Contextualization that ignores or minimizes history and other cultural contexts tends to create cultural snobbery, produce alienation and undermine the broad reach of the gospel. When contextualization is too narrowly defined, people are inevitably left out. Are you contextualizing for 20- to 30-year-olds? What about 60-year-olds? Are you contextualizing for home schoolers? What about parents who send their kids to public school? Are you contextualizing for the arts community? What about brick layers, homemakers and accountants? At the recent Sovereign Grace pastors conference, Kevin DeYoung said that “whoever marries the spirit of this age will become a widow in the next.” Amen. While connecting with the most significant cultural aspects of our church and community, we’re wise to make our people aware of the worldwide and heavenly body of Christ as well.
Contextualizing evangelism practices is different from contextualizing congregational meetings. Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 9:22-23 are often used as a defense for changing the Sunday meeting to make unbelievers feel more welcome.
To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
But Paul is speaking of evangelizing non-Christians, not meeting with the church on Sunday mornings. The purpose of those gatherings is to build up the body of Christ through the spiritual gifts for the glory of God (1 Cor. 12:4-7, 1 Cor. 14:12). If an unbeliever is affected, it will be because he or she realizes what’s happening when the church gathers is different from any other kind of gathering (1 Cor. 14:24-25).
Contextualization is a means, not an end. A while back I was interacting with someone on Twitter who said it’s “confusing when ‘congregational worship’ is used globally. What’s congregational for one is not for another.” I see the point. But passages like 1 Cor. 12 & 14, Col. 3:16-17 and Eph. 5:18-20 give us some basic building blocks that should characterize every gathering of Christians. Churches in Moscow, Beijing, Mumbai, Nairobi, London, Sydney, Santo Domingo and Boise should all gather to hear God’s Word faithfully expounded and preached. Congregations throughout the world should sing and pray. Every meeting and its members should reflect the reality of the new life we share through the gospel of Christ as we anticipate his return.
Leading meetings in a way that people understand should be a priority for pastors and leaders. But let’s make sure contextualization never makes us look and act like something other than what Christ has redeemed us to be—blameless and innocent, shining as lights in the world as we hold fast to the word of life (Phil. 2:15-16).