Wisdom in Contextualization: How Far is too Far?

By Ed Stetzer

How does the word “contextualization” make you feel? Free or fearful?

The $64-million dollar question about innovation and change is this: How far is too far? I can’t think of any question in the church much more controversial than this one. We’ve been asking it for two thousand years and rarely ever seem to agree.

Most of our discussions on these issues center around contextualization. We should change our methodology to better proclaim the unchanging message to a consistently changing world. But not all change is good, even when it is promoted under the guise of contextualization.

I am all for innovation. But it should be used as means to better contextualize the gospel, not simply for its own sake. We need to evaluate where that line is, so that we do not cross it and lose the very reason God has placed us here.

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Measuring contextualization

Contextualization is, obviously enough, all about the context. Walking with my nose in the air could mean I think I’m better than you. Or it might mean I’m trying to protect you from my nosebleed. Context provides meaning to your interpretation.

Gospel contextualization began the moment Christ came teaching in synagogues and preaching the good news of the kingdom (Matthew 4:23). Christ presented words and deeds to His audiences in ways that were meaningful in their language and culture.

The language was Aramaic. The culture was Jewish (with a bit of Roman and Greek tossed in). The reaction of the crowds, especially the religious leaders, makes it clear that Christ’s words and actions were meaningful in His cultural context.

Changing in order to contextualize is not watering down the message of the good news of Jesus. The opposite is true. To contextualize the gospel means removing cultural and linguistic impediments to the gospel presentation so that only the offense of the cross remains.

But when we think about changes and contextualization today, it is easy to think you are the only one who has it right. Everyone to the left of has changed too much and lost the gospel. Everyone to the right is a bunch of legalists who haven’t changed enough and can no longer have a conversation with culture. To overcome this temptation, we need to establish what is unchanging and look for signals that our changes have gone too far.

More art than science

God designed it so the unchanging message of Jesus can fit into changing “cultural containers” in order to reach people where they are, and to take them where they need to go. Contextualization is a skill the missional church in the U.S., like international missionaries, must learn and use.

Contextualization, however, is more of an art form than a science. Clear lines that provide hard and fast boundaries for every language and culture don’t exist, especially as it relates to our orthopraxy (the way we live out the gospel). But there are certain gospel lines that we cannot cross.

What are the signs we’ve crossed un-crossable lines? If we have lost the clear proclamation of the gospel—Jesus’ death on the cross for our sin and in our place—or we downplay repentance and forgiveness, I think we’ve removed the intentional stumbling block of the cross. That would be a first warning sign.

If we teach the message in such a way that excludes or de-emphasizes the Bible, I think that’s a difficulty as well. If I find myself underplaying the role of Jesus in salvation or the necessity to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, that’s another red flag.

What works today

Some segments of our evangelical churches have adopted some changes and are doing anything they can through advertising, media, social media, coffee houses, movie theaters, music, the arts, and other venues to have a meaningful conversation with the world. Some Christians feel that giving any ground toward what they perceive (often rightly) as compromise with the culture will eventually cross the line into a heresy and pluralism slide.

Obviously, we don’t want to be syncretists with the gospel message. But contextualization means change will occur. We will be looking for new ways to translate the gospel that help others grasp its message. This is not accommodating the culture; it’s building meaningful relationships with people and speaking with them about the gospel (on the gospel’s own terms) in ways that make sense to them.

So when has change gone too far? When the gospel no longer looks or sounds like good news and Jesus no longer looks or sounds like the Jesus found in the pages of Scripture. But if the feet of those who bring the gospel are beautiful upon the hills, it is at least partly because those who hear the gospel are able to understand meaningfully the wonderful person and work of Jesus. The feet can still be beautiful even after you change shoes.

This article was originally published at: Christianity Today.

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Still Celebrating Easter

Scott Armstrong

Ready for a quiz? What period of the Christian calendar are we in right now?

If you answered, “Easter” or “Eastertide,” congratulations!  I admit that I have written quite a bit about Advent and Lent, and both of those are very important periods in our spiritual walk.  But Eastertide is just as important, even if it goes overlooked by many of us this time of year.

Rich Villodas, lead pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, recently wrote about why the season of Eastertide is important for the Church.

“For centuries, many in the Church have recognized that Easter is not a one day event that we anticipate, and then just like that, vanishes.  The Church has affirmed that the power of the resurrection is more than a transient moment, but deserves sustained reflection.”

While Lent is 40 days long and is a time of fasting, Eastertide is 50 days long and leads us to a life of feasting!

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Villodas highlights three ways we can focus our attention during this sustained period of Easter.

  1. Eastertide reminds us that through the resurrection Jesus is victorious over the powers of death.

As I have written before, when Jesus rose from the tomb, he proved his sweeping, effective dominion over the powers of sin, death, and the grave.  However, Easter is not just something nice and important that happened to Jesus.  We are invited into that cosmic re-ordering.  The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is also available to all those who choose to follow him!

“It’s very possible to sing about Jesus conquering the grave,” Villodas reminds us, “and the next day be complicit in systems, structures and habits that bring glory to the powers of death.”  This season assures that we live in the “reverberation of resurrection” still ongoing today.

  1. Eastertide reminds us that God’s future life is available to us to enjoy and express to the world.

Just as Mary Magdalene was told to not hold on to Jesus, but rather to go and tell the good news instead (John 20:17), so we are able to offer a hope to those that desperately needs it.  Easter is not Easter if its message is not proclaimed to the world.

Pastor Villodas states it this way, “There’s probably no better time to pray for the healing of the sick because the resurrection is a reminder that one day there will be no sick.  There’s probably no better time to work for peace, because the resurrection is a reminder that one day there will be no war.  There’s probably no better time to celebrate and feast, because the resurrection is a reminder that we are headed to a banquet.  Christians, like our Lord, are to live from the future. Our communities and individual lives point to what’s coming.”

  1. Eastertide calls us to life that cultivates joy.

I am still amazed at the fact that the women present at the empty tomb that first Easter morning “hurried away…afraid yet filled with joy” (Mt. 28:8).  If we have been Christians for many years, we may have sadly lost any wonderment about Easter, let alone awe or even fear.  The tragedy is that the resurrection has become commonplace for many of us.  And if that is the case, the next thing to be lost is joy.  Many of us carry the self-denial and somber attitude of Lent through Eastertide and every other part of the year, for that matter.

But Easter is a time of celebration!  He is risen!  In the days after his resurrection, we find Jesus repeatedly eating, feasting, and rejoicing (Lk. 24:40-42; Jn. 21:9-13).  As always, but especially in this season of Easter, we have the privilege of doing the same!

Villodas wonders if at the end of history, the question God asks us will not be whether we abstained from sin.  What if the question is “Did you enter into the joy that was available to you?”

That’s the invitation offered us during Eastertide.  Jesus is alive! So let us eat, drink, and indeed be merry!

 

Choosing to Live in Easter

Scott Armstrong

Lent and Holy Week have been pretty important in my life and my spiritual walk through the years.  And there is nothing better than when the fasting and solemnity they bring finally culminates in the massive outburst of joy at Easter.  Christ is risen! There is no better celebration than Easter!

Or at least there should be.

In many cultures, churches see a bump in attendance at Easter and everyone dresses up. The music is lively and high-quality. There are years that even the sun seems to shine brighter on Easter!

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This past Easter did not exactly look like that in the church my wife and I pastor. We serve as missionaries in Dominican Republic and are volunteering as pastors of a small church plant in a dusty neighborhood on the outskirts of Santo Domingo.  We had been talking up our Holy Week services for many weeks, especially Easter.  We had prepped our leadership team for the important day, and the celebration was ready!

Or so we thought.

We arrived early and I had forgotten the keys to the little, concrete building. Normally that’s not a problem. But today the other two laypeople who always get there early to clean and set up were not there.  After a few phone calls and our 15-year old running a couple blocks to get the key, we found ourselves sweeping and wiping off chairs five minutes before the start of service.

Not that there were a bunch of people awkwardly waiting to get in.  Holy Week is vacation week in much of Latin America and half of our congregation was out of town.  When you are a church of 45, that gets noticed easily.  By the time the service started, we were mostly kids and a few sleepy adults.  Jesus is alive! But are we?!

The leader we are training to be the future pastor preached well, but it had more to do with Father’s Day than Easter.  Father’s Day is in two months.

Maybe you are better than me.  Maybe you don’t let any of this stuff get to you. But I found it distracting and disheartening.  What a downer!  This is supposed to be Easter, people!

To be honest, I was in a slumber, and it was of my own doing.  I needed a Resurrection as much as anybody.

We began to read from the passage in Luke.

“They found the stone rolled away from the tomb…”

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

“He is not here; he is risen!”

With each familiar phrase, my eyes started to open in wonder to all God was doing in our midst.

The sixth-grade girl I was sharing my Bible with was following along in silent interest. She had not even wanted to read anythingwhen we met her in Sunday School two years ago.

The university student leading worship was doing a tremendous job.  He truly believes what he’s saying and singing!

Hey, that’s the fourth time in a row that José has come; God must really be doing something in his life.

The evidence of life was all around me.  Low attendance? Fidgety little kids? Off-topic message? Who cares?!  Christ busted out of the tomb and that changes everything!

Next week I can guarantee you that there are going to be lots of things that go wrong before, during, and after our services.  But I will choose to live in the reality of Easter.  All that stuff is inconsequential compared to our risen Lord triumphing over death, hell, and the grave!

Will you join me this week? Lent and Holy Week have come and gone.  But Easter remains.  Why would you keep looking for the living among the dead?

Mary Magdalene

By Frederick Buechner

It’s at the end that she comes into focus most clearly. She was one of the women who was there in the background when he was being crucified—she had more guts than most of them had—and she was also one of the ones who was there when they put what was left of him in the tomb. But the time that you see her best is on that first Sunday morning after his death.

John is the one who gives the greatest detail, and according to him it was still dark when she went to the tomb to discover that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance and that, inside, it was empty. She ran back to wherever the disciples were hiding out to tell them, and Peter and one of the others returned with her to check out her story. They found out that it was true and that there was nothing there except some pieces of cloth the body had been wrapped in. They left then, but Mary stayed on outside the tomb someplace and started to cry. Two angels came and asked her what she was crying about, and she said, “Because they have taken away my lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13). She wasn’t thinking in terms of anything miraculous, in other words; she was thinking simply that even in death they wouldn’t let him be and somebody had stolen his body.

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Then another person came up to her and asked the same questions. Why was she crying? What was she doing there? She decided it must be somebody in charge, like the gardener maybe, and she said if he was the one who had moved the body somewhere else, would he please tell her where it was so she could go there.

Instead of answering her, he spoke her name—Mary—and then she recognized who he was, and though from that instant forward the whole course of human history was changed in so many profound and complex ways that it’s impossible to imagine how it would have been different otherwise, for Mary Magdalene the only thing that had changed was that, for reasons she was in no state to consider, her old friend and teacher and strong right arm was alive again. “Rabboni!” she shouted and was about to throw her arms around him for sheer joy and astonishment when he stopped her.

Noli me tangere,” he said. “Touch me not. Don’t hold on to me” (John 20:17),thus making her not only the first person in the world to have her heart stop beating for a second to find him alive again when she’d thought he was dead as a doornail, but the first person also to have her heart break a little to realize that he couldn’t be touched anymore, wasn’t there anymore as a hand to hold on to when the going got tough, a shoulder to weep on, because the life in him was no longer a life she could know by touching it, with her here and him there, but a life she could know only by living it: with her here—old tart and retread, old broken-heart and last, best friend—and with him here too, alive inside her life, to raise her up also out of the wreckage of all that was wrecked in her and dead.

In the meanwhile, he had much to do and far to go, he said, and so did she, and the first thing she did was go back to the disciples to report. “I have seen the Lord,” she said, and whatever dark doubts they might have had on the subject earlier, one look at her face was enough to melt them all away like morning mist.

*Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words.

The Cross is Still There

By Scott Armstrong

Along with the rest of the world I watched yesterday as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France went up in flames.  The unspeakable tragedy became clear as its famous spire tumbled to the ground below. Millions of people correctly lamented such a horrendous loss and attempts to raise funds in order to refurbish the cathedral are thankfully bearing fruit, although the overall cost of renovation will be astronomical.

Amidst the wreckage, photos began to show the impact of the fire.  One in particular, by Reuters’ Philippe Wojazer, hit home with many of us.  It shows the altar inside Notre Dame, with smoke still rising from its ruins.  But, as many pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, the viewer’s eyes are not drawn at first to the orange-red embers of the ashes. The preeminent symbol rising from the wreckage is a golden cross.  After all the devastation and loss, the cross is still there.

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I am not the first one to write about this symbolism and I will assuredly not be the last. But the fact that this occurs during Holy Week is not lost on many of us.  In a world that proclaims in Europe and elsewhere that Christianity is outdated and nothing more than a fond relic, followers of Christ proclaim this week and always that Jesus’ death on the cross is still effective to change lives. In fact, we proclaim that God is still at work in a burning world.

Or do we?

Every year I call our people to reflect on our Lord’s journey to the cross during Lent. And every year I receive criticism from different leaders and church members.  “Lent is Catholic, not Evangelical!” “We celebrate a risen Lord; stop promoting empty traditions!” I know some of this is cultural according to the countries where I minister, and I don’t want to diminish that.  But I refuse to allow myself or my family to gloss over Good Friday in order to get to Easter.

Thus, especially during Lent, I have preached many times on the subject of the cross and Christ’s sacrifice.  On some occasions, I have had Christians come up to me afterwards and say, “Why do you preach on the cross? The cross is no more; what matters is the empty tomb.” Now I am clearly a proponent of preaching and living the reality of the Resurrection! However, there is no empty tomb without the cross.  There is no crown of glory without first a crown of thorns.

Although focusing on a symbol of ancient capital punishment makes us uncomfortable, the truth remains.  The cross is still there, whether we like it or not.

Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul said that Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  In the midst of rubble, this representation of death declares life to us.  In the midst of destruction, this symbol of scorn and ridicule brings hope.

This week, as we join Jesus in his journey through Gethsemane and Golgotha and then, yes, the Easter garden, perhaps an image from a smoldering Notre Dame could assist us.

Though some say it’s obsolete,

Though others feel awkward talking about it,

The cross is still there.

At Arm’s Length: A Lenten Reflection

In this season of Lent, I have been reflecting on a haunting phrase: “at a distance.” Doesn’t seem too scary or even noteworthy, right? Why would I say it is haunting?

It was the night of Jesus’ betrayal, the night before he would be crucified. Feet have been washed, Passover has been served, and the soldiers have taken Jesus away from the garden. The disciples have fled – well, sort of. All three writers of the synoptic gospels make it a point to tell us that one of Jesus’ chosen three, the man whose preaching would convert 3,000 in a day and who would become the pillar of the early church, followed Jesus “at a distance” (Mt. 26:58; Mk. 14:54; Lk. 22:54).

We often lambaste Peter, especially when he denies his Lord and calls down curses on himself.  Thank goodness we are not like him, right?

On closer examination, during this season of Lent, we realize that our discipleship looks a lot like Maundy Thursday Peter.  Joan Chittister says, “We believe, yes, but often only remotely, only intellectually.  We follow Jesus, of course, but, if truth were known, more likely at arm’s length, at a nice, antiseptic distance.  Imperturbably.  Our commitment is not the kind of commitment that jeopardizes our jobs or our relationships or our social standings.”

Ouch.

If we are honest with ourselves, we love the part of following Jesus that deals with multitudes being fed and blind men receiving sight.  Even the creative sermons and lessons Jesus teaches inspire and challenge us.  But that self-denial part? Not as popular nowadays.

Could it be that we are profoundly terrified of suffering? Chittister maintains that “when we refuse to suffer, we refuse to grow…Suffering is a stepping-stone to maturity. It moves us beyond fantasy to facts.”

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I don’t know about you, but I would many times rather take the shortcut to spiritual maturity instead of slogging painfully through trials and hurts. But that shortcut does not exist. And Lent reminds us of that. In this season we realize, along with Chittister, that we are ascetics. Thus, “we must be prepared to give up some things if we intend to get things that are even more important.”

With Jesus being interrogated, whipped, and nailed to a cross, Peter was still not ready to follow him there. The sacrifice was too great. The suffering too heinous.  It was better to follow Jesus at a distance.

Perhaps in these days being haunted by that phrase is not a bad thing. Perhaps we, too, will examine ourselves and choose growth instead of ease, intimacy instead of distance.

Dear American Church…I Am Not Renewing My Membership This Year

By Frank Powell

Dear American Church,

Let me cut to the chase. I am tired of this club. I want out.

Here is the thing. I didn’t sign up to join a club. Maybe there was a misunderstanding. Maybe I contributed to the confusion. I am not sure how we arrived here, but things are going to be different. I am not renewing my membership this year.

Here’s why.

Jesus didn’t die for a club.

The church should be missional. The church should have an external focus. The church should shine as a beacon of light in the community. I feel like you started this way. When you began, your focus was reaching the needs of your community and your world.

But something changed. Now you focus on your needs. Your mission is comfort and security…at all cost. You invite people into this “mission.” I am afraid you created a monster. A country club minus the golf course, which is the best part.

I love the church Jesus Christ died to establish. I believe in the church’s future. I believe the church is the primary means through which the world comes to know the power of the cross and salvation.

So, believe me when I say this decision is not a declaration of the global church. It is also not a declaration of every church in America. As long as the King sits on the throne, the church will thrive and be a beacon of light in a dark world. This is a declaration of the American church culture, generally speaking.

Let me highlight some of the reasons I think this a club.

Clubs pour time and resources back into themselves.

People in clubs think paying their “dues” gives them stock in the club. People in clubs expect resources to be used on them and their needs. The church of Jesus Christ should never equate giving with power. It should never use most of its resources to feed internal programs and events.

Clubs value comfort and security.

This is why you pay to enter clubs. You want to feel safe and comfortable. Clubs value health and comfort. I am not saying churches are wrong for pushing into suburbs. Our cities need men and women passionate about the mission of God in those areas.

But I am worried your desire to embrace suburbia is often more rooted in your country club mindset than in God’s direction.

Clubs keep conversations in the shallow end of the pool.

Clubs are not venues to share feelings, disappointments, and struggles. Clubs keep conversations in the kiddie pool.

“How ’bout them Cowboys? What about the stock market? Will Trump be the next President?”

True story…I have a close relative (let’s call her “Jill”) who was asked the question “How are you doing?” by a member at her church. Jill had the audacity to tell this lady she was not doing well and needed prayers. The lady then proceeded to tell Jill she never intended Jill to actually tell her how she was doing.

This is a club mentality.

“How are you doing?” is not an open door to tell people about your problems. It is simply their way of acknowledging your presence.

Let’s be real, American church, you secretly hope “How are you doing?” does not lead to someone telling you about their problems. You don’t have time for that.

The church of Jesus Christ should value transformative community. You should bear one another’s burdens. No one should walk the road alone. No one. Galatians 6:2 says you fulfill the law of Christ by bearing one another’s burdens. That’s weighty stuff.

Are you bearing anyone’s burdens, American church?

People in clubs want to make their club the biggest, brightest one around.

Being a club is about competing. I am competing against you. You are competing against me. Clubs don’t care if they steal people from other clubs. In fact, stealing people from other clubs is calling “winning.” It shows that one club offers something another club does not.

This looks a lot like the American church. You view stealing people from other churches as “winning” because the bottom line is attendance on Sunday.

The church of Jesus Christ should view church growth through the lens of people coming to know Jesus. How many people have you baptized this year? How many people know Jesus today that did not know Him a year ago?

Why is this a competition, American church???

Clubs only invite people into their lives that look like them.

Clubs value likemindedness. The church of Jesus Christ should value diversity. Can you honestly tell me, American church, you value diversity? You chalk up your lack of diversity to things like cultural differences.

Really?

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Clubs are divisive and argumentative.

A few days ago my wife and I passed eight churches on the way to the church we were attending. We live 1.5 miles from the church building. Eight church buildings in 1.5 miles. That’s one building every .15625 miles (sorry, I like numbers).

I understand I live in the Bible belt, but is it necessary to have that many notches on the belt?

Please do not misunderstand me…this country is diverse and you need different expressions of the church. But do you really need 8,000,000,000 churches in one city? This, however, is what clubs do. Insiders believe their way of doing things is THE way. This is a dangerous trap.

When the focus shifts away from Jesus, the level to which you will become divisive has no end. This starts by refusing to associate with those outside of Jesus. Then it moves to those outside of your fellowship (or denomination). Then it moves to people within your denomination who think similarly but differ on one “important” issue. Then it moves to those in your denomination who think less like you. And so on, and so on.

Eventually you create what you see today. Over 9,000 different denominations (your divisiveness makes it difficult to even define a denomination). Do you see the slippery slope?

American church, if you rallied around Jesus and not your traditions, your impact would be exponentially greater.

People in clubs value keeping everyone happy.

Clubs hate losing members, so they cater to every need. If Joe is unhappy about this change, the club caters to him. If Jill is unhappy about that change, the club caters to her.

Most churches today equate unity with happiness. Unity does not mean you keep everyone happy. Unity means you keep everyone focused on Jesus.

Some people feed on the attention they receive from getting their way. The church should be unapologetically focused on making disciples and shining light into the darkness. Clubs don’t like change. Clubs do things the way they have always been done. Making disciples and refusing to change are usually at odds with one another.

So which value drives you, American church? Making disciples or preserving traditions?

Honestly…

____________________

Again, I am not leaving church…I am leaving the club. There are churches living out the mission of Jesus Christ all across America. Praise God for these churches. But I am tired of spending time and energy contributing to a culture that fattens itself with more resources.

I am tired of spending my time convincing others I am right and they are wrong. This only feeds my natural tendency to be judgmental. If I am right, everybody else is wrong. But if Jesus is right, love, grace, and truth become the standards by which I look at the world. I like those standards. It feeds a much less natural tendency to accept and love.

I want to focus on those who haven’t experienced the gospel. I want to spend time figuring out how to minister to my neighbor whose marriage is on the rocks, my friend battling cancer, or my classmate struggling with pornography. I want to surround myself with a group of men and women that are missional.

There is hope for you, American church. There is hope because God reigns over all things and situations. There is hope because Jesus is the head of the church. But I can’t sit comfortably in a club any longer.

I want to be join a movement. I hope you understand.

Sincerely,

Frank Powell

I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!

This article was originally published at: FrankPowell.me