Monday, March 05, 2007

Contextualizing the Gospel

Recently in my Perspectives course we finished an emphasis focused upon how missionaries are to go about contextualizing the gospel for different cultures. It was an interesting and insightful section that helped me to put a familiar strategy into a different light. Let me explain…

I grew up as a Christian in the wake of the “seeker” movement in the United States. As a young Christian I remembered how the “big new idea” for churches was to become relevant and intentional with reaching the culture around us. As I think back on those days I can’t help but ask with a hint of sarcasm, “why was the concept of relevant ministry considered such a hip new thing?” Our need to contextualize (make relevant) the gospel message is not a new idea! It is a foundational concept in the book of Acts and most clearly stated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” For centuries missionaries from Raymond Lull in the 13th century all the way to Hudson Taylor in the 19th century were doing it. Mission training goes to great length to help missionaries understand how to reach foreign cultures by contextualizing the gospel and doing it in such a way as to avoid syncretism (the improper convergence of Christianity with false belief) and other negative consequences that can come from ineffective contextualization.

So, why was such an old idea hailed as such a “new idea” in the last few decades? I think it is because Christians, if left unchallenged, will always evolve into self-centered, self-sustaining, closed communities that are more concerned with disciple maintenance and Christian fellowship than they are missional expansion; consequently, the “seeker movement” of the 80’s was the “new thing” because the church had allowed itself to become ingrown and ineffective at reaching lost people.

This is a passion of mine for two reasons. One, because any child finishing a Sunday School lesson on the great commission in Matthew 28:19 could tell you that Jesus final exhortation for believers was to GO and share the gospel! The missional purpose of the church is un-debatable and un-deniable; therefore, the cause of seeking and saving the lost must resonate deeply within every true Christian faith community. The second passion (maybe better stated, concern) I have is that today’s evangelical church must pay attention to the postmodern cultural shift that is taking place around us. If we take our eyes for one moment off of our missional calling, we risk not having the necessary fortitude to resist the colonizing and institutionalizing of our faith that often happens within a church where biblical mission is neglected. If we aren’t careful, we will become less and less effective at translating the timeless message of the gospel for new generations and we will once again need a “new and hip” way to do what we’ve been called to do since the beginning of the church age.

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