Whether with major quakes or with minimal drips, culture is in continual motion. It’s true for every country and sub-group. This is great for those of us who embrace change easily, and not so good if we like things just the way they are. Does anyone know where I can find a good bookstore?!
Cultural change not only equates to different styles of clothing, music and interior design. It also means changes in language and world-views. Presuppositions (things we automatically assume to be true) also change at an alarming rate. And this is why, more and more often, you will get either a glazed-over look or total ridicule when proclaiming the gospel. So how are we to bring the unchanging message of the gospel of Jesus Christ into the raging river that we know as our ever changing world?
I would like to suggest what I believe are two significant points. First, humans are still essentially what and who they have always been. We may look a little different (well some may look really different) and go about our existence here on earth a little differently, but we are pretty much the same as we have been since Genesis 3 and our basic needs have not changed. We are still sinful men and women in need of a great Savior who died to redeem us to God the Father and bring us into His eternal family.
The second significant principle to keep in mind is that in communicating the gospel, the church must do it in a way that the hearer will understand, helping him to see life (maybe for the very first time) through a biblical world-view. This is called contextualization. Unfortunately, we have done a poor job in this area. We seem to go to one extreme or the other by either throwing all truth out the window in an attempt to reach the nations or by firmly rooting ourselves in past culturally based beliefs and methods that seemed to be "successful." This could be the camp meeting / revivalism church culture of the 19th century or even the seeker sensitive movement of Willow Creek and company .
Darrin Patrick (with some help from Tim Keller) helps us to walk this fine line by writing:
“Tim Keller has written brilliantly and extensively in this area. He says: ‘Contextualization is adapting gospel ministry from one culture into another culture by 1) changing those aspects of ministry that are culturally conditioned, and 2) maintaining those aspects of ministry that are unchanging and Biblically required. Contextualization ‘incarnates’ the Christian faith in a particular culture. It is the process by which we present the gospel to people of a particular world-view in forms that the ‘receptor-hearers’ can understand.’ Keller’s definition demonstrates the delicate balance in contextualization. Faithful gospel ministry consists of both firmness and flexibility. On one hand, we ‘contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). We are to stand fast and hold true to even the most unpopular and difficult Christian doctrines. On the other hand, we contextualize the gospel, as Paul did: ‘I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some’ (1 Corinthians 9:22). Both components are crucial.
Many critics of contextualization label it as compromise—simply changing the gospel to please the culture. This is a misunderstanding of the nature of this vital biblical principle. Contextualization is speaking to people with their terms, not on their terms. As Keller puts it, ‘Contextualization is not ‘giving the people what they want’ but rather it is giving God’s answers (which they may not want!) to questions they are asking in forms that they can comprehend.’ In other words, there is an attracting offensiveness to contextualization. The attractiveness of contextualizing the gospel is that we actually listen to the questions that people are asking….Contextualization shows the attractiveness of the gospel, but it also reveals the offensiveness of the gospel. We enter the culture to listen, but we don’t give our answers—we give God’s answers, which most of the time, as Keller notes, are not what people want to hear! …As the church explodes the categories of liberal or conservative and other reductionist labels, it removes stumbling blocks to the Christian faith. This causes people to come face-to-face with the stumbling block, which is Jesus Christ himself” (Darrin Patrick, Church Planter: The Man, The Message, The Mission, 194-195).
Contextualization, while maybe a relatively new term, is not a foreign concept to the gospels (all four Evangels had different audiences and wrote the same story in four different ways) or the apostle Paul who used different methods to present the same message (track with Paul through the Book of Acts and his epistles to see how he ministered). Paul sums up the goal to go into every culture with the good news so well when he writes:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 ESV)