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.