Contextualization & Church Ministry: Seven Ingredients
I would define biblical accommodation as a self-conscious and self-denying accommodation of the gospel messenger and the gospel message in biblically informed ways in order to enhance the gospel’s intelligibility and to remove any unnecessary obstacles that may prevent the target audience from hearing, understanding and/or receiving the gospel. Below I explain and expound the seven elements that make up this definition.
It’s not something that just happens. In fact, for those of us who don’t like change, it doesn’t come naturally. We have to think about it. We have to consciously work at implementing it.
Isn’t that the context of Paul’s teaching? He had certain rights as a Christian and an apostle (1 Cor 9:1-12a). And like the rest of us, he probably had certain preferences. But Paul was willing to set aside his own rights and preferences in order to accommodate himself to the scruples or prejudices or preferences of his target audience (1 Cor 9:12b-23).
So contextualization is not so much about my preference or your preference. It’s about you and me being willing to sacrifice our preferences if necessary in order to minister to others in need.
Hence, biblical contextualization will not be attractive either to the cultural “stick-in-the-mud,” on the one hand, or to the cultural “chameleon,” on the other hand. The former doesn’t personally like change and, therefore, he selfishly resists it. The latter loves to transition from one cultural trend to another. But his love for change isn’t necessarily rooted in a concern to win sinners to Christ. It’s more about having things his way.
What the cultural “stick-in-the-mud” and the cultural “chameleon” share in common is a tendency to elevate their own personal preference to such a degree that it hinders their ability to step out of their “comfort zones” in order to engage the lost. Neither mindset is helpful or Christlike. This is the case because biblical contextualization is not primarily about finding our comfort zone; it’s primarily about developing a willingness to step out of our comfort zone, if necessary, in order to gain an opportunity to share the gospel with those in need.
It involves “the accommodation of the gospel messenger and the gospel message.”
This brings us to the real crux of the definition. What precisely is Paul calling us, by way of example and exhortation, to accommodate?
More narrowly defined
From the immediate context, Paul seems to identify himself as the object of accommodation. He uses such phrases as “I have made myself” or “I became” (9:19-22). Hence, it would seem that Paul altered himself. The object of accommodation or contextualization is the gospel messenger.1 But what exactly is meant by the alteration and accommodation of the messenger?
From the larger context (chs. 8-10), we can discern some particular areas where Paul sought to adapt to his target audience.
First, Paul sought to accommodate or adapt to certain religious scruples or superstitions (at least in a provisional and temporary way) so long as it didn’t require him to compromise the truth of the gospel. Hence, Paul would avoid eating certain foods that had been associated with idolatry depending on the circumstances and situation (see 8:7-18 and 10:14-29).
Second, Paul also sought to forgo voluntarily certain personal liberties when he suspected he might violate certain social phobias or prejudices, such as receiving financial remuneration for his teaching (see 9:4-18).
It’s important to note that both religious scruples or superstitions and also social phobias or prejudices could be classified as beliefs of the “weak conscience.” It’s also important to note that Paul’s decisions to forgo his freedoms were situational and provisional rather than absolute and perpetual.2
In sum, Paul seems to be talking about changes and adaptations that were cultic or cultural, and that were circumstantial to gospel truth rather than essential. We could say that Paul accommodated in terms of religious custom or social conduct in certain contexts when appropriate.3
More broadly defined
But I don’t believe Paul’s principle of contextualization stops there. In other words, I don’t think we should limit Paul’s accommodation principle to the specific applications in this context. There are reasons to believe Paul is articulating a broad principle that has multiple forms of application.
First, Paul makes a pretty sweeping statement in verse 22: he is willing to employ “all means” in order to save some. Of course, we know Paul isn’t including sinful, unbiblical, or unprincipled means in that statement. The “means” Paul was willing to employ had to be “lawful,” “edifying,” and that which promoted the “good” of those to whom he ministered (10:23-24). Furthermore, the “means” had to be consistent with advancing the “glory of God” (10:31).
Second, Paul doesn’t limit himself to the religious or social customs of “eating or drinking.” He adds a phrase in verse 31: “whatever you do, do it for the glory of God” (emphasis mine). Then in the next verse (10:32) he goes on to say, “just as I try to please everyone in everything I do” (emphasis mine). In other words, Paul is articulating principles that are broader than the particular instances or applications he makes in these chapters. There may be other biblical and principled ways Paul would adapt to Jews and to Greeks in order to remove any obstacles that might prevent them from hearing, understanding, and believing the gospel.
Third, and most importantly, we find that Paul actually does more than adapt his conduct or manners when seeking to reach people. For example, Paul also adapted his evangelistic “methods” or “strategies” to the audience he was trying to reach. When seeking to reach Jews, Paul usually headed to the synagogue (see Acts 9:20; 13:14-15; 14:1; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8). But the synagogue was not a great place to reach Gentiles. So after spending some time ministering in the synagogue, Paul would go to “the marketplace” (Acts 17:17-19). In at least one case, Paul was invited to share the gospel in the academic halls of the Areopagus (Acts 17:19-34). God also gave Paul the opportunity to engage in a “prison outreach” at different points in his ministry (Acts 16:23-31; 23:11; 24:27; 26:32; 28:16-31; Eph 3:1; Phil 1:7; Col 4:3, 18).
Now we don’t have to mimic precisely or limit ourselves to the exact methods or strategies of Paul in order to be biblical. You’re not required to begin your evangelistic efforts in the local synagogue and then follow up by heading to the grocery store or flea market. Such a specific strategy may be useful in your context, or it may not. My point, however, is that the principle of “becoming all things to all men” articulated in 1 Corinthians 9 is broad enough to allow us some flexibility in our evangelistic methodologies and strategies.
For instance, I’m unaware of any explicit reference in the NT to “Vacation Bible School” or to nursing home ministries or to college outreach. Yet I think we have flexibility in these areas to adapt to different audiences we may be trying to reach.
What’s more, Paul also adapted the gospel “message” in terms of its language, structure, and emphases. I’m not suggesting that Paul altered the storyline of the Bible or changed the truth of the gospel. But he did strive to speak in a way that was intelligible to his target audience. That required him not only to speak in their language but also to be selective in his choice of vocabulary, imagery, and illustrations. It also required him to adjust his sermon structure and applications. This was all part of becoming a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks.4
Indeed, I believe Paul’s contextualization principle even allows for some degree of flexibility with respect to the “medium of communication.” When possible, Paul shared the gospel audibly and in person whether in public or private venues. But Paul also widened his gospel ministry by preaching in absentia using the medium of written communication. He alludes to this two-fold approach in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians where he writes, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2:15; emphasis added).
To summarize, the object of accommodation includes both the messenger himself as well as the message he proclaims. When appropriate, the messenger accommodates his conduct and manners to the religious scruples or social expectations of his target audience. Moreover, his evangelistic methodologies and strategies may vary depending on the people he’s trying to reach and venues in which he finds them. Furthermore, the messenger will also endeavor to adapt the message to his audience in terms of his language, structure, emphases, and medium.
It’s adapting “in ways that are biblically informed.”
Once again, I want to stress that biblical contextualization is antithetical to compromise. We agree with Charles Hodge when he asserts, “No one was more yielding in matters of indifference, no one was more unyielding in matters of principle than this apostle.”5 Thus, we are in no way suggesting that we throw biblical principle to the wind when seeking to adapt to our target audience.
When we speak of the messenger adapting, we’re not suggesting that he become a gangster in order to get accepted into “the hood.” We’re not insinuating that a missionary to the Mormons should become a polygamist or that a Christian who wants to reach drug addicts should himself become a “crackhead.” Contextualization entails becoming like the world in right ways, but it never entails becoming like the world in wrong ways.
When we speak of adapting the message, we’re not advocating such ideas as adding the Qur’an to our canon in order to win the Muslim. We’re not condoning the approach that portrays the gospel as a postmodern “ball of wax” so that young “freethinkers” can shape it in a way that suits their sinful lifestyle. As Darrin Patrick points out, “Contextualization is speaking to people with their terms, not on their terms.”6
What does it mean to speak to people “with [or in] their terms” but not “on their terms”? We’ll answer this question more fully in our next lecture. For now, let me suggest the following: I believe it means speaking the unchanging truths of the gospel to our target audience in a language they understand and in ways that are suited to their mental capacity and “universe of experience.”7 The purpose is not to blur the “biblical-ness” of our message but to make the gospel more intelligible and to show its relevance to those we’re trying to reach.8 In the words of Timothy Keller,
Contextualization is not—as is often argued—“giving people what they want to hear.” Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them (emphasis his).9
It seeks to remove “unnecessary obstacles” that may prevent our target audience from hearing, understanding, and/or receiving the gospel.
It’s not concerned about removing “obstacles” that are inherent to the very gospel itself. The gospel isn’t the gospel without the doctrines of sin, God’s wrath, the eternal punishment, the vicarious atonement, repentance, the bodily resurrection, or the call to holy living. All of these doctrines are to varying degrees offensive to our target audience. We can’t change that nor should we try.
Nevertheless, we should be willing to remove any unnecessary obstacles or unnecessary offenses in order to gain a hearing for the gospel. Paul was willing to sacrifice some of his rights and freedoms in order to remove “an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (9:12). He enjoined his readers to endeavor to “give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the Church of God” but to follow his example in seeking “to please everyone in everything … that they may be saved” (10:32-33).10
Here in the South Carolina many southerners still like to display the Confederate flag. You’ll see it draped on bedroom walls, pasted on car bumpers, and even lifted on a pole in some public places. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if some local churches displayed “Old Dixie” somewhere on their grounds.
Personally, I may have the liberty to display the Confederate flag. And I might persuade some Christians that it would be acceptable to display the Confederate flag somewhere in our church facilities, perhaps even in the “sanctuary”! Doing so might actually draw a certain group of people in our area to our church.
However, I would not exercise that liberty. Even though that flag represents are some things that are noble, it also represents some things that are not so noble—at least in the minds of many people. And frankly, those people who are offended by “Old Dixie” are some of the very people I’d like to see our church win to Christ.
It seeks to know its audience.
Paul had to know what Jews were like in order to “become as a Jew.” (Of course, in Paul’s case he didn’t have to do a lot of research since he’d grown up a Jew.) Paul had to learn about the Gentiles—their languages, their customs, and their cultures—in order to “become as a Gentile.” And Paul had to become acquainted with the various scruples and cultural prejudices of “weak” people, which were largely due to ignorance, in order to accommodate himself (at least temporarily) to their weaknesses.
This is pretty basic stuff for missionaries. When they go to a foreign country, they study the language, the people, and the culture. For instance, every time I have visited Mexico or the Dominican Republic or Colombia, I’ve try to improve my Spanish so I can better to communicate. I endeavor to enjoy their food (which usually isn’t hard) and to get a better feel for their customs and culture so that I can relate to them more effectively.
We need to do the same thing with respect to the target audiences we want to reach here at home—whether young people, old people, black people, white people, Hispanic people, single moms, orphaned children, rich people, poor people, city folk, country folk, etc. It’s not enough to study the Bible; we’ve got to exegete our audience and culture.
Of course, it’s possible to spend too much time studying culture and not enough time studying the Bible. Arturo Azurdia refers to this as “cultural gluttony,” which is “the consequence of being missional without being theological.” But he warns of the opposite extreme: “cultural anorexia,” which is “the consequence of being theological without being missional.”11
In my opinion, those of us who minister in the Reformed tradition more often struggle with the latter than the former. We spend plenty of time exegeting the Hebrew and the Greek and the Puritans. But we don’t always spend a sufficient amount of time exegeting the culture into which we’re seeking to “import” the biblical message. As a result, we sometimes fail to do what John Stott describes as the task of the preacher. Namely, to build for our audience a bridge “between two worlds.”12
If we’re going to be more effective in communicating to a lost world as preachers and as a church, we need to spend time getting to know our audience and the world in which they live.13
It has as its goal man’s good for God’s glory.
We don’t accommodate because it’s the latest evangelical fad or because we want to be popular or because we want to in fashion or because we want to have fun. We accommodate in order to gain a wider hearing for the gospel and to make that gospel more intelligible with the following interrelated goals in view:
That more sinners might be saved
As we’ve seen, this was Paul’s obvious burden. “I become like the unsaved people I’m trying to win in order that they might be saved.” Our goal isn’t just to increase the number of friends we have on Facebook. Our goal isn’t just to get unsaved people to like us. Our goal is to become like them in certain appropriate ways in order that they might become like us in terms of becoming disciples of Christ.
That more saints might be edified
Biblical contextualization can also have application to our ministry to one another (1 Cor 10:23, 32; 14:1-26). In order to maximize the edification that takes place in our church, we need to learn to accommodate ourselves to the various subgroups within our churches. The young need to learn to become like the old. The old need to learn how to become like the young. The rich to the poor; the poor to the rich. The married to the singles; the singles to the married; the white to the black; the black to the white; and so on (see Phil 2:1-4).
That God might be more glorified
Here it is where some well-meaning Christians stumble. Some brothers seem absolutely convinced that accommodating ourselves to the lost in order to win them is incompatible with glorifying God. They view such accommodation as the abandonment of a God-centered theology and adoption of a man-centered theology.
Is that true? Not necessarily. Notice how Paul connects a passion for the glory of God to a passion for the good of sinners:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved (1 Cor. 10:31-33).
The first and second greatest commandments are not antithetical but complementary. Loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbor as ourselves fit together, and they summarize our entire moral and spiritual obligation to God (Matt 22:35-40).
We began this study on contextualization by emphasizing its importance (Part 1) and by summarizing the basic idea (Part 2). Then we sought to distinguish biblical contextualization from forms of compromise (Part 3). In this post we’ve endeavored to provide and develop a positive definition. In the next series of studies related to this topic, we’ll focus our attention on contextualizing the actual message of the gospel, offering some practical suggestions. Finally, we’ll consider the place technology has in church ministry, which has a lot to do with contextualizing the medium of our gospel message.
- Obviously, we know Paul can’t be talking about a metaphysical or ethnic change. Paul didn’t really change who he was. He didn’t become a mouse or a bird or an angel from heaven. He was and always would be a human and a particular one at that. Moreover, Paul was a Jew, not a Gentile. He couldn’t really change his ethnicity. Furthermore, Paul did not change ethically. It wasn’t as if Paul acted righteously in some situations but sinfully in others. In every situation and in every endeavor, Paul always sought to live in submission to those unchanging aspects of God’s moral law (9:21) and to promote God’s glory (10:31). Finally, Paul did not change evangelically. That is, he never made any adaptations or accommodations that compromised the gospel since the very changes Paul made were for “the sake of the gospel” (9:23). [↩]
- Thus, Paul’s seemingly absolute statement, “I will never eat meat” (KJV: “I will eat no flesh while the world standeth”) should be interpreted as hypothetical or theoretical (compare with his remark in Romans 9:3). In one sense, Paul really meant it. But in another sense, Paul didn’t expect to be in such situations indefinitely and universally. There were times Paul would be around Gentiles and wouldn’t have to refuse pork and be “kosher,” for example. Paul suggests such when he tells the Corinthians that there will be times when they actually should use their liberty (1 Cor 10:25-27). Indeed, when Paul found himself in situations where people were elevating their religious scruples or social prejudices to the level of essential truth to be affirmed in order to be saved, Paul intentionally DID NOT ACCOMODATE himself in order to protect the purity of the gospel. For example, Paul refused to circumcise Titus in order accommodate the Judaizers’ expectations (Gal 2:1-5). What’s more, Paul rebuked Peter for caving in to the Judaizers’ expectations and thereby compromising gospel liberty (Gal 2:11-14). We might view Peter’s “becoming as a Jew to the Jews” as an “unprincipled” form of accommodation in that situation since it compromised the essence of the gospel. [↩]
- John Calvin has this form of contextualization in mind when he writes the following: “[The Master] did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended on the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages) … Because he has taught nothing specifically, and because these things are not necessary for salvation, and for the upbuilding of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age, it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones. Indeed, I admit that we ought not to change into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause. But love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe.” Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 2:1208. The Westminster Confession also alludes to this kind of contextualization when it affirms that “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (1.6). [↩]
- Many scholars have noted the differences in Paul’s gospel presentation to Jewish audiences, which assumed a knowledge of the Scriptures and included quotations from the Old Testament (Acts 13:15ff.; Acts 17:2-3, 11), and his presentation to predominantly Gentile audiences, which did not assume a knowledge of the Scriptures and often began with general revelation (Acts 14:15-17; 17:22ff.). For a brief summary of the continuities and contrasts, see Keller, Center Church, 112-14. For a fuller analysis see Jay E. Adams, Audience Adaptations in the Sermons of Paul, vol. 2 of Studies in Preaching (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976). [↩]
- A Commentary on 1 & 2 Corinthians (1857-59; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 163-64. [↩]
- Church Planter: The Man, the Message, the Mission (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 195. [↩]
- By “universe of experience,” I’m not referring to some “New Age” concept! Universe of experience simply refers to a person’s sphere of knowledge and experience. For example, algebra and calculus are not part of my “universe of experience” because I’ve never been taught algebra or calculus. Consequently, when I see “x = y minus z to the 2nd power” I have no idea what that means. If you were trying to preach the gospel to me, you’d probably be unwise to fill your sermon with nothing but illustrations from algebra and calculus. Now deer hunting is part of my universe of knowledge. So you can use hunting illustrations, and I’ll get the point. [↩]
- Mark Driscoll makes an important distinction when he writes, “Contextualization is not making the gospel relevant, but showing the relevance of the gospel.” Emphasis added; Vintage Church: Timeless Truths and Timely Methods (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), 228. [↩]
- Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 89. [↩]
- Of course, Paul wasn’t denying the “spiritual inability” of the unbeliever to truly understand and savingly embrace gospel truth. But this is not so much an ontological inability as it is an ethical inability. As the unbeliever Mark Twain once remarked, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Hence, it’s possible to make the gospel intelligible to the unbeliever at one level while depending completely on the Holy Spirit to make it intelligible (and attractive) at a deeper level. I’ll address this in more detail in the next series entitled “Communication That Connects.” [↩]
- Emphasis his; Connected Christianity: Engaging Culture without Compromise (Ross-shire, U.K.: Christian Focus, 2009), 25-27. [↩]
- The title of Stott’s book on effective preaching in which he argues that the preacher stands in the gap between the world of the Bible and the modern world of the people to whom he ministers. It is the preacher’s task to bridge the chasm so that modern culture may be confronted with the timeless truths of the Bible. Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982). [↩]
- Practically, we need to spend time with people. While personal contact is usually better, social networking is also a way to connect in our modern world. We should also endeavor to keep up with the most important events in international, national, and local news. Moreover, investing time in studying the history and culture of the particular region and city in which we minister can increase our knowledge of the people we’re trying to reach. [↩]