. Someone in a specific context presented with it might have trouble understanding the idea of a personal God who loves the world, or God having a son, or the nature of belief, or of eternal life. Contextualization is how we adapt our presentation of these truths (not the truths themselves) to a specific audience to help the Gospel come alive to them!

Next week I’ll get into how, specifically, Paul contextualizes the gospel in the passage Jared preached on, Acts 17:16-34.

–David Pitchford


5 thoughts on “Contextualizing the Gospel: What It Is and Is Not

  1. I want to explore the idea that identifying Christianity as relationship makes it more accessible to outsiders. My mantra for decades has been that “Christianity is a right relationship with God in the context of right relationships with others (and yourself)” so relational theology is where I live.

    If we allow Christianity to be social (meaning to fulfill the felt needs of connection of the individual with others) to the exclusion of the gospel then yes, it will be very accessible but it ceases to be rooted in the relationship with Christ which is the primary relationship of any individual and thereby ceases to be true Christianity.

    I look back to the Garden of Eden as the model for right relationship. Humans were first designed to relate with God and he made man and woman because we need the horizontal relationship as well.

    Of course, in Eden, we see the infiltration of sin into the world and we see it breaking the relationships both between God and humans as well as between humans.

    With that context, we see Christ breaking into history to restore relationships both between us and God and between each other. The challenge is that for this to happen the deep surgery of the Gospel needs to happen in our hearts.
    Looking at relational Christianity from this perspective, we can see that rightly focusing on relationships is scary and, in many ways, a barrier to both entry and continued involvement in the life of the church. To be relational is to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable in a sinful world is scary. If we try to do this in our own power it is impossible and it is easy to substitute rules or ritual for relationship.

    At the same time relationship is a deep need of everyone. We long for that for which we were created. In that sense, living out a true relationship with Christ and others becomes attractive to others while at the same time it is scary.

    I want to encourage you and others to explore what true relationship with Christ and others means. I encourage this because what I see as true contextualization is rightly finding that point where these relationships meet; where God being truly God breaks into our world and relates to us where we truly live.

    Keep going!

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  2. Greg,

    I think you are dead-on. If I may add one nuance; you mentioned Eden as a model but that needs to be fleshed out. Evangelicalism has largely ignored the Old Testament and therefore has largely lost a right understanding of the Image of God. Sure we admit via Col. 1:15 that Jesus is the image of the Invisible God the firstborn of all creation. And we also agree that through Christ God is reconciling all things (Col 1:20), but we have lost much of the understanding of how that works or why.

    Humans were created in the image of God. As “image bearers” we were created specifically for a purpose – right rulership over God’s creation. There is a stewardship and reconciliation aspect to this role: we bring God’s word and will to the world around us and order it accordingly, and we treat each other as image-bearers. An affront against another image-bearer is an affront against the image-giver. It is image-bearing that assumes right vertical relationship between God and man and right relationship horizontally between people. Without a right understanding of our role as image-bearers, we will fail in both our understanding of what relationship with God means – it is not merely an emotional attachment, nor dry duty; we are His face, voice, and hands in the world – and we will also fail to understand how we are to do the work that only Christ did perfectly and left us the charge to carry forward; the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18) – the fruit of which is believers displaying love for each other (first) and love to those who do not know God (second) and reconciling these back to God.

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  3. Great thoughts guys. It still amazes me that we all feel this need for community. Here’s another thought:

    It strikes me that when Adam was first in Eden he was alone. This is interesting because he was lonely before the fall.

    I always used to think of loneliness as a product of sin, but maybe it’s more like a tool that God uses to make us aware of our need for community as well as our need for Him.

    Loneliness isn’t a sin. It’s not good, but it is useful. What do you guys think?

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