Monday is for Missiology: Engaging Well, part 2 -- Understanding When You Live
Last week, we began a series based on a sermon I gave at a pastors conference which I considered a primer on contextualization for pastors. Entitled "Engaging Well," part one discussed the need to discern the times. Today, we turn to the need to understand the era in which we live.
Every era and culture has influential voices. Paul understood which voices were affecting the lives of Athenians: "Then also, some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers argued with him. Some said, 'What is this pseudo-intellectual trying to say?' Others replied, 'He seems to be a preacher of foreign deities' because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. They took him and brought him to the Areopagus, and said, 'May we learn about this new teaching you're speaking of?'" (Acts 17:18-19).
Paul began to preach a plain message in verse 23: "What you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you." In verse 24, he declared the supreme position of God as Creator, "The God who made the world and everything in it--He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands."
Are there universal, underlying principles illustrated in Paul's dialogue? Yes. Quoting Epicurean and Stoic philosophers is rare today, but people sure are quoting Oprah a lot. I call it the Oprahfication of American religion. It is the worldview that says that truth is relative, and the goal of spirituality is journeying and personal peace.
The reality is that sometimes we forget the worldview of the era in which we live. The world is not filled with people who are aware they are spiritually dead and looking for Jesus. Today, people think they are spiritually alive and are finding their own path to God. God is fine with however they wish to live because the only thing they know is that Jesus said, "Judge not, lest ye be judged."
The command of Jesus is to proclaim the gospel in our own age. It is not merely to convert the thought pattern of our peers. To communicate clearly, we've got to understand the time in which we live. Preaching against all the bad things out there is easy. As a matter of fact, preaching against culture almost has become a regular occurrence in most churches and most pastors' conferences.
That is not the answer. Preaching against culture is like preaching against someone's house. It's where they live. There's good in it; there's bad in it; but preaching against all of it doesn't make sense. What makes sense is to preach against sin and tell Christians to go tell sinners about Jesus.
You can't engage well simply by going with the culture. You can't engage evangelistically without living in the culture. So how do we preach Christ in the culture without being captured by it? Missiologists have debated this for some time. In every culture, we find there are certain things we're going to hold onto as tools for mission and certain things we're going to reject as antithetical to the mission.
In every culture, there are going to be things we adopt. We're going to say there are certain things that are value-neutral that we can say we can adopt because they helps us do what God has called us to do in the time and place where we find ourselves. We can adopt those things, but there are other things we have to adapt. There are some things that need to be changed. For example, we may adapt the clothes the world wears. We don't just adopt all the clothes the world wears (as the father of three daughters, I assure you this is true).
The musical styles used in worship can be a tough issue for many churches. There is no such thing as Christian music, only Christian lyrics. So again, some things we adopt and some we adapt. There are parts that we adapt such as the way we dress. There are things in every culture we must reject because they lead to sin. Doing so involves us understanding when we live and proclaiming a gospel that is unchanged by time.
Jude 3 reminds us to "contend for the faith." It is the reminder that the content of our faith must be held onto tightly. We are reminded by 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 that we are to contextualize. Paul wrote, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." So I'm contending for the gospel and contextualizing the gospel by living it in different settings. To engage well we must contend and contextualize.
If we're going to engage the culture and the time in which we find ourselves, we are going to hold some issues with an open hand. The reality is some of us are going to sing different music, meet at different times and engage in different elements in the worship service. The ministry of the kingdom calls us to preach, proclaim and believe the same gospel.
The challenge is that some people want to contend for everything, ready to battle over every tertiary issue. Music, dress, hairstyles and the number of times you attend church each week all are debated. From pulpit to blog post, some have chosen a decade they prefer and will fight the rest of the body of Christ to stay in it. They will fight to drag the culture back to it, as well. They're filled with people identifying things for which we contend that are clearly things for which we contextualize.