The words “contextualized” and “relevant” are hot button words these days in the mouths of young evangelicals. We love to talk about ways to penetrate culture and to be “missional” by “doing church” in a new and fresh way that speaks the language of a postmodern society. And I’m no exception to this discussion – in fact, often times I’m leading it.
But if we’re not careful, a discussion about contextualization can quickly lose pure gospel motives and become about meeting our selfish desires more than reaching the lost for the glory of God. If we’re not careful, being “relevant” can become a quest to be known as the cool church, not a quest to be God’s holy bride and the embodiment of new creation community.
So where do we draw the line? How do we discern when what we seek to do as a local body is truly about relevancy for the sake of reaching the lost vs. an ego-stroking selfish pursuit? Here are some thoughts:
1. Whatever your body wishes to do, it must line up with the New Testament’s clear teaching on what a church is and how it is to function. The second you begin to ignore or trespass clear biblical prescriptions for the church, you have moved outside the boundaries of contextualization into deviation.
2. The goal must not be to be like culture. In 1 Samuel 8:5, Israel forsook the Lord and forgot their role in the world – to be a kingdom of priests – when they asked Samuel to appoint for them a king “LIKE ALL THE NATIONS”. Israel wanted to be like culture. They wanted to be a better version of what they saw in other groups. But God had called Israel to be distinct from culture. He desired for them to be a counter-culture: a holy nation. The goal of being “relevant” cannot be to one-up the modern trends; it can’t be about being “cool”. Instead it must be about building bridges into culture to reach those who otherwise might not give you a second’s look.
3. Remember that the gospel is always relevant. It never fades or diminishes. It is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). As we seek to effectively live missional lives, we must not in any form or fashion alter the gospel message. If we do, no matter how “contextualized or relevant” we may think we are, we have just rendered ourselves useless to those we are seeking to reach. If what we aim to do is not exalt the gospel of Christ, then we are like a neutered bull trying to reproduce – it might be fun trying, but in the end it will never accomplish anything of lasting value. Relevancy is about making the gospel as clear as possible, not making it as cool as possible.
4. Ask if what you wish to do is permissible or profitable. Paul taught the Corinthians that just because something is acceptable (lawful), that doesn’t make it the helpful. Is what you are calling “relevant” helpful? And we must define “helpful” from Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 6. He defines it is as bringing glory to God (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). So we must ask if what we are doing honors and glorifies Jesus.
5. Is “relevancy” a cover up for a prejudice against certain groups? Sadly, I’m afraid that I’ve been guilty of this one. When we talk about being “contextualized”, sometimes what we really mean is that we want our local body to appeal to certain types of people (similar style preferences) and to naturally exclude other types. This must not be the case. Our goal should always be a multi-generational, multi-ethnic, body of believers that reflects the various groups of people who live in and around the community where the body is located. If we’re talking about being “relevant”, we should strive to be so to ALL the people in our community, not just the ones with which we have a natural affinity. In Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
The hope in this discussion is not to attack contextualization or say that it is wrong. It is good and necessary. The last thing I want to be said of me is that I’m a fundamentalist. But I also know that in my flesh I can seek to justify a lot of selfishly motivated desires under the umbrella of being “relevant”. And yeah, what I want may be relevant…but only to me. Instead, we should follow Paul’s example in 1 Corinthians 9 when he said, “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” If we want be relevant, we must become servants – this is what contextualization is all about. We place a yoke upon ourselves and do what is preferentially ungratifying to us for the sake of seeing others come to faith in Christ.
The bottom line is that being “relevant” must be about God’s glory, not our gluttony; Christ’s exaltation, not our ego.