You have heard me say that "the how of ministry is in many ways determined by the who, when, and where of culture." What you name a church, how long a worship gathering lasts, the way a church will develop leadership, and much more, is shaped in part by culture. So it's important to think in terms of a contextualization spectrum. When it comes to contextualization, everybody has a point where they think contextualization has gone too far, while others will say it is not far enough. So there is a spectrum with little to no contextualization on one end (actually zero contextualization is impossible), and total contextualization on the other end. To help mark degrees within the spectrum we could use a scale, say C1 to C6, as mentioned in an earlier post.
I care about contextualization because I care about clear gospel proclamation. I care about the church. And, I think that many biblically-driven churches need to think deeply and their context to engage it effective. Tim Keller is right when he says:
A looming crisis for all American evangelical churches is that they cannot thrive outside of the shrinking enclaves of conservative and traditional people and culture. We have not created the new ministry and communication... models that will flourish and grow in the coming post-Christian very secular Western world. Our vision should be to develop campus ministries, new churches, Christian education/discipleship systems that are effective in those fields in North America.
In other words, we need contextualization.
There are some leaders who would say they are against contextualization, and we might put them on the scale at C1. Of course I think it's kind of strange to say, "I don't believe in engaging culture or contextualization" while wearing a suit that became popular 50 years ago, singing music that became popular 100 years ago on an instrument that became popular 300 years ago on furniture that became popular 600 years ago. But, for the sake of discussion, we can put such a person at C1.
On the other end of the spectrum (perhaps at C6) I would place many of the popular preachers of hope and prosperity who have over-contextualized to boomer culture and no longer communicate a discernible gospel.
But, everyone is on that scale somewhere. For what it is worth, I think that the "sweet spot" is C4 contextualization and I talk about that a bit here. And here is a helpful application of that scale to the emerging church conversation.
The difference is really between obscurantism and syncretism. Dean Gililand argues that "obscurantism is when you're so attached to your ways of practicing and teaching the faith that you veil its truth and power from those who are trying to see it through very different eyes."
For example, hundreds of years ago missionaries went to Hawaii to plant churches. And they showed up, looking like missionaries. You know, the women had the hoop skirts and the bonnets, and the men had the black suits and the big black Bibles. And the Hawaiians looked like Hawaiians. The women wore grass skirts, and both men and women were showing a lot more skin that the missionaries. The gospel was preached, and people were converted. But what happened is that men and women were not only converted to Jesus, but to a form of Christianity that included church buildings with steeples, hoop skirts and black suits. Soon everyone in Hawaii knew that to become a Christian included many non-essential issues. How do you become a Christian? Change your clothes. That's obscurantism.
On the other hand, syncretism is when we wind up blending elements of the faith with culture in such a way that results in the loss of biblical distinctives. So I would say that when you mix "positive thinking" with Christianity you end up with a syncretistic expression that basically says God is there to help you do better, and if you follow God you will be blessed financially.
One of my concerns is that there are huge numbers of people who think, "Don't worry about all that contextualization stuff. Just preach the gospel and love people." Of course, we need to preach the gospel and love people, but I think if we took two missionaries and sent them to the Pokot in Africa, and we taught one of them to preach the gospel, love people, and understand the context and communicate in contextually appropriate ways, and we sent another missionary and said, "Preach the gospel and love people," I think the first missionary would have a greater impact than the second missionary. Fewer people are reached with the gospel by the second missionary because fewer can understand it and interact with the truth of that gospel.
As Tim Keller explained, "Contextualization is not giving people what they want. It is giving God's answers (which they probably do not want) to the questions they are asking and in forms they can comprehend." (For more of Keller's helpful insights on contextualization, see his lectures at Covenant Seminary - main session, breakout part 1 and part 2.)
My second concern is that there are huge numbers of people who work at contextualization carelessly, and without a well-developed theological grid. They can gather a crowd, and move a congregation, but despite the numbers fewer people are impacted with the gospel because it isn't the main point.
So the question is, how do you go far enough without going too far? It isn't easy, and we all will make mistakes in one direction or another. A lot could be said, but I would encourage you to be doing three things.
1. Honest evaluation.
We should consider the contextualization spectrum, and avoid just placing ourselves in the middle. Some honest, humble self-evaluation, and some outside evaluation would be helpful. How far is too far is an important question. But, how far is NOT FAR ENOUGH is also an important question.
My experience is that people tend to fear one or the other - obscurantism (or not being able to connect with the culture) or syncretism (losing the gospel and truth to the culture). Both need to be our concern - but when you are more concerned about one, you almost always fall into the other.
2. Read church history.
Much of what you do in your worship was controversial or considered too far at some point in the past. Just music alone is enough to help you think through some of the issues. Can we sing songs not in the psalter? What about musical instruments? That was hotly debated a few hundred years ago, and of course, many Christians were against it. And once you okay musical instruments, which ones are acceptable? Reading how the church has handled the issue of culture historically will help you think through your own church and culture issues (and music is just one easy to see example).
3. Stay on point.
Finally, the most important and necessary thing is serious, biblical discernment and the maintenance of gospel-centrality. Biblical discernment will guard you against access, and gospel-centrality will push you forward on mission to reach the people God has sent you to.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.