Contextualizing the Gospel
Two of the most influential pastors in the country today are Mark Driscoll, the lead man of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and Timothy Keller, the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. On paper one would think that these two men would have very similar approaches to ministry due to all their shared characteristics: both pastor large and successful churches, both come out of the Reformed tradition, both are highly sought after speakers and successful writers, both are very conservative theologically, and they even call each other friends. But if you listen to a few of each of their sermons, it quickly becomes evident that the two are nothing alike when it comes to preaching the Gospel. They utilize starkly dissimilar preaching styles, they employ very different illustrations, and they create an entirely different atmosphere with their persona. The reason for this divergence in what would otherwise be strikingly similar ministries is what missiologists call “contextualization” or “adaptation,” and both Driscoll and Keller use it in an incredibly effective way.
Contextualization occurs when a person adapts himself or herself to the surrounding culture in order to present the Gospel. Driscoll and Keller are certainly not the first to use such tactics. In fact, some of the first to do so successfully were the Jesuits (a Roman Catholic order that emphasizes missions) in the 16th century. The Jesuits employed the practice of adaptation in Japan and China to such an extent that each country had about 300,000 converts to Christianity at its peak. The Jesuits realized that becoming culturally “Chinese” and “Japanese” would allow them to more clearly present the Gospel. This included everything from adopting the traditional garb of society to participating in scholarship to gain access to the emperor. The success of the Jesuits was a result of their realization that much of what was thought to be “Christian” was actually just Western culture. If they attempted to convert the East to Western culture they would be unsuccessful, but by showing the East how Christianity fit their culture they were able to expand the Church rapidly.
Unfortunately this illustration also has a negative side as well. Two other orders in the Catholic Church, the Dominicans and Franciscans, didn’t agree with the practice of contextualization and undermined the Jesuits back in Rome. The ensuing decision by the Papacy to cease the practice of adaptation was disastrous. The effects were the worst in Japan where many Christians were martyred out of fear that they were trying to take over the culture. Neither Japan nor China would again be receptive to the Gospel for a very long time. This is also parallels Seattle, New York, and many other large American cities. Modern Christians have conflated conservative fundamentalist culture with Christianity, creating the impression that if you are going to be a follower of Christ you have to stop smoking, get your tattoos removed, listen to George Beverly Shea and vote Republican. This stereotype has made many urbanites feel that Christianity is not for them and have instead opted for more “relevant” religions such as Buddhism, Agnosticism and the New Atheism.
Enter Driscoll, Keller and a host of other adaptive ministers. They have been able to engage their culture on its own terms, while still holding true to the essentials of the faith. Driscoll uses the phrase, “timeless truth and timely methods,” to describe his blend of contemporary culture with orthodox theology. Despite its success, however, this approach is not without controversy. Many fear that the process of contextualization leads to adaptation of the message, not just the methods. In a world that is constantly pushing us to water down the Gospel in order to be “relevant,” this is a legitimate fear that must be addressed. I think it was best put by Terry Burns when he said, “The task of the Believer is not to make the Gospel more relevant, but to make the relevance of the Gospel more clear.” We cannot change the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but we can change how we present it in order to show its applicability to those who would otherwise write off Christianity as a thing of the past. Driscoll does this by preaching in jeans and making jokes in his sermons, Keller by showing that working professionals with a liberal bent are welcome in the Church and their intellectual concerns are worth addressing.
Now, if we can, let us demonstrate how the process of contextualization applies to our political engagement. Unfortunately we have all too often made the Gospel too narrow in focus, implying that Christians will only be concerned about abortion and family issues. On the other hand, if we engage politics more holistically, showing concern for a broad range of issues, we will show that not only do you not have to be a Republican if you are Christian, but you can find strong footing for a wide array of issues. The best argument for caring for the poor is understanding that God created all humanity in His image. The best argument for caring for the environment is understanding that God created the world and declared it good. The best argument for racial justice is understanding the value that God places on unity in the midst of diversity. A robust Gospel, fully contextualized to the surrounding culture, demands a robust political involvement. If we successfully do so we will shatter the devastating myth that God is a Republican, or that His followers have to be. God is bigger than any culture; let us not try to fit Him into anyone’s cultural box.