5 Principles of Faithful Contextualization
When God called me into church planting about fifteen years ago, I was concerned I would quickly get over my skis. If you're unfamiliar with that phrase, it’s used when people are skiing down the hill at frightening speed, they get a little off balance and try to adjust. When the skier over-corrects, what happens next is usually a spectacular failure.
In church planting, the over-the-skis failure usually happens because of a lack of knowledge, a lack of adaptability, overconfidence, or some combination of those things. I realized there were skills I didn't have. There were things I didn't know, and practices and patterns within church life that I wasn't well versed in. I was prepared to make mistakes in those areas, but not contextualization.
My wife and I were planting in an area that we had lived in for a few years and thought we knew very well. We were planting on the north side of Indianapolis—white middle to upper class, suburban, conservative, moral Indiana. I believed I knew and would be ready to preach the gospel and shepherd those people. I thought I was ready to see how the gospel and the surrounding culture would collide. It really didn't seem to be that hard. We weren't going to the urban core. We weren't going to the small rural town. We weren't going to the university campus. What can be easier than planting in the suburbs of Indianapolis? Our experience since that time, however, has shown us that one of the problems there and in every setting is contextualization.
Since 2006, when our launch team began to come together, there have been over 35 church plants on the north side of Indianapolis. Today, only five of them still exist. There are a lot of different reasons why churches make it and why they don’t, but in our setting in particular, a big part of it is contextualization. It really, really matters that you have the right person in the right context with the right understandings, preaching the right message with right clarity.
It really, really matters that you have the right person in the right context with the right understandings, preaching the right message with right clarity.
The issue of contextualization is present everywhere and that's largely because every culture, every subculture has its own mental views of things.
So, as you think about contextualization for your church in your context, there are five principles to keep in mind.
Intentional contextualization means I have a knowledge of my audience. I assess the cultural landscape, how they live, what they think about, how they're going to hear the gospel, how they're going to interpret it. I begin to ask, “What are the roadblocks we're going to run into? What's the probable response?” That's knowledge and the first step to contextualizing your message.
Part of this is often difficult for church planters, in particular, to understand. You are called into an existing context. You're not called to change the context. You're called to preach the unchanging gospel in the context so that the Holy Spirit will change the hearers forever. That all starts with having knowledge, with knowing the people around you.
Intentional contextualization means I have a presence in the context of my audience. Before I can come in preach to these people, I have to come in and be with them. In church planting, we come and live in the area. It's presence. It's proximity. Because you are there with the people, you can gain knowledge that only comes because of presence. That knowledge and presence enables you to proclaim.
We preach Christ. May it be never said that we stand up to preach anything but Christ. If we don't have Christ to preach, let us not stand up. We proclaim the gospel into the context of our listeners. Preach Christ and trust in the work of the gospel. Trust the Holy Spirit to do what only the Holy Spirit can do. As we gain knowledge of the context that flows from our presence, we have the ability to proclaim Christ, that leaves us with a choice.
You have a choice to present the gospel, proclaim the gospel, and live out the gospel in a way that connects in the culture. Intentional contextualization means I'm making choices to connect the gospel rightly, biblically, and faithfully to the audience. I can decide to consistently live out a ministry philosophy. I can live out a method that doesn't compromise my theology, but rather illustrates that theology to those watching me. I have that choice, but choice will always lead you back to the final principle of contextualization: priority.
If it all falls apart, if every method and concept fails, what's the one thing you must do? You must come to this priority: preach the cross. Yes, preaching of the cross is foolishness to the human mind and heart, but it is the only thing that can change those hearts and minds forever. The priority is to preach Christ crucified through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The priority is to preach Christ crucified through the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is a spiritual endeavor, and the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man.
As you work out the principles of knowledge, presence, proclamation, choice, and priority, you will begin to implement good contextualization. This will lead to addressing contextual idols through the proclamation of truth. You can only address those idols if you know your context and speak truth into that context. This will correct wrong understandings and assumptions. To continually help build bridges from the way the people around you think to the truth of the gospel use illustrations, reasoning, and applications. As people begin to grasp this truth, call for repentance. Ask the Holy spirit to be at work. If we are faithful to preach the word by the power of the Spirit in different settings and context, leaders will be reproduced, and churches will be multiplied. That is the result of the faithful contextualization of the gospel.
If you are an aspiring church planter, find out if GCC is your right network partner.