We all contextualise. We do it everyday. It’s in the way we present things, the words we use, the events we put on, prioritise and attend. It’s in the way we dress appropriately to the occasion and situation. We do it often without thinking. And contextualisation is not an evil thing in and of itself. Contextualisation is a good thing when it enables us to make others comfortable, and welcome them appropriately. You contextualised this morning when you decided not to wear your swimming costume (be that bikini, costume, trunks, budgie smugglers or mankini) to the office or to take the kids to school, and the rest of us are so glad that you did! You stopped and thought ‘What is appropriate’? We do it in our conversations trying to convey our ideas accurately to others by putting it into terms they understand.
And we naturally and rightly do it in our churches. Our churches inhabit a place in space and time and we need to adjust to that – not in terms of what we teach because God’s word is eternally true, but in terms of how we present it. The presenting issues of our society change over time, from generation to generation and we need to answer those questions to remove the barriers to the gospel so we can show how the gospel addresses the questions and desires of everyone in every age because we are all united in being created for a common goal.
But we also contextualise in other ways. We contextualise in the way we order our service, in the welcome we give, in the songs we sing, the way we preach and teach, the nature of our midweek meetings, the other events we put on, and even in terms of the sins we address and how we address them. I’m not going to get into whether we have contextualised rightly or are a generation behind because that’s a can of worms I don’t want to open now. It is not necessarily wrong to contextualise, in fact it is absolutely necessary and why in the NT there is no one template for a church, but it can become so.
When our contextualisation becomes inflexible culture that is wrong. When it become exclusive, a barrier that is wrong. Think about Jonah, Jonah has an inflexible context in which he thinks God operates – God only operates among the Jews, or he should. And so Jonah will not go to Nineveh. Jonah has assumed the context and way in which he has seen God work is the only context and way in which God works.
Sometimes our churches are like Jonah – this is the way God works, this is the way church looks, discipleship is, evangelistic courses run, we do outreach etc… But in doing so we are spiritually abandoning our Nineveh’s.
I’ve had this bought home to me recently. The area where we are based was, when we planted, a needy area in every term imaginable. And so we worked hard to contextualise – we listened to those in other situations with more experience than us and to the community, we learnt and we adapted what we did. But in God’s providence what has happened? The area in which we’re based has changed, a raft of 3-5 bedroom homes have been built. The people on the school run have changed. In a small area we now have all the classes and class divides you would normally expect in a small town.
Part of me, let me be honest and confess, thought well there are loads of network middle class churches who can reach them so we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing. But God has been clear that that isn’t right. God’s picture of his church is of people from every possible distinction united in the gospel declaring his glory. If I settle for multi-cultural church but not people from all classes I am doing God’s glory a disservice. I am dishonouring God. The glory of our church is not in the numbers (there aren’t many) but in the different backgrounds united in the gospel
And so again we begin learning, listening and thinking about reforming. What will it mean to be a church that reaches everyone from every background? How do we ensure we don’t favour some? That we don’t swing to extremes? That we don’t over contextualise or settle for one form of contextualisation?
We don’t have answers yet. We keep trying different things. But I am convinced only the gospel has to power to unite these people, to overcome the class prejudice, the snobbery, real, inverse and imagined, the chips on shoulders which everyone has, and the media facilitated prejudgements which all make. And so contextualisation can be the problem, it can be the cause, but it is also part of the solution provided we contextualise for all so that we might become all things to all people so that by all possible means we might see some come to saving faith in Jesus.
It begins by thinking about who the all are. Not who are the majority or just who are the minority but who are the all and then resolving to listen to and reach all.