Does “contextualization” mean “all things to all men”?

A popular word these days in preaching circles is “contextualization”. It’s certainly not knew and preachers disagree as to what it actually means but David Jackman, President of the Proclamation Trust, moves the discussion forward with a thought provoking article entitled “Bridging the Gap” in the latest edition of Kairos Journal (sign-up for the journal is free and is emailed weekly). Preachers of old (I’m thinking of J. C. Ryle) thought of contextualization as speaking plainly in understandable English as opposed to metaphorical, dumbed-down language, or even overly intellectualized verbiage (and no one would claim that Ryle was not an intellectual). Also I would add that speaking into the “context” of anyone through preaching does not require the absorption of their culture. Those who would disagree would often cart-out 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 as the catch-all for cultural amalgamation. However the context of said passage often eludes such culturenistas as Paul warns at the end that lack of care in this area can actually disqualify one from preaching ministry (see 9:27, a fact not often acknowledge by modern-day libertines). More could certainly be said on this issue but suffice it to say at this point that we should not confuse identifying “with” someone as being identified “like” someone. The former, I think, is biblical but the latter is the nucleus of compromise. Jackman writes:

…the issue for apostolic ministry is not whether there might be some way in which we 21st century human beings could perhaps be persuaded to accept God, though that seems to be the predominant concern of so much contemporary evangelism. The real issue is whether there is any way in which God could be persuaded to accept us, and that provides a wholly different preaching agenda.

It means that the preacher must have confidence that with the Bible in the driving seat, God’s power will be at work, confronting and exposing our human ignorance, convicting and humbling our sin, as guilt and wrath are explained, energising and motivating repentance and faith as the character of God is revealed in the grace and mercy of the gospel. This content must always be directed straight into the contemporary culture, with its false presuppositions and arrogant rebellion, just as Paul exposed the spiritual ignorance of the Areopagites. That is one area where we so often need help. Also, we need to work hard at understanding and explaining the biblical text in accessible, contemporary language, and thought-forms, so that the divine power inherent in God’s living and enduring Word is unhindered and on target, every time we seek to proclaim its penetrating analysis and life-giving imperatives.

26 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Chris Pixley on September 7, 2006 at 7:22 pm

    Also, we need to work hard at understanding and explaining the biblical text in accessible, contemporary language, and thought-forms, so that the divine power inherent in God’s living and enduring Word is unhindered and on target, every time we seek to proclaim its penetrating analysis and life-giving imperatives.

    I think this analysis is spot-on, and a reminder that expositors like ourselves can certainly benefit from. It’s far too easy and tempting to preach the text in the language of the academy, thus muddling the meaning in the minds of our people and stunting their growth in godliness–the very goal that we insist motivates our preaching!

    I’m reminded of the example I often heard Dr. Barrick using, describing the communication of Jesus’ bread of life discourse to a Latino audience in terms of tortillas–the staple “bread” in that particular culture–as a means of communicating the message of Jesus’ words in a way that connects with the audience, yet without sacrificing the integrity of the text.

  2. It is interesting to me that preachers are talking about contextualization within the culture that they grew up in. I have always seen Contextualization as primarily (not exclusively) a missiological issue. The fact of the matter is that I can easily communicate the gospel in an understandable manner to those around me. I do not need to contextualize myself to look like those around me. I find it very interesting that those trying to contextualize themselves are more often than not contextualizing themselves to a younger and “hipper” sub-culture. I have not seen a single pomo pastor contextualizing himself to a congregation with a majority of senior citizens.

    The idea that I need to liken myself to the people around me in order to proclaim the gospel is unbiblical. I need to understand the people around me, but I don’t have to make myself exactly like them. In fact, the beauty of the Gospel is that it has no cultural boundaries. Any and all cultures can receive the Gospel. If we say that everyone has to be of the same sub-culture (in other words look alike, have similar interest, and be of the same demographic) then we are taking away the diversity that Christ created within His body.

    Ephesians 2:13-15
    “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace…” (NASB95)

  3. Paul said, “I find it very interesting that those trying to contextualize themselves are more often than not contextualizing themselves to a younger and “hipper” sub-culture. I have not seen a single pomo pastor contextualizing himself to a congregation with a majority of senior citizens.”

    …or like a nerd to reach techies…or like a business exec. to reach prepies…or like the traditional church to reach the “unmissional”.

    Paul said, “If we say that everyone has to be of the same sub-culture (in other words look alike, have similar interest, and be of the same demographic) then we are taking away the diversity that Christ created within His body.”

    Which sub-culture would be the top preference anyway? In fact, it is impossible to uni-culturalize at any level! All this “contextualization” sounds exactly like the “peace and love” movements of the 60’s and 70’s. The younger generation is simply demanding that we submit to their preferences while calling it “missional outreach”.

  4. Posted by Caleb on September 8, 2006 at 5:55 pm

    Sadly this point by Jerry, “the younger generation is simply demanding that we submit to their preferences while calling it ‘missional outreach'” is often the norm.


  5. Chris, Paul and Jerry…great insights and thoughts. Since Phish broke up I believe the Lord has called me to reach Latte sipping jam band followers who work as engineers in the day time.

    But seriously Paul is spot on when he noted that the Gospel knows no cultural boundaries.

    Also I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that a whole “missional” vocabulary has developed as well. Has anyone noticed that when the word “community” is used in missional speak they throw out all notions of the definite or indefinite article? For example one might hear a missional person write something like, “Here in Portland I like to hang at my local coffee shop while listening to Coldplay on my nano and reading Anne Lamott because through this I’m ‘in community’ with my culture” (But someone already made a few thousand writing a book that essentialy says this over and over again with no point). I think it is ironic that I need a special dictionary just to read “missionally”.

  6. Posted by Andy on September 8, 2006 at 8:50 pm

    While it might to true in some sectors, not everyone in the “missional” camp that speaks of contextualization means that you need to have a soul patch, an untucked shirt, jeans, and no-shoes. In fact Ed Stetzer in a recent book wrote directly against this idea as well as in the audio from the “Reform and Resurge Conference.” I would encourage you to take listen.

    As to contextualization being a missions issue. That IS the arguement. They are saying that we are in a missions context here in the USA. So that is why they are applying this reasoning at home just like the mission field.

    For me the supositional question that I don’t here any “anti-missional” folks addressing is our culture uniform or diverse. If you say that it is diverse is there validity to varying your method of “church”?

    BTW: Paul I would like to formally accuse of contextualization because you rewrote your bylaws at GCCH and would not use the word “deacon”. :>}

    Sorry I couldn’t resist.

  7. Andy,

    Actually, changing the word “deacon” in our by-laws was a biblical issue since it is better to translate than to transliterate. If we were trying to contextualize the use of the word deacon in our culture then we would join the chorus in the South that mistakenly sees the office as a primary leadership role (only then would we be “identifying” with people by being “like” them).

    I don’t think anyone here has suggested that the word “missional” only refers to soul-patch sporters but if there wasn’t some truth to the matter of their being hipsters then Mr. Stetzer would not need to make the distinction in his book.

    Part of the problem as I pointed out in the post is that no two pastors agree on the term “contextualization” much less “missional”. A few years ago it was popular to throw around the terms and now some of those same folks are trying to clean-up their usuage. It’s not unlike the use of “evangelcial” which has an historic referent but is now used to describe everyone from Joel Osteen to John MacArthur. If someone tells me thier “missional” I ask what do you mean and if they say we need to “contextualize” then I ask why. This is more helpful than throwing around the latest jargon from the cool kids.

    Again, like I noted in the post, if we mean that we should identify “with” someone then we can have a real conversation but if that means I must be “like” the person I’m ministering to then you’ve lost me (the latter is exactly what Rick Warren argues for in his “Purpose Driven Church”). Also, and this is just an observation, but the descriptions that many of the more popular missionals give of their “communities” seem to have a strange absence of children or senior saints…just an observation. Why is that?

  8. Andy,

    Back on the actual topic of my post. Do you think some efforts at “contextualization” or being “missional” actually compromise the gospel or disqualify these ministers? Who among those who would consider themsleves missional are pointing these things out about their own movement? I’m not talking about obvious examples like pointing out the errors of Mclaren and the like.

    Why is it that if a pastor wears a suit/tie and has a congregation of upwardly republican mobile he is kowtowing to the evil elite but if a guy looks grunge and has salty language he is considered progressive, street-worthy and missional? I’m just asking because this baffles me. Or why is one considered out of touch and the other “authentic”? (BTW: I’m not voting for either).

    My last challenge, please define for me what “missional” is according to your understanding. Thanks for your thoughts and feedback.

  9. Posted by Andy on September 9, 2006 at 4:17 am


    I hope you understood that my “charge” was a joke. I am not seeking to cause contraversy here. Both of us have enough of that in current situations in our flocks. If you would like to pursue this discussion I would be glad to do it in person.

    I consider you a partner in ministry here in the area and a friend. And I will continue. As I have said to you before blogs are great at communiating info and I believe, as most all electronic media, poor on communicating tone.

  10. Andy,

    I totally understand but I thought it was a good charge nonetheless. Some reading this might have thought you made a valid point but I wanted to show them that you didn’t have a chance.

    Your lunch partner and shoulder to cry on,

  11. Boy, you guys have a lot of good thoughts here and so I have little to add. Paul, from a psychological/motive perspective, it is interesting to note your comment, “I have not seen a single pomo pastor contextualizing himself to a congregation with a majority of senior citizens.” Jerry then says, “The younger generation is simply demanding that we submit to their preferences while calling it ‘missional outreach’.”

    In some of the extreme cases this seems to be the sanctification of worldliness. It’s about how I can feel better for doing what I want. Moving from the 60s and 70s “peace and love,” the pomos seem to be more into the grunge underground of tattoos, piercings, and the Christianization of secular music. It is interesting that in the end, this movement is not really about the Gospel, it is about me.

  12. Posted by Andy on September 11, 2006 at 4:06 pm

    Some food for thought. This is a quote regarding this idea of missiology and contextualization.

    “Today, we live on a mission field made up of all kinds of people – and they do not respond to the same approach. Blanket statements like “small groups are the only way,” “Sunday school is the most effective method,” or “you must have contemporary worship” are no longer appropriate (if they ever were). Instead insightful pastors will seek to lead churches of missionaries. They will ask, “How can I take the unchanging faith ‘delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) and present it effectively in a retirement community in Plantation, Florida, in an arists’ commune in San Francisco, in a rural county seat twon like Opp, Alabama, or on the Lower East Side of Manhattan?” By necessity, these churches look different because they are in different settings, but they also have one thing in common – they must engage their community as missional churches.”

    Agree or disagree?

  13. Andy,

    I read the same article by Ed Stetzer and found it fairly useless (just my opinion). I read it again and noticed not one shred of advice on implementing such ideals. Did you find anything of practical value in the article? I would be interested to know what.

    I have yet to read or hear any of the more prominent missional thinkers offer anything that is truly constructive or substantive on what they say all of us pastors should be doing.

    I guess the question I have is should we be targeting a “culture” (which usually means a sub-culture by those who say so) or a people (with all its culture, subculture and nuances)? I think the latter without a focus on everyone’s quirks.

    In his “Purpose Driven Church” Rick Warren said we should reach people that look like us. Likewise, Mark Driscoll has recently written that “We started the church to fill what I saw as the gap of eighteen to thirty-five-year-olds who were missing from the churches in our region.” As I reflect on such ideas I find them shallow at best and lacking biblical support or warrant at their worst. Thanks as always for your thoughts.

  14. Posted by Andy on September 11, 2006 at 10:40 pm


    I didn’t take that from an article but from Stetzer’s book, “Breaking the Missional Code.” There were practical ideas on implementing in the book. I don’t know about an article.

    I think that quote illustrates however that “missional” writers and thinkers, rather you agree with them or not, are not just about being cool hip and reaching the 20 somethings in places like LA (that’s Los Angeles not Lower Alabama) and Seatle.

    BTW: You did not say if you agreed or disagreed with his statement, just that you did not see implementation steps.

  15. Andy,

    The quote initially came from an article at in 2004. Maybe he reworked it for his book.

    I guess I can’t agree with something that doesn’t tell me what I’m to agree with. Like I said (or tried to say) the article I read goes nowhere. This is the problem with the missional lingo. They identify a perceived problem and then prescribe little to nothing in response.

  16. Andy –
    Stetzer says, “Today, we live on a mission field made up of all kinds of people – and they do not respond to the same approach.”

    This is precisely the problem I have with all this talk of being missional. What does Stetzer mean by “Today, we live on a mission field made up of all kinds of people”?
    When did he arrive at this evangelical party? The church has ALWAYS lived in the midst of “mission field[s] made up of all kinds”! Why is it that the figureheads of every new approach to ministry speak as though we’re in some kind of unique gospel time-warp, where the challenges we face are totally beyond anything Christians have ever faced in church history? The reason the Bible is sufficient in both principle and methodology is because the lost will always need to hear the pure, undiminished gospel of Christ just exactly the way they heard it from the Apostles. Not every methodology of “traditional” Christianity (of whatever era) is wholly without scriptural precedent. And when an increasingly pagan culture begins dictating to the church when and how they will hear the truth, then what they hear will no longer be the truth!
    This is not a time to be crafting new methodologies aimed largely at “reaching out” to the disenchanted. In fact, those being targeted by today’s missional reformationists are more the result of insipid gospel ministry rather than archaic methods. Here are some reasons I believe evangelicalism is disillusioned:

    (1) Living the Christian life has been reduced to a mere fraction of the biblical duties and privileges, so that church-goers are merely bringing the public services into conformity with their minimalist view of spirituality.
    (2) A steady diet of poor Bible teaching and lazy shepherding has left true believers malnourished and undiscerning. The net effect is a default back to theological and religious clichés about evangelism, cultural impact, and relevance which have the appearance of passionate soul-winning but lack the divine content.
    (3) With biblical illiteracy has come the inevitable elevation of man-centeredness in the sanctification process. Consequently, the church is awash in a sea of spiritually impotent applications which, when found empty, lead to further distrust in the scriptures. As confidence in the power of God’s word wanes, His people lose clarity and heart.
    (4) The church has been hemorrhaging truth and pumping in secularism at such a rate that unbelievers, longing to drown their guilt and angst in religious renewal, find church-going a welcome, undemanding place of refuge. And a weakened, insipid public service has just enough morality to sooth the secular breast, and enough culturally secular “flavor” for superficial Christians to leave feeling “blessed”.

    The missional movement, while filled with many sincere but undiscerning followers of Christ, is really a “stunted growth” movement…an atrophied church…a group made up of numerous undiscerning band-wagonites, a fair amount of discouraged, withering saints, and a great many moral unbelievers.
    When we come along and speak of the power, sufficiency, and relevance of straightforward ministry where the message (God’s word) is the medium…it is an increasingly strange sound in their ears!

  17. Andy,

    I hear what you’re saying but no one has been able to show me what this looks like. For example, my congregation does not come from one particular demographic group. In fact, we have ages birth-90 and folks from almost every state and many different countries. Is Stetzer suggesting that I shape the meessage and/or our philosophy of ministry to each of these groups? If not, what do you think he is asking a pastor in my situation to do?

    Like Jerry pointed out, Stetzer is claiming the obvious when he states, “Today we live in a mission field made up of all kinds of people”. I honestly want to know…”so what?”

  18. Posted by Chris Pixley on September 12, 2006 at 5:09 pm


    Maybe this is an example of what he’s talking about ;-)

  19. Posted by Chris Pixley on September 12, 2006 at 6:28 pm

    On a more serious note, I’m in agreement with PSL. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to either agree or disagree with in Stetzer’s statement. On the one hand, it seems self-evident that “churches [will] look different because they are in different settings.” I’m under no illusion that a church in rural Kenya must externally resemble a church in suburban Tampa. However, as others have clearly articulated in this comment thread, the gospel is transcultural. In that sense, these same churches ought to look very similar. That’s why, although the external trappings may vary, I ought to feel at home in any true church that I attend around the world over.

    More to the point, however, is my profound concern with the notion that being “missional” means raising up different churches that cater to every segment of a given demographic. How does this square with the notion that the Church is comprised of believers “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9)? Now I understand that paricular text is speaking of the Church in its universal sense–that is to say, the Body of Christ consisting of all believers from all times and places (John is recordign a heavenly vision). However, isn’t the local church to be a visible representation of the universal church? I think Tim Keller has said it well when he argues that the church ought to reflect the locality in which it is found. In other words, shouldn’t the cross-section of a congregtion be somewhat representative of the demographic spectrum in which it is located? My particular church is populated by people spanning the age, ethnic, and socio-economic spectrums represented in our area.

    Finally, where did we ever get the idea that the gospel is to be accomodated to the culture? Aren’t cultures predicated on the collective worldview of the people of which they are comprised? That being the case, shouldn’t we be speaking in terms of the culture being transformed by the gospel insofar as the worldview of a people impacted by the gospel comes more into conformity with the world as God sees it? The whole modern idea of “contextualization” seems to be rooted in the inability or unwillingness of some to recognize that there is only one true worldview (biblical Christianity) and all others are in some fashion and to some degree allied against it.

  20. Very well stated, Chris!

  21. A friend of mine wrote this response to these posts: “Regarding the Missional Living, I think the point has been missed on how I/my church is living out Missional Lives. Unfortunately some are doing it right and some are doing it incorrectly and giving “Missional Living” a bad name. Its not about small groups, or not wearing a tie, or catering to the culture today to attract people. That to me is more seeker and I am not into that and neither is our church. Missional Living is about modeling the life that Christ lived, his love for people that goes hand in hand with strong teaching. I dont know anyone that wouldnt want to have that. If we are just building oursleves up we become “water bottle christians” as my pastor calls it, we are only filled up and not spilling over. if we live like that we miss the point. the point of christianity is not to only fill ourselves up, its to the spill over into others lives. if we are seekers we only trying to cater to bring people in and then feed them fluff we have missed the point as well. but if we can learn to love people, develope and cultivate relationships to then share christ, if we can learn to get into our communities as well as love the body of believers and offer a strong teaching of the word thats to me is what its all about. that is what our church is doing. Our paster is a great teacher, he does not walk on egg shells, he tells it as it is and he is an awesome teacher. from the pulput he tells his flock to get out and share christ.. i love it and i have no problem saying i live a missional life if it is in that context.
    so i do agree with part of that article when that guy said, “when someone tells me their missional i need to ask what that means”. im ok with that. today when someone says their a calvinist you need to ask what that means. 4 point or 5, their are some people that say if their a 4pt then they are arminian. it just depends who you talk to. but it seems we always need to clarify these day.”

    Perhaps some churches today are using some of the common Emergent language (eg. missional living, etc) but redefining what that exactly means. In that sense all of us would probably agree. We need to be equipping the saints for the work of the ministry. We are to be fishers of men (soul-winners) and evangelism driven in our lives. I think some people are just adopting the language of missional living since they feel the Evangelical church has failed in personal evangelism.

    What do you think?

  22. Caleb,

    I think your friend is on target. The rub is that there is nothing distinct about what he described. The missional thinkers that would still be considered orthodox have not said anything that is new, fresh or inovative (which is not a slam). I just fail to see how vague calls for more “authenticity” are anything that the church as whole has not been doing for 2000 years. We can always be more clear and proactive but is this all they are calling us to do? If so it’s certainly not new but to be sure it does sell books and conference tickets.

  23. Paul,

    I think some people are sort of riding the fence on this stuff… They want to be theologically sound but are interested in new ways to do church. Personally i think this can be very dangerous. Sometimes churches adopt concepts from movements they say they disagree with but give new meaning to what they do (like mood lighting, candles, etc). This makes things more complicated.

    With you on this one,

  24. Paul –
    Again, correct assessment. This entire debate (non-missional vs missional) is not unlike what happens between two Christian friends, one intensely focused on pure doctrine and ministry, and the other thinking deeply and compassionately about showing the love of Christ.
    The former sees the love of Christ toward others as only rightly expressed through unadulterated truth and pure doctrine, while the latter, though agreeing with the above, is preoccupied with removing “barriers” to the gospel. Tensions arise when the latter believes the former to have become “high and mighty” in doctrinal emphasis, creating an unloving “barrier” to the gospel, and the former interprets the latter’s emphasis on the “love” of Christ as a dangerous generalizing of truth to make the gospel attractive.

    In like fashion, it seems the “missional” camp is concerned that “traditional” evangelicalism has become doctrinally arrogant with its “finer-points” sparring, thereby missing opportunities to live the gospel. Conversely, the “other” camp is suspicious of the new “missional” vibe because it seemingly calls for something they call “Christ-like living” but resembles classic pragmatism.

    The solution? Those crying for doctrinal purity must realize that until they truly bring their own lives under the weight of all that they know, they will continue as merely puffed-up, blind guides, straining at gnats while swallowing camels. Those seeking to be “transformissional” must bring more to the table than sweeping cultural assumptions and unbiblical platitudes, and instead, learn to love like the actual Jesus of scripture.

    The above plan just might clear away the fog, and help us all set our affections on God’s mission!

  25. Jerry-

    I couldn’t have said it better (which is why i did not try). :)

    Great post


  26. Jerry-

    I couldn’t have said it better (which is why i did not attempt to do so). :)

    Great post!


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