I ended my previous post, Gospel & Culture: The Never Ending Question (appropriately enough) by posing a series of questions.
So, considering the sheer numbers of cultures and sub-cultures in the world (including Western ones) and how rapidly they can change, how are we to ever know where the line is? At what point in our endeavors to be relevant are we compromising the message in order to be more attractive to culture? Conversely, how do we avoid placing unnecessary traditions and burdens on people as we seek to translate godly living into different cultures? Given that believers throughout the centuries have had such difficulty settling matters of culture and spirituality, can we have any confidence that it is even possible to do so satisfactorily?
I guess the answer depends on how we define satisfactorily. If we mean arriving at a list of incredibly detailed and universally applicable rules for how to safely and correctly gain an audience and communicate the gospel in any context—then no—these questions will never be answered satisfactorily. As much as part of me would like to have a neat answer that alleviated any future need to struggle with the issue, that doesn’t seem to be how God intended it to work.
Yes, we are to love people enough to offer truth in a way that gives them the best opportunity to understand and accept it—and yes, we are to preserve the simple, unchanging, and necessarily confrontational gospel as the center of our motive and message. That leaves a lot of wiggle room. Even the most careful reading of all the applicable passages leaves us with this tension. Could it be that this is because God wants to remain an active partner with us in the process? Mightn’t it be that his desire is to lovingly and creatively reach out to the lost together with us—giving inspiration, insight, and direction for each situation?
The Holy Spirit will draw the hearts of unbelievers to be sure, but when they come, he expects us to thoughtfully, sensitively, and accurately communicate who he is.
I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor 9:22)
Because the concept has been misapplied to the point of sacrificing the gospel, many flinch at the mention of contextualization. But I think Tullian Tchividjian says it well in chapter eight of his book Unfashionable:
Contextualization simply means translating the Gospel—in both word and deed—into understandable terms appropriate to the audience. It’s Gospel translation that is context sensitive.
…Sadly, some well-meaning Christians conclude otherwise. For these Christians, contextualization means the same thing as compromise. They believe it means giving people what they want and telling people what they want to hear. What they misunderstand, however, is that contextualization means giving people God’s answers (which they may not want) to the questions they’re really asking and in ways they can understand.
Paul’s approach in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) serves as a good illustration for what it looks like to intentionally engage culture without compromising the message.
1. He looks around in order to assess and understand where the people are coming from (v 22).
2. He recognizes and appreciates the beauty, value, and truth that is present in the culture—pointing to God as the ultimate source of those things (v 23).
3. Using those things as a springboard, he goes on to unapologetically declare the fuller and confrontational truth that the Judeo-Christian God is the only true God and that he will judge all men through Christ, whom he raised from the dead (v 24-31).
No compromise there, but no rigid formula either.
God has given us eyes, brains, and hands and he expects us to use them to creatively and lovingly fulfill the great commission. But only he has complete understanding of the spiritual needs of any given group or individual. He can certainly answer the question of gospel and culture satisfactorily, but it won’t always look the same. It seems the call to make disciples was intended to be answered with a heart of dependence on God and a willingness to shift gears when necessary.