Tuesday, February 10, 2009


What is contextualization? One of the best online descriptions can be found here. (This site is also host to the images below.) It's amazing how obsessed we can become with "contextualization."

We are so quick to jump from the content of the message preached to focus on how the message is being conveyed. Unfortunately, this "jump" usually means we depart from considering the accuracy of the content.

I remember meeting with a pastor of a large church to discuss how their church handled a "transition." Our new (and improved) youth pastor had just arrived and I was moving into the position of teaching pastor. His church had been through a similar transition and I was intrigued to find out how they made it work well and hoped to gain some insight from him. We sat down to talk, and the first thing he said (and the only thing he wanted to discuss) was:

Danny, if your church is going to grow and survive, you must become more seeker-sensitive.

I was amazed at the course of our conversation for a couple of reasons. A) He was not interested in talking about content, at all. Instead, he simply wanted to talk about delivery and style. He was concerned that unless I seek to adjust my ministry in a way that is much more attractive to non-believers, I was going to find my ministry obsolete. B) He's never heard me preach at our church, nor has he ever visited our congregation. Now, this man has had limited exposure to my ministry, but his decision to hammer home this topic must have been born out of something I said when asking him if we could talk. Needless to say, our conversation just didn't really get anywhere.

I've been chewing on this conversation for about two years now. But recently, a couple things have returned the issue of contextualization to the forefront of my mind.

1. Last week, at the Desiring God Pastors' Conference, Matt Chandler did an excellent job in his message: A Shepherd and His Unregenerate Sheep. While I had heard Matt speak a couple other times (in recording, this was the first time in person) and had no reservations from previous messages, the message title had me a little concerned. I feared that we may spend our time speculating and peeping at the lives of Harry and Mary. Instead, Matt did a phenomenal job walking through 1 Timothy 4, looking at the standards Paul lays our for Timothy.

It was so refreshing that Matt did not spend all his time striving to describe and label the society around us. Instead, Matt simply pointed out the message which Christ has called us to preach. Then, in the Q&A session, Chandler answers a question about contextualization with, "Here's how I contextualize, to be honest with you, I will constantly contrast the difference between the gospel and religion. Constantly." Huh? Oddly, the contextualization for Matt Chandler in suburban, large church Dallas/Ft Worth area doesn't sound that different than the contextualization of rural Darke County, nor the contextualization of Catholic/quasi-voodoo/hybrid Dominican Republic. The "context" is men who are in darkness being called to His marvelous light.

2. This week, we had a brother from a Middle Eastern country share with our congregation. After the service, he offered a workshop, with a question and answer time at the end. I asked him:

When attempting to share the truth of the gospel with a Muslim, should we refer to God and Jesus, or is it more profitable to speak of Allah and Isa, since those are the words in the Quran? (I had an opinion before asking the question, but attempted to ask the question in a neutral way, so as not to lead him.)

He looked me straight in the eye, leaned forward, and his first words out of his mouth were:

You Westerners are the only people in the world who are obsessed with "contextualization!"

He went on to describe all the ramble on "contextualization" as "Western Intellectual Arrogance." This man, who truly has lived within the Muslim context, explained to us that if you use the words "Isa" or "Allah" before a Muslim, you will confuse the issue, not clarify it. Yes, you'll feel good about yourself (Look how sensitive I am and how aware of this man's culture. Surely, he and the Lord are impressed by my knowledge.), but the listener will be drawn to think about a god who is not the God of Scripture and a Jesus who is not the Son of God. This will not help issues, but will simply make the lines cloudy. While this brother exhorted us to make sure our evangelism is gentle, respectful and not hostile when sharing with one who has embraced Islam, he also stated when he gets these opportunities he speaks of Jesus and God. He wants the lines to be clear.

Now the typical response you get when you downplay contextualization is an accusation that you do not care about the congregation and are simply interested in your own noise. It will be drawn to ridiculous extremes, citing you as a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. However, these characterizations are false. When I speak at our church, I use English (or a modified Appalachian version of it). When I was in the Dominican, common sense said I should have a Spanish translator. When I use a term or a phrase and see a glazed look in the listener's eye (either in preaching or in congregation), I seek to stop and define the term. A de-emphasis of contextualization does not mean you would go to Kanpur, India and just preach out of English, expecting the listener to understand (though I do not deny that God could miraculously intervene at this moment as He has done before). Speaking the language of the listener is not contextualization, it's simply called common sense.

Instead, when contextualization is done in the name of thinking globally and outside of our own box, we should maybe first ask the question:

Is anyone other than the minister in the west attempting this endeavor? If we are striving to think globally, wouldn't that mean we quit all the fuss on contextualization?


Margaret said...

Danny, if you attempt to grow this church by becoming more seeker-sensitive, I will...I will...well, I don't know what I will do, but it won't be pretty! :)

danny2 said...

you'll do what your husband finds appropriate, right?

praise Him that jerald wouldn't find it pretty either! ;-)

David Mohler said...

Excellent, excellent article.