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Contextualization without Compromise

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Contextualization can be a controversial topic. It seems that emphasizing the need for biblical precision can slip into contextualization-bashing, while emphasizing contextualization can slip into cultural analysis that lacks Bible. Effective Bible teaching, however, seeks to do both.

Biblical fluency without cultural fluency is abstract theory. Cultural fluency without biblical fluency is just sociology. That’s why we need to know the Scriptures and know the people we minister to. With this goal in mind, here are three suggestions for applying God’s Word in our own context without compromise.

  1. Know Your Bible

Christian contextualization seeks to communicate Christ. If contextualization lacks the truth of Christ from the Scriptures, then the effort lacks substance.

If Christ is the meal people should eat, contextualization is the spoon. Contextualization at the expense of content obscures Christ. Paul writes, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ will not be emptied of its effect” (1 Corinthians 1:7, CSB). The method is not the meal. In fact, according to Scripture, if one focuses on the “eloquent wisdom” of contextualizing communication at the expense of Christ, then the power of Christ is emptied—utterly useless. The task of contextualization, then, is not to make the message of Christ compelling. Christ doesn’t need our help to compel others with the gospel. The task of contextualization is to make the message of Christ clear.

Before we can communicate the truth of Christ to others, we must be sure that we understand what Scripture actually says. The words and goal of our communication should align with the words and goal of Scripture.[1]

  1. Know Yourself

I hate sports analogies. And being in the ministry in Los Angeles, I’ve had to endure an onslaught of illustrations about basketball, baseball, and football. The problem is not the athletic greatness displayed in moving a ball to its desired location, but in the lack of awareness of the preacher. While those involved in the church fantasy league may be locked into the message, everyone else is zoned out.

We often communicate the way we’d like to be communicated to. But what may be clear to some will not be clear to others. Contextualizing well begins with oneself. Have the humility and self-awareness to see what your personal worldview and experiences are. Then ask how that may color your own explanations of Scripture. For example, I am a movie fan, so I should be aware of my propensity to reference films. While some film references are good, it would not be good if my references were so narrow that they left my audience in the dust. I want to make sure that my explanation of a passage is not exclusive to my own experience.

  1. Know Your People

How do we bust out of our own “world”? By stepping into the lives of others.

The most used document my church has is probably our membership directory. Before I teach God’s Word, I take time to pray for the members and ask God to use his Word to bless them. While I prepare to teach, I flip through the directory to ask how the words and goal of the passage relates to the life of José or Barbara or Sunho.

Not only do I use my directory, I use my members in order to preach God’s Word better. The more I get to know my fellow members, especially the ones with a different background or experience than me, the better I can serve them God’s words. This usually involves setting aside presumptions I may have about politics, sociology, economics, or a host of other non-essential topics so that I can consider their experience. At worst, I’ll be able to understand more about how they think and why they have certain opinions and convictions. At best, they can expose my blind spots and the areas where I can grow in love and sensitivity.

No one talks about God’s Word in a vacuum. God’s Word is always taught in a particular group of people. Right contextualization helps wipe our windows so that we can see Christ more clearly.

At its heart, the work of contextualized teaching is a labor of love. We love people well when we labor to give them Jesus. And we love people well when we labor to understand how best to give them Jesus in their different situations, backgrounds, and cultures.

[1] This is a slight variation of Mike Bullmore’s definition of biblical exposition. 

John Lee is a senior pastoral assistant at Bethany Baptist Church in Bellflower, California.
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