Is Contextualization the Key to Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth?

“The key to missions is contextualization.” “The key to growing the American church is relevance.” If we could put the Christian message in just the right form, and set up our churches to be places where visitors felt comfortable, a lot more people would come to Christ. Right?

No, I’m afraid that’s not right. But let’s back up and ask a preliminary question. Is contextualizing the gospel good? Yes, using familiar forms to communicate the gospel—without changing the gospel, which would be syncretism!—is a good thing. Paul himself was a contextualizer, as he makes clear in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

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.

In other words, Paul was willing to adjust his eating habits, clothing, days and places of worship, —whatever he thought might help—to connect unsaved people with the gospel (though he would never think of altering the gospel itself). But is contextualization the key to missions, evangelism, and church growth, as some suggest? No, it’s not the key. The role of contextualizing is to remove some (not all) of the hindrances that stand in the way of people accepting the Christian message. The key to missions, evangelism, and church growth today is the same as it was in the first century: God opens up people’s hearts as the gospel gets proclaimed, as God’s people pray for those who are unsaved, and as unbelievers encounter the reality of the resurrected Christ in Christian communities across the globe. In other words, the key to reaching people with the gospel is the same as it always has been: sharing the gospel, prayer, and the church.

Years ago, my family watched a movie called Sister Act, starring Whoopi Goldberg. In the movie, a lounge singer witnesses a murder. Through a witness-protection program, the singer is covertly placed in a run-down convent in San Francisco. During her time in the convent, the worldly-wise lounge singer gradually transforms the parish choir into a hip musical powerhouse. The choir performs such relevant songs as “My God” (a rework of “My guy”). Young people flock to the church because—and only because—the church has finally become relevant. In other words, the message of Sister Act is that people would love to come to church if only church were cool.

But coolness (American-style contextualization), or culturally-relevant terminology, stories, or structures (overseas contextualization) never actually opens up people’s hearts to receive the good news. The Spirit of God uses regular means (gospel proclamation, prayer, and the love of Christian communities) to lead people to saving faith. Contextualization aids in removing hindrances, but we should take care not to overstate its value for actually bringing salvation to those who are lost.

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