Relevance Is Not the Primary Goal of ContextualizationBy Brian White
June 23, 2021
Church planting is by nature missional. We’re trying to make more disciples, raise up more leaders and send them out to plant more churches in every context, because that’s what Jesus told us to do. But every people grouping has its own way of considering life. They have their own points of acceptance and rejection of biblical truths. Every culture literally has their own set of heart idols and social barriers. As our mission is to reach people in every culture, we must recognize contextualization as a mission issue and an important aspect of church planting.
In his book Facing the Change: The Challenges and Opportunities of North American Missiology, Terry Coy defines contextualization as “the effort to tell the gospel story in a biblically faithful and culturally relevant way.” Thankfully we are not left without examples of contextualization in the New Testament. In the book of Revelation alone, there are seven churches, seven different contexts, seven different sets of issues John is addressing. Think about the differences between Ephesus or Thessalonica, Jerusalem or Antioch—different contexts, different people, but the same gospel.
When we see Paul exercising contextualization to the believer in Corinth in 1 Corinthians, we see that he did not make relevance his primary goal. He worked to understand the issues that would be stumbling blocks to his listeners, but he never undermined the gospel to avoid those stumbling blocks.
Preach Christ despite the stumbling blocks.
Corinth was a large town on a small sliver of land between the Adriatic and the Aegean Sea. It was absolutely saturated in the world’s wise thinking. The young church was also saturated in sexual immorality, and they were constantly fighting with one another. In 1 Corinthians 1:17, immediately after discussing a fight over who baptized who, Paul quickly moves to the purpose for his ministry: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.”
Yet as Paul assesses the spiritual landscape in Corinth, he has already considered the long-term effectiveness his preaching will have on the audience, writing “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:22). In Center Church, Tim Keller calls this the key contextualization verse. Paul is identifying the way his audience thinks and what they expect. He recognizes that will become the filter through which the gospel proclamation goes.
This is why contextualization is so important. Our listeners will expect certain things of the gospel. They’re going to see certain things and connect it to the gospel, whether I want it or not. Paul recognized how they interpret and evaluate the gospel. Is it coming with signs and wonders? Is it coming through human wisdom? He realizes they would likely reject it if it was not. As Paul surveys the cultural landscape and he knows the worldview or philosophical perspective of his audience, he considers what the typical response will probably be.
Still when it comes to contextualization, you have to know your purpose. It is the same as Paul’s purpose in this context—preach the gospel and to do so in such a way that nothing takes away from it. Your purpose and Paul’s purpose remains the same regardless of the context because the greatest need remains the same in every context, and that is that people would be saved.
I don’t know why you decided you wanted to plant a church. There are all types of reasons why people make that decision, but here’s the bottom-line reason for it right is right here: that people would be saved and grow-up in Jesus.
Yes, our message, just like Paul’s, will encounter roadblocks, but look at 1 Corinthians. 1:23. “But we preach Christ crucified.” In other words, even considering their worldview, even in light of what they may evaluate or interpret, Paul is going to preach Christ.
Recognize the gospel will overcome.
As pastors or church planters run into resistance, some start to prioritize relevance. “Preaching that way will be a stumbling block,” they say. So, in their mind, they work to become more relevant, but in doing so they may accidentally become biblically unfaithful. That’s not contextualization. That’s not what Paul does with the Corinthians. Never forget: revelation always trumps relevance. A message is not contextualized if it deviates from biblical truth.
Paul recognized you could not funnel the message of the cross through the faulty worldviews of your audience. Something must change their worldview. With the Corinthians, he did the hard work of contextualization. He knew his audience, he understood their worldview, he considered how they would receive his message, and he decided on how to present the gospel to them.
Consider Paul’s words at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 2: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.” In other words, “When I stepped into your context, my proclamation was in light of your context, it came with a knowledge of your context, but it did not come according to your context. I preached the gospel not in the way you would typically interpret it, but in the way God would want it to be, so that the message would correct your faulty understanding.” Because of what Paul knows about the context, he chooses to prioritize certain things to confront the idols of his listeners, not to hide the stumbling block that is the message of the cross. He assesses the cultural landscape. He speaks into their context. He thinks about the way they will process his message, but he understands telling the gospel story in a way that is biblical faithful and culturally relevant will naturally transcend any roadblocks. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). However the world interprets the gospel, whatever value they place on it initially, it doesn’t slow down the proclamation because the gospel bears fruit.