There’s much discussion taking place these days about the problems in the church. No one is questioning if there are problems. The questions are about how to resolve the problems.
Perhaps the biggest question is the one of contextualization. Like the so-called worship wars of the late 80s and 90s, the battle lines are being drawn between the pro-contextualization forces and the no-contextualization forces. Since the debate is over the nature of the church and her presentation of the Gospel, this battle may be coming soon to a church near and dear to you.
First, a word of clarification: contextualization is any attempt to communicate the Gospel in a manner that is in accord with the culture in which it is presented. Contextualization is nothing new. The church has been doing it for millennia. The church in county seat Arkansas looks nothing like the church in Algiers. Each church represents the unique characteristics of the dominant people group in its locale. That’s contextualization.
The debate, however, has arisen as to how much we can and should contextualize. Can we change the method without changing the message? Some say “yes” we can and must. Others say “no,” arguing that any attempt to do so would violate the message itself.
As happens so often in these types of discussions, both sides are talking and no one is listening. The pro-contextualization camp believes that the church must change our methods, if we’re going to reach the unreached in America. If that means tattoos, tweets, and tom-toms, so be it. The no-contextualization camp retorts that such moves are little more than the ways of the world cleaned up for church. To do so, they believe, is to cease being in the world but not of the world.
I’d like to offer a word of advice/caution/concern/observation for both believers on both sides of this coin.
Contextualization is not capitulation.
First, to the pro-contextualization camp, those who follow or admire the emerging church model: Those who oppose your methods are not opposed to you. They’re for the church. Their heart beats for it. Their opposition is not locked in the past with the traditions. They are worried about the damage that has been done to the bride of Christ in the past and they want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again on their watch.
So, listen to them. You don’t have to agree but you do have to acknowledge their concern. Speaking to the 21st century audience means speaking the 1st century message in the vernacular of today. However, the church is to be in the world but not reflect it. Be careful that you don’t lose your saltiness, in the biblical sense, while appealing to the tastes of the world. Contextualize, we must. Capituate, we can’t.
Second, to the no-contextualization camp: Not all contextualization is capitulation. You contextualize every day. You wear suits and ties, not robes and turbans. Your sermons are amplified not by the natural acoustics of a distant Gallilean hillside but by electronics. Likewise, your worship is accompanied by pianos, guitars, and organs, not pan flutes, lyres, and shofars. You have adopted, without comprising the Gospel, the tools and tastes of your culture. You have contextualized with compromise.
Remember, those who seek to contextualize in ways beyond your comfort zone are not out to destroy the church. They love the bride of Christ as much as you. They love the traditions of the bride, perhaps, a little less. So, don’t be condemning without being discerning. Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Will some make egregious errors? Unfortunately, yes. Will they kill the church? Jesus promises that no one can.
So, let’s work together. Let’s honor Christ’s prayer for unity, unity not in conformity to one model of church but unity in love for the church. Let’s protect the church from the wiles of the world. Let’s project the church to the people of the world. We can, and we must, contextualize but we must never compromise. The Gospel is too important to keep to ourselves. The church is too valuable to surrender to the enemy.