Together for the Underestimated Gospel – Panel: Contextualization of the Gospel

Dever: How do Evangelicals around you in Dallas do contextualization well?

Chandler: I think primarily if you're talking about contextualization, you're asking how do you remove the barriers. We have more older brother types, people who believe they're Christians. We have our witches and warlocks but more older brothers. In Dallas, you have to come pretty aggressively after, "These things don't make you a believer." I think you have to come after it more aggressively than you would in Seattle or New York where that wouldn't be the dominant culture. I think there are places you can't be as aggressive. If I'm in the UK, I need to be me, but I need to be a more careful me.

Dever: Pastor DeYoung in Michigan, would you say your church is as good at contextualization as The Village Church?

DeYoung: I'm sure we do contextualization, although I don't think that's what people would say we're good at. I don't do anything consciously to contextualize the Gospel, but I'm sure we do subconsciously. I do hope that the ministry that I and otehrs have in our church that we are listening to people and the jobs they have, the struggles they have. I'm much more interested in learning what they're trying to say than I am by trying to exegete the culture. I want to hear what they're saying. I want to think of contextualization in terms of what are the edges I need to rub against, all within what the Bible says is true. By and large I think people would come and think we're not working nearly as hard at contextualization.

Dever: But you would agree that even in your sermon illustrations you are contextualizing.

DeYoung: Yes, there are sermon illustrations that just come. You're hitting 40% of the people sometimes based on where someone is born, when they were born, etc.

Dever: Earlier I was talking about the transience of DC, and I have to be careful that when I'm talking publically I don't characterize the whole of DC in that way, because it's not.

Thabiti: I think a lot of things culturally are freighted in that word. In a church with 30 nationalities, I'm trying to study to be plain with the text. People won't get teh same cultural references, doesn't mean I'm not doing any contextualization.

Chandler: I think what both of you have described is contextualization. You're trying to figure out how to contextualize the Gospel to the people you have.

Dever: I'm gonna call dad in in just a second. I've just got to let the kids get all the toys out. Thabiti, what I'm trying to find out is what you're not cool with.

Thabiti: Matt says contextualization is at least what I'm talking about, but it may also be more than that. So that's what I may be concerned about.

Chandler: There are places stylistically that I have to be careful. I hit people hard. The harder the better where I am, but I have to be careful with that in other places. ANd then you can get into dress and making sure you look one way as opposed to another way.

Thabiti: I'm comfortable with that. THe first thing you have to know about communication is knowing the culture. I'm in a place that places a high emphasis on civility. Coming from DC, I wasn't used to that. So the congregation has had to teach me how to preach. THere's loaded language around that term on how to exegete and engage the culture. On one level I'm nodding along. On another level, I don't think we're good at thinking about the deep structural part of culture. I think we have to be c areful about what we adopt.

Mohler: We have to get out a couple of Gospel principles. We don't want to be offensive for the wrong reason. We don't want to be unnecessarily offensive to outsiders or to brothers and sisters in the church. If we have Muslim neighbors, we don't serve them ham for dinner. That's just common sense, it's not contextualization in some formal sense, but it is contextualization. The conversation started in missiological circles, where a lot of mischief has started, which is part of where our concern is.

I think we remove anything unnecessary that is offensive, but we run into trouble when we start to use cultural mechanisms to attract people to us, that is when we begin to run into trouble. As if some thing in teh culture could help the Gospel.

We're all doing it. It's just part of life. My fear is when we turn it into a missiological principle.

Chandler: On some level, you have to exegete culture to know what the offenses are. In other places culture can be helpful. Think about Paul and the unknown gods. Paul redeems culture to spread the Gospel.

Mohler: Here's Paul, who's not a complete stranger to Athenian culture. He was able to handle that culture. If we go in and say, "Here's an unknown God, and I can relate to that to try to spread the Gospel."

DeYoung: What I mean about exegeting the culture in a negative sense, it's like "I've read this article and now know what all 20 million New Yorkers or all African Americans or all white people are like."

My concern is that yes there is a personality of the preacher, but I don't want any of our preaching to be such that people think everything was great except the Word. That sounds like contextualization that can build a crowd and give false conversions that you are concerned about.

Mohler: I'm thinking a couple of things, and I want to think Biblically.

The Apostle Paul was willing to be all things to all people. That didn't mean he changed his moral understanding or theological convictions to any degree. That did mean he was willing to forego some things he may have thought was his right. As one who had been a Jew of the Jews, he had to get over his prejudice. Some of us need to be as shaken out of our unbibilicalness as much as peter.

Here's what concerns me. At the Evangelical Theological Society meeting, the liberal wing of revisionism was being driven by missiology. There was a missiological mandate. If we want to reach people with the Gospel we have to do this because it wouldn't make sense otherwise. I mean, if we think about where it would make sense, it would make sense to Jewish people and to Greek people, and that's it. But Paul says the Cross is foolishness and a scandal, no matter what our culture is. Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom. The very people we think wouldn't need a whole lot of explanation are the very people Paul names first as having rejected it. We sin when we think as white-bred Americans that our culture is receptive to the Gospel.

DeYoung: As Piper says, the Gospel creates categories.

Dever: This is a conversation we could easily keep going. Is there something you would recommend they read.

Chandler: Without knowing the person, I get real hesitant. In The Explicit Gospel I talk about the idea of the slippery slope. Without knowing who all is out there, I would want to know you personally before making a recommendation.

DeYoung: I would read something by David Wells, he has a number but Encouraged to Be Protestant is a good summary.

Mohler: I don't have a resource, but one final point. In humility we need to admit we give heed to context, and all of the choices we make are affected by context, but the moment someone comes to us and says, "You have to change this to reach more people." Reaching Muslims is ground zero for this overcontextualization.

I think that something like The Insider movement, something like insinuating anonymous Christians is a problem. As Thabiti said, with Islam, you can't assume outward conformity is simply outward conformity. I would recommend The Gospel for Muslims by Thabiti.

Posted at 9:56 PM on April 11th, 2012

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