The Jesus-centered church is a church that affirms certain characteristics from its surrounding culture while still holding faithfully to the gospel. The purpose of contextualization is to glorify God by reaching sinners with the gospel of Christ. And every church executes some type of contextualization to this end.
But as we all know, good efforts and intentions are not enough. If there were ever any question about the sufficiency or insufficiency of good intentions, a cursory reading of church history reveals the truth. While it’s hard to detail all of the errors the Church has committed in its attempts to contextualize, the mistakes can rightfully be placed into two categories: over-contextualizing churches and under-contextualizing churches.
Over-contextualizing takes place when a church affirms so much of the culture around them that they compromise the message, thus losing the distinctive edge of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, for instance, a church that over-contextualizes will blend with the culture in a way that causes them to wander outside biblical boundaries. Gailyn Van Rheenen rightly describes this as syncretism:
Syncretism occurs when Christian leaders accommodate, either consciously or unconsciously, to the prevailing plausibility structures or worldviews of their culture. Syncretism, then, is the conscious or unconscious reshaping of Christian plausibility structures, beliefs, and practices through cultural accommodation so that they reflect those of the dominant culture. Or, stated in other terms, syncretism is the blending of Christian beliefs and practices with those of the dominant culture so that Christianity loses it distinctiveness and speaks with a voice reflective of its culture.
It could be argued that this is what has happened, by and large, in liberal churches. In these instances, enlightenment thinking eroded the biblical witness, and many churches said that it is unreasonable to believe in the supernatural. But when a culture rejects the supernatural, it rejects such things as the divine inspiration of Scripture, the miracles of Jesus, the resurrection, and more. When liberal churches adhere to these beliefs, they are over-contextualizing and falling victim to syncretism. They are compromising the truth to placate a people and thus losing the very power of the gospel. A right view of contextualization holds that the message is central, not the culture. Interestingly enough, the church often drifts into this compromise. Their heart to serve and love people is misguided by a failure to understand the scriptural reality of biblical love. In the end, however, their failure to hold on to certain biblical beliefs leads to the disappearance of the message. And without the message of Christ, there is no good news. If there is no good news, then the Creature of the Word is not formed.
Other examples of the Church over-contextualizing abound. For example, the recent cultural shift regarding homosexuality and marriage is making headway into the Church. Rather than maintaining biblical faithfulness and speaking lovingly into the culture in hopes of seeing the message of Jesus Christ redeem and transform, many churches have allowed the culture to hijack and define the biblical message. Again, this is a clear example of syncretism and overcontextualization. Certainly this is a delicate issue and one that will require humility and courage for the people of God, and thankfully, there are many faithful pastors who are not shirking their responsibility to engage with the grace and truth of Jesus.
To name another common example, we can look at contemporary American evangelicalism. Most Americans do not worship the gods of other religions. Instead, we worship comfort, control, power, or approval. We have an imbedded sense of entitlement. The culture goes to great lengths to build self-esteem and fuel an idolatrous look within to find strength, peace, and control. As you might imagine, the doctrine of original sin is offensive to this popular notion of self-esteem and the inherent goodness of people. So, some churches do not mention sin for fear it will turn off those they are trying to reach. The culture also says that we should get what we want when we want it. So, some churches proclaim a God who is akin to a genie in a bottle, simply waiting to grant our every wish and desire. In each of these instances, the church has forsaken their light and drifted into the shadows of compromise, thus losing the opportunity to rightly live out the command to be in the world, but not of it. When a church over-contextualizes, it isn’t merely “getting it wrong” (although it is definitely doing this). The over-contextualized church is altering the message of Jesus, thus perverting the Creator/Creature relationship. This deadly mistake has little to do with one’s intentions. Sadly, liberal theologians denied the divinity of Christ and the substitutionary atonement for the sake of their “evangelistic” and “missional” goals. These efforts, of course, denied the gospel and destroyed the evangelistic message. The Creature of the Word takes on the character and nature of her Creator and, subsequently, represents Him rightly.
The other major contextual error that churches make is undercontextualizing. These churches affirm so little of their surrounding culture’s practices that they fail to create meaningful opportunities and pathways to reach the lost.
Contrary to the missional example of the apostle Paul, walls are built rather than bridges. There is no effort to understand the culture. There is no empathy or compassion. There is no desire to incarnate and become like them to win them. The heart has shriveled toward the plight of a lost and dying world, and no prayerful discernment is given to how the Church might, by God’s grace, gain an opportunity to speak words of life into dead hearts.
But this does not mean contextualization is absent. Churches must contextualize. The question is only to which culture they contextualize. This error has been seen most obviously, perhaps, in some of the well-intentioned missionary efforts in Africa in the twentieth century. Missionaries have entered into the African bush and planted churches. But instead of planting churches that meet in culturally appropriate settings, the missionaries have built church buildings for them. The problem here is that the use of church buildings is a Western practice. Africans did not use church buildings until Westerners built them. These missionaries “under-contextualized” to the African culture around them, injecting their Western ways—doing church from buildings, dress codes, styles of music—into African culture. This had the result of hindering the mission there because Africans believed to a certain degree that they must become Western to become Christians. They were unwittingly taught that what made them culturally unique could not be redeemed; rather, it had to be disregarded. Wrong. Another example of under-contextualizing to a surrounding culture is typically found in America. Here, churches fail to change their church practices with the culture around them. (Remember, they should not change their theology; they should change their practices in order to better fit with their changing surrounding culture.) Oftentimes, “traditional” churches will fail to change to their nontraditional surrounding culture, even though their immediate surrounding culture has drastically changed. They continue doing things the way they always have simply because it is the way they have always done it. In this case, the love of tradition, which can be a beautiful thing, is misplaced above their love for their neighbors. The mission suffers because the church under-contextualizes to its surrounding culture.
It’s important to note we are not saying that all “traditional” churches should change or that they have failed to change. We are saying that in some contexts the mission has been hindered because people are led to believe they must convert to an older culture (the 1950s) in order to be a Christian. Instead of simply coming to Christ, they must come to the Christ and community of years past.
Every church has a tendency toward one of these two errors. If you aren’t aware of the spots where your church ministry rubs against the culture, then you are probably missing the contextualization mark by a long shot. The Jesus-centered church is a church that holds firm to the message of the gospel while strategically affirming cultural practices. Like Jesus, these churches become like those they want to reach. And like Jesus, they hold fast to the truth so that they have something with which to reach the surrounding culture.
*Article Adapted from Creature of the Word (B&H)
Eric Geiger is a Vice President at Lifeway, leading the Resources Division. He has authored several books including the bestselling church leadership book, Simple Church.