One hears a lot of discussion of the idea of contextualization of the gospel these days. But I am realizing that there is a HUGE range in what people mean by it. 

 Today I saw an article Contextualization Gone Wild by Walt Scalen. Exerpts:

 Contextualism in its most benign form is simply the attempt to communicate with people who are different. Some degree of cultural accommodation is inevitable; it is largely a matter of courtesy and common sense. Extreme forms of contextualism, however, result in wholesale imitation and ultimately diminish ones own identity. One of the little examined assumptions of the rabid contextualism that is driving many “progressive” evangelical Christians to adopt every conceivable cultural form as a means of evangelism is that cultural forms are considered to be largely neutral. For example, heavy metal music is associated with a relatively well defined youth sub culture. To reach this group, it is assumed that the Gospel message can be carried by such cultural forms as skulls and other death symbols and yet the message remains intact, unscathed and unchanged. Thus, the magic bullet of the New Christianity: the methods change, but the message doesn’t. This idea is wildly popular, repeated ad infinitum on a daily basis by the millions who consider it an unquestioned and absolute edict. From “Jesus Mosques” to reach Moslems to “Jesus Meditation” to reach mystics, there are no limits to which so-called “European Christianity” must be reshaped to fit every conceivable cultural form.

 There are several assumptions on which this line of thinking is based: multiculturalism, relativism, and a simplistic understanding of culture. First, multiculturalism is the position that all cultures are equal because there is no objective standard for evaluating them. This idea is based on philosophical relativism which in its crudest form results in the total absence of standards. Ultimately nothing can be determined to be good or evil because all things are just different. These ideas give rise to the notion of cultural neutrality. Since all cultures are equal, since nothing can be seen as superior or better, ergo, any cultural form can “carry” any cultural idea.

 …..Syncretism has always been the danger of excessive contextualism, but somehow the “we are changing the methods not the message” slogan has so resonated with many Christians anxious to see progress in evangelism and growth in numbers that caution has been thrown to the wind. Assuming that all cultural forms are neutral, almost anything is now “worship,” and virtually any outreach method is appropriate for “fishers of men.” This poignant phrase used by Jesus in Matthew 4:19 is widely taken to mean that people should be “lured” into the Kingdom by any means necessary, even deception, in the same fashion that fisherman in the modern era use “lures” to catch fish. The problem with this view is ironically one of context; the fisherman in Biblical times used nets. This approach had much more to do with location and timing than enticement.

 Theologically and Biblically, the key assumption driving many evangelistic techniques and church growth methods is that the work of the Spirit can be accomplished by the means of the flesh. This notion produces much “strange fire;” however, the proponents of this idea claim prodigious numbers. “It works,” they say, “look at the bottom line, many are converted!” But what are they converted to? Is it possible that the methods used are so overwhelmingly powerful and the message communicated is so distorted, that “converts” are responding to the familiar rather than being transformed by the unfamiliar?….

 Rest of article at

 Last week I was in a remote area and a pastor was preaching at a closing ceremony. He kind of rambled around on various topics, as is common in his denomination, but one topic was how different it was evangelizing among people of his own aggressive ethnic group as opposed to those of the area we were in. He said, “If I am witnesing to a B___ person I can say ‘Sir, you need to repent or you will go to hell. Look at you drinking and smoking! Don’t you realize that is sin? If you don’t repent you will go to hell!’ ” As he said this he was jabbing his finger, pointing at the imaginary person. He continued, “But if I said that to a D___ person here, I would likely get my throat slit! Here you need to have some sort of a relationship first before you can talk like that.” OK, maybe it’s not exactly my style of witnessing but I would say that is an okay type of contextualization. He most definitely was not changing the message!

 Another example I heard of was from a remote area in Papua New Guinea. Despite years of work by evangelists and pastors, and despite a Bible translation project, the people remained unconvinced and continued in their ways. But one day while translating the geneologies in Genesis, the language helper had an “Aha!” moment. He looked at the translator and said, “Do you mean that this book is TRUE?” It was the geneologies that convinced him. After that he cooked up a huge meal and invited the whole village to eat and then declared to them what he had discovered, namely that the Bible was true and they all needed to repent and follow God’s ways. From that point on the church grew. Again, the message was not changed but they now understood it as true and something they needed to act upon.

 So maybe it can be summarized like this:  Do what it takes for people to understand the whole message. But when you change the message, present only part of the message, or overemphasize part of the message, then you have crossed the line.

 Crossing the line may result in numerical “success” and may be immensely satisfying in this life, but being  “rice Christians”, “skin deep Christians”, “ID card Christians” will be of no value in the life to come.


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