My first time in Belfast I walked through a powerful display of art that was created during The Troubles, a 38-year period of sectarian violence and unrest that still echoes through the city today. That weekend I was preaching at a church we were supporting and I was hit with the heavy realization that, while I can speak to human needs and biblical truth, and we spoke the same language (mostly!), I had no real idea what the people in that place had lived through and experienced.
The best preaching is not the polished conference talks we hear, nor the rich theological lectures we read. The best preaching opens God’s Word to bring the beauty, majesty, and truth of the gospel to bear at a particular place, in a particular moment, on the hearts of particular people. The living and active Word of God is not dusty or outdated. Showing how the transcultural truth of the gospel addresses the fears, shame, brokenness, hopes, and dreams of those who hear it is hard work. And it’s the hard work we call contextualization.Real innovation in church planting comes in doing the hard work of understanding the people and the place God has put us as his witnesses. Click To Tweet
Church planters can be some of the most missionally innovative people on earth. But thinking that the biggest need is innovative methods can lead to gimmicky fluff. Real innovation in church planting comes in doing the hard work of understanding the people and the place God has put us as his witnesses. There’s a sweet spot in all of this. We can’t compromise on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. At times our desire to be relevant can edge toward syncretism. On the other hand, our push to avoid syncretism can make us irrelevant.
It will help to define some terms:
- Syncretism is what happens when a desire for relevance leads to abandoning the truth of the gospel. There are obvious examples of this from Christian history, but it can be much more insidious as well. At its root, syncretism baptizes idolatry with Christian terminology. It happens now in partisan politics and sectarianism, in self-help prosperity gospel, or any time we make God’s truth flex to fit into categories imposed on it by human systems.
- Fundamentalism is a separatistic impulse to guard the purity of the gospel by avoiding syncretism. To think we’re unaffected by time and place is a terrible lie. And living as a separatist with no sense of calling to the people around us neglects the church’s call to be a kingdom of priests, to be sojourners and exiles.
- Withdrawal is a third reality for too many, leaving behind the truth of Scripture and its relevance to us and our neighbors. This comes through in cultural Christianity, which empties Christian witness of any power by giving up on both the truth of the gospel and its relevance to people’s lives. It also shows up in deconstructionism.
- Contextualization clings to the truth of the gospel and its transcultural power to reach all people, with the belief that every question will find its ultimate answer in Christ.
The Apostle Paul Contextualized
Everywhere the Apostle Paul went, he lived in the freedom to “Become all things to all people, that by all means [he] might save some” (1Cor. 9:19–23). That missional flexibility shaped the way he interacted with Jews and Greeks, and in cities across the Roman Empire. In the synagogues, Paul was able to walk through Scripture to show how all of it pointed to Jesus and has been fulfilled in him. Outside of the synagogues, that approach wouldn’t have made any sense because the people didn’t care about how the old covenant Jewish Scriptures fit together.
In Athens, we see something more about Paul’s approach (Acts 17). He went into the marketplace to reason with whoever he found there, language that was also used to describe Socrates. He interacted with philosophers, learning how they thought, and quoted their poets. In a short time, Paul was able to see the idolatry of the city yet find common ground without shying away from confronting idols with the gospel.
Contextualizing the Gospel Today
There’s nothing to fear. My city, DC, can look intimidating. I often wonder what God was thinking in calling me here, but I love this place. I love the people in my neighborhood. It isn’t hard to identify our city’s idolatry, but it’s different to press into what stirs people’s hearts. Christ’s gospel speaks to it all. Over time, I’ve learned how to show that in ways people can understand.Learn from other pastors, but don’t replicate their ministries. No one is positioned to understand the hopes and fears of the people where you live better than you are. Click To Tweet
Find your own voice to reach people in your city. God did not call Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, or Eric Mason to your church. He called you. Learn from other pastors, but don’t replicate their ministries. No one is positioned to understand the hopes and fears of the people where you live better than you are. Learn the context, understand the idolatry that underlies the life and rhythms of your place, and then raise well-considered questions to point to the ultimate answer and hope we have in Jesus Christ.
The more you practice the good work of contextualizing the gospel, the less likely you’ll be to fall into the errors of syncretism, fundamentalism, or withdrawal. In time, it becomes more natural and clearer. Whether you’re in an unfamiliar place like Belfast or at home like I am in DC, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).