Keller on Contextualization

Darryl Dash has posted an interview (second of two parts) with Tim Keller (HT: Steve McCoy) that is well worth reading. I thought Keller's answer to the question below was especially wise and helpful.

How do we change in order to contextualize without changing the gospel?

That is the practical question in ministry. If you under-contextualize your ministry and message, no one's life will be changed because they'll be too confused about what you are saying. But if you over-contextualize your ministry and your message, no one's life will be changed because you won't really be confronting them and calling them to make deep change.

If this scares you and you say, "Well then let's not even try it," then you have to remember something: to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there's no avoiding it.

There's far more to say about this subject, but I'll just give you one bit of advice. The gospel is the key. If you don't have a deep grasp on the gospel of grace, you will either over-contextualize because you want so desperately to be liked and popular, or you will under-contextualize because you are self-righteous and proud and so sure you are right about everything. The gospel makes you humble enough to listen and adapt to non-believers, but confident and happy enough that you don't need their approval.


mwh said...

I like what he said about making an idol out of one generation or another's culture. I think that's right on and a real problem.

I had a (chemistry!) professor in college who warned ministry-minded young people about the temptation to think that they had found "wisdom in their own generation." I think about that whenever issues of inter-generational ministry come up.

Tim said...

I really like Keller's lecture on contextualization, it is probably one of my favorites by him.

mwh said...

I like that lecture as well; it's one of my favorites too.

Contextualization is a hard thing, and for conservatives like us can often lead to a type of schizophrenia.

I like what he said about the Gospel being the anchor. The Gospel leads us through to new and fresh packaging of the unchanging truth.

If I ever get around to blog reviewing Blue Parakeet, McKnight discusses this issue with some other creative word pictures.

Unknown said...


I just stumbled across your blog. It's good to see another 30-something (I assume) pastor with three kids in Michigan. I'm a former GR boy, but now serving in the tip of the mitt.


- Josh Gelatt

agolab said...

By the way, you're likely aware of him, but I love Andrew Walls' treatment of contextualization in The Missionary Movement in Christian History.

Regardless, it seems to me that Keller's response eschews the true meaning of contextualization for the Gospel. He is right to say that the Gospel is key, but of course it's key: it's what we're contextualizing. It is the Gospel that is made indigenous to the culture in mission work, integrating the godly and eliminating the unholy.

There isn't, then, any real under- or over- contextualization, only contextualization and not. In one example, there is no effort expended to do so (under-); in the other, it isn't the Gospel which is being contextualized (over-).

Indeed, Keller here doesn't appear to be talking about contextualizing the Gospel. Instead he seems to (unintentionally) show a dangerous over-emphasis on culture. We should not be concerned with contextualizing the culture of the church to that of the missions field (this seems almost idolatrous); instead, we should look to contextualize the Gospel.

Gospel re-contextualization, a translation of the Gospel message emerging from a new cultural context, produces of itself a new God-fearing, missionally relevant church culture capable of preaching the Gospel in a way that society understands. This type of contextualization is rooted in God's efforts and the work of the Gospel in the lives of God's people rather than ours; it is genuine, rather than contrived.