Over the past couple weeks, we have looked at what contextualization is and how it was practiced by one of the most influential characters of the New Testament: the apostle Paul. In wrapping up our journey, we turn now to what it looks like for the Christian to actively and intentionally contextualize their everyday lives for the sake of the Gospel.
Observe And Ask
In the same way we started this conversation three weeks ago, the work of New York City Pastor, Timothy Keller, is insightful at this point. According to Keller, “the first task of contextualization is to immerse yourself in the questions, hopes, and beliefs of the culture so you can give a biblical, gospel-centered response to its questions.” Another way to say this is that lifestyle contextualization is both intentional and observing. Most people go about their daily lives paying little attention to what is actually occurring around them. This level of understanding can be identified as the “factual” level. Growing an awareness of your surroundings and keeping up-to-date with local current events are an easy way to grow in this area.
Strong contextualization, however, does not stop at the factual level of understanding. Rather, it moves deeper to an “ideological” level. At this stage, you are not simply noticing what is going on in your neighborhood, workplace, or city; you are asking, “Why?” “Why do my neighbors dress the way they do?” “Why do my co-workers seem to idolize their jobs?” The key to practicing good contextualization is asking good questions.
As you intentionally observe and ask good questions about your context, you will be better equipped to meaningfully and holistically engage others with the Gospel. In every culture, there exists certain beliefs (Keller calls them “A doctrines”) that appear to be good and closely analogous to biblical teaching. This is due to “common grace,” that is, the grace that was purchased by Jesus on the cross that extends out to the entire world. Though mankind has rebelled against God and the world is in a state of brokenness and sin, the mere fact that we are able to learn about God, flourish in a broken world, and not face immediate judgment is all due to common grace.
On the other hand, every culture also sees some parts of the Gospel and the ethics the Gospel creates as inherently offensive or implausible. Keller calls these “B doctrines,” and they always flow out of the truth found in each A doctrine. Unfortunately, it is these B doctrines that often get the public spotlight and stereotype Christianity within the culture. If Christians are going to adequately engage, overcome, and redeem the obstacles of B doctrines in a given culture, they must first begin with affirming and fulfilling the A doctrines in that same culture. It is always more powerful to engage on the basis of common ground rather than division. This is why we must always fight to be more about what we are for rather than what we are against. Using the common ground of A doctrines that find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, Christians can make a case for the more offensive, B doctrines that logically follow.
Real Life Example
What does this process of contextual engagement actually look like? Let me offer an example as we close. The majority of American, postmodern culture values love. If there is a God, the mindset goes, then he or she must be a God of love. As a Christian, this is something I can readily affirm: “I fully agree! Love is so important and so vital that the God of the Bible even describes himself by saying that he is love. The God of the Bible is a loving God.” This is an A doctrine, something that our culture appreciates and has no problem accepting.
Of course, the preeminence of love in our postmodern culture sees tolerance as its logical outcome. Therefore, the idea that God is wrathful, jealous for our worship, and sends people who don’t follow him to hell is utterly detestable to our society. “How can God be loving and still send people to hell?” This is a B doctrine.
Building off of the A doctrine that God values love and is loving in order to engage the B doctrine that God’s judgment is unloving might look something like this:
Yes, God is loving, and he is also just. We would agree that a parent loves their children, right? But do they not still discipline them? When parents see that something is harmful to their child whom they love, would they not stop at all costs to fight against that harmful thing? A child may cry when their father pulls their hand away from the stove when they’re wanting to play with it, not realizing the father is actually lovingly caring for them in the process. In the same way, God wars against sin because he knows it is harmful to his children whom he loves. Though his children may want to touch the stove, the father continually tries to pull their hands away from the fire. Yet, each person can only disobey their father for so long before they eventually get what they wished far, much to the father’s dismay.
Contextualization is both practical and ideological, intentional and relational. It takes great effort to know your context well enough to properly speak the gospel into it. Yet, as the apostle Paul and countless others throughout Church history have made clear, demonstrating the culturally transcending nature of an intimate and relational Gospel message brings the story and purpose of Jesus into clearer focus.