One of the things I appreciated about the Pastors' Conference at the SBC this year was the emphasis, at least on the second day, on preaching the Gospel in the language of those to whom we have been sent. Yep, contextualization and cultural relevance was said to be a virtue, and I agree. I know what some of you are thinking... "pomo, emerging church, missional, church growth nonsense." All I have to do is scan a few popular blogs to find this kind of response to the phrase "cultural relevance." But Let me explain why I believe we must contextualize and strive for cultural relevance in our ministry.
The main reason is because God himself is the Great Contextualizer. God contextualized, both by using human language so that all men could understand, but also by speaking truth and acting in a way that allowed a particular culture to get his message. Contextualization (for the church) boils down to using cultural symbols to translate eternal truth. The truth remains the same, but its expression varies. Think about it - God contextualized his message by choosing to reveal himself through the use of Ancient Near Eastern law forms. I imagine some think God invented case law, etc. but the truth is God used what was already in place; what was culturally understandable. God also chose to use various genres of literature to make his glory known, speaking to us in poetry and prose, in historical narrative and epistles. Beyond this he also commanded circumcision to be the sign of the covenant between himself and his people - a rite used by many other peoples during the same time period. In other words, God did not invent circumcision, but used an established cultural practice for his own purposes. God did all of this in order to bring himself, his work and his gospel into focus. This is why Jesus taught the way he did. He did not simply use parables, but "culturally relevant" parables. In fact, some of his parables are so culturally relevant to a first century, Palestinian, agrarian culture they make little sense to 21st century, U.S. urbanites without the help of some background information.
Churches that contextualize well are not sugar-coating, watering down, changing or ignoring the gospel or the hard truths of Scripture. Sidestepping orthodoxy is not contextualization, but unfaithfulness to God leaving the church with nothing left to make clear. Churches that contextualize well speak the language of the people, bringing Jesus and the gospel into focus. This demands that we have a firm grasp on both doctrine and culture.
In reality, most people get this on some level. If we did not allow for contextualization, we would have to do away with translating the Scripture into different languages, stop writing new songs that express our ancient faith, and put an end to our cross-cultural missionary endeavors all together. These are obvious examples, but the point should be clear.
What does this mean on a practical level? It at least means that we need to know people (individually and/or collectively) well enough to apply the gospel to them in the most appropriate way. Yes, we preach law and Gospel in our evangelism, but what that looks like and what aspects of the Gospel we will push forward must be determined based on who we are talking to. If you have read my posts on evangelism or worship you know where I am coming from.
Let me be clear by saying contextualization does not mean accommodating our culture at every point. In many ways, we contextualize the truths of God's word when we work against the sins prevalent in our culture, in counter-cultural ways. Defending the innocent, liberating the oppressed, serving the poor, rebuilding community, and every other value of God's Kingdom requires a unique expression in each context. And in light of our increasingly globally-connected culture, what this looks like will begin to appear very different from what we were doing last century.
The church that contextualizes the Gospel is a church faithful to the example and command of God. May God give us the grace to speak plainly to the people. I believe we are called to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of God, while preaching them to the world following the example of God. Let's not merely contextualize, but let's contextualize well. Let's not try to make the bible relevant, but to demonstrate that it is relevant to every tribe tongue and nation as it points us all to the one who died on the cross for our sins.