My good friend Jason Stellman has some very thought provoking write-ups on contextualization here and here. Contextualization is all about learning to build a bridge from the "real world" into the world of Scripture so that the gospel would become more intelligible to people. Jason is answering this well, so read his blog.

But to add a bit to the discussion, here is something that Lee Strobel wrote a few years back that exposes the abuse of contextualization:
John Stott once said that good preaching begins in the Bible and then builds a bridge to the real world, which I think is true for believers, because they trust the Bible. Often for seekers, however, I find that the reverse works: I begin in the real world, connecting with their needs, and show them that I do understand where they've been and where they are. Based on that, I show the relevance of Scripture. I build a bridge from the real world into the world of Scripture.

Pastors who are obsessed with this approach treat the whole worship service as if we are in New York Square. In a Better Way Michael Horton asks these provoking questions, "Is it possible for the message to remain what it is if we must make it immediately intelligible to those who are currently "strangers and aliens" to it? And if the message if made something other than that gospel which "is the power of God unto salvation," are we doing anybody any favors by trying to make it as inoffensive to and indistinguishable from their present existence "under the sun"?
The real issue here is how we understand Paul's call "to become all things to all people." I contend, along with Jason, Horton and others, that God has already built this bridge for us, from the Word to the hearer, when the God appointed messenger proclaims the crucified body and shed blood of his son. Simplistic? Even worse, it is foolishness--as God calls it. But at least I can rest confident that the excellency of the power belongs to him and not us. Anything else is severely compromised. The results belong to Christ anyway. What think you?


  1. Thanks, Chris. You gotta read Willimon on this stuff. One of my favorite quotes from him - I'll have to dig around if you want the source - is something like this: "So often the church tries hard to speak to the world in the world's terms - she tries so hard that she falls right in."

    You'd enjoy "Preaching to the Baptized" and "Preaching to the Unbaptized" by Willimon.


  2. It is important to distinguish between contextualization and syncretism. You seem to be confusing the two. Proper contextualization never deminishes the message, it never waters it down, it just puts the gospel challenge in langauge people understand. If the message is watered down its not contextualization, its syncretism.

  3. Hi Matt,
    You write, "Proper contextualization never deminishes the message, it never waters it down..."

    Maybe in theory, but this rarely plays out in practice. I suppose "proper" is the operative word, but even then I would suggest that the two, in practice, end up showing that they are cut from the same cloth. Guys who are obssesed with contextualization, ironically, apply 1 Cor. 9:22 in a most syncretistic manner. God has contextualized his gospel quite nicely for us, we simply need to be faithful in honoring the method he has pre-ordained.

  4. Thanks Shane, I have been meaning to order this, but now will do. Appreciate your comments!