It is not surprising, considering the world in which we live, that churches speak negatively about our pop culture and therefore preach to ‘not watch this’ or ‘don’t listen to that.’ But we must not be so separated from our culture that we cannot impact it. To impact our culture through culture is what is called contextualization, a widely-accepted tool used in missionary work to evangelize to foreign cultures.
During our parent’s generation, the world around them could relate to Christianity and vice versa. But because of the world’s continued shift into ungodliness, Christians have spent the past thirty or so years trying to depart from secular entertainment and develop a pop culture of its own—Contemporary Christian music, Christian movies, Christian books, Christian clothing, Christian coffee houses, etc. While our lives and our entertainment choices do need to reflect holiness, we must understand that no one will listen to someone who seems so out of touch with them.
In his book, “Embodying Our Faith,” Tim Morey explains that God himself gave us an example of contextualization. He came to us as one of us, not in his glorious form, but as a humble Jewish carpenter, “wearing Jewish clothes, speaking Aramaic and living by the cultural values of first-century Israel.” Scripture points to another example of contextualization: Paul the Apostle.
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor.19-23).
For most of us in America, embracing this aspect isn’t so hard. We already wear the same clothes and hair styles as most others around us. We may read fiction and listen to pop music. This is good; we can obtain much of the first step here: finding common ground.
I’m reminded of a sermon illustration my pastor used just a couple of weeks ago. He was talking about standing out among the mediocrity around us and used a quote by Billy Joel. Some churches would have gasped in horror. What kind of a pastor would use a quote by a secular musician? Look at it this way–not only did many church members relate to Billy Joel’s quote, but what if someone new to Christianity was attending the church for the first time? They could relate to Billy Joel’s comment better than to a Christian artist.
The second step is looking for God at work. Referencing Acts 14:17 and Romans 2:4, Morey said Paul the apostle recognized “that long before he arrived [in Lystra], God was at work among these people, revealing himself, leading them to repentance with his kindness and preparing them to one day receive the gospel.” Morey went on to say that, “Much of our task as evangelists is to help our unbelieving friends identify the work that God is already doing in their lives.”
The third step is arguing to the scriptures. For example, C.S. Lewis did this well in telling about the plan of salvation in “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.” Without using scripture, Lewis still presented the message of the cross. Paul also did this when he spoke to the Athenians. “Rather than arguing from the Scriptures (as he does with the Jews), [Paul] takes a roundabout journey through Greek philosophy and argues to the Scriptures.”
The next step is to start the story further back. Taking another cue from Paul and his preaching to the Athenians, we should not assume that our hearers already know scripture. This generation has heard very little from the Bible. We need to stop and explain things about scripture that previous generations may not needed to have explained.
Lastly, we must preach without compromise. That is, contextualization is only methods in how we present the gospel. The gospel itself must always remain the same.