I hope that this contribution to the important discussion on contextualization going on in evangelicalism will be received and read in a constructive way. I am not trying to take issues with personalities. These are important issues. I am not defending those who “sell the store.” I join Dr. Macarthur and those who appreciate him in praying for constant, clear communication of the Gospel.
The first is regarding my strong statements regarding contextualization. I believe that byword has become a curse. â€œWe have to change the way we dress, look, sing, in order to â€˜contextualize,â€™ to connect with people at the level of their exposure to broader culture.â€ This isnâ€™t anything really now. I can think of just 15 or so years ago, when a prominent pastor in the U.S. took his whole staff into a X-rated movie so they could experience what their people were experiencing; and this was advocated in a national magazine. Thatâ€™s actually 15 years ago, the first time Iâ€™d seen something like that, and it seemed very extreme. But itâ€™s become a symbol of where the church growth movement was going to go…
All ministry is mind to mind. The sooner you can learn to leapfrog the culture, the better. Weâ€™re after how people think, and how they think about truth and God and sin and salvation. In any context, all youâ€™re endeavoring to do is to help them understand the authoritative Word of God. You start from where they are, sometimes you have to show them the Bible is the Word of God.
Some people ask, why do I wear a tie? Because I have respect for this responsibility. I wear a suit because this is a more elevated experience for people. Iâ€™m trying to convey what people convey at a wedding: this is more serious than any normal activity. This is the most serious occasion anyone will attend in their life: the preaching of the Word of God. I donâ€™t want to join with our culture in sinking into the casual. We have a generation thatâ€™s never been to anything formal. And if my dress goes down, the people at the bottom go down, and then we gym shorts!…
Because all Iâ€™m trying to do is explain the meaning of the Word of God. And you want to use any avenue to do so short of affirming the culture. I donâ€™t need to borrow or certainly not to accredit the culture by being overly familiar with it. Becoming all things to all men means looking into the situation and seeing where they are in their religious thinking, to find a starting point to move them into Scripture.
-Dr. John Macarthur, Q & A session, liveblogged by Evers Ding at the 2008 Shepherd’s Conference at Grace Community Church, on the subject of contextualization.
It’s fairly clear to me what Dr. Macarthur and others emulating him are saying, and it seriously confuses me. Confuses me to the point that I have to wonder if they are actually saying something else.
First, let me be clear that while I am a nobody, God has called me and allowed me to spend 16 years preaching to atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, secularists and cultural religionists from all over the world and half of America. My audience is not only multi-cultural, they are young and generally rebellious against religion and authority. I preach 12-20 times a month. I teach the Bible to all of these people 4 hours a day, and my goal is to give them a clear grasp of the Biblical narrative and to be able to hear and understand a 2 Ways To Live presentation of the Gospel with understanding. I labor- and I do mean labor- in the cause of communicating the Gospel, the authority and relevance of the Bible and the invitation of God to faith and discipleship across cultural lines. I have thought long and hard over the issues Dr. Macarthur discusses.
I depend on prayer and the preaching of the Bible entirely as my spiritual means. I do not let my chapel preachers use film or music clips except on rare occasions. I never use them and dislike them in preaching. I tell guest preachers not to use them. I have no time for the compromise of the Gospel for any reason and I say so to the point of annoyance. I want my students to hear messages FROM THE BIBLE, about the Christ of the Bible and explained by Biblical texts. I want my Muslims to go back home remembering men with open Bibles talking about Jesus.
I thought Ashamed of the Gospel was an awesome book and still do. Anyone who wants to take whatever disagreements I’ve had with Phil Johnson and the Pyros and turn it into an endorsement of compromising the Gospel, deserting scripture in preaching or adopting the language of culture as the primary “story” we’re telling needs to step outside and roll up your sleeves. I’ll be right there to settle this.
I agree with Dr. Macarthur completely that gathered worship is no place to let the culture dominate or call the shots. I am all for worship being determined by the worship vision of the Biblical texts and the pursuit of worship that magnifies the Solas.
I hear what Dr. Macarthur is talking about. I loathe the tactics of compromisers who remake and morph the Gospel into the message of the dominant culture. I believe Jesus stands in stark contrast to the empire. I want to see every culture be transformed by Christ .I believe the Gospel is the power of God, that prayer and the Word are our weapons and the Holy Spirit our great communicator.
But these comments on contextualization really confuse me along these very lines.
1. Dr. Macarthur is, just like me, part of a culture and he can’t deny it. His suit, and the meaning of his suit, is a perfect example. His statement that the suit shows he’s serious is a cultural value of middle to upper class white Americans. It’s not a value of Jesus and Jesus didn’t teach or endorse it. The meaning of that suit demonstrates that Dr. Macarthur is comfortable with an aspect of culture that he’s grown up with and into. He relates it to his faith, but it’s a decision he’s making about context. It doesn’t mean I’m not serious or that Mark Driscoll or his congregation aren’t serious.
Here in Eastern Kentucky, that suits communicates a lot more than seriousness. It communicates “he has money.” That suit keeps all kinds of men from ever entering a church. Probably less than 3% of the men in my county have ever had on a tie, much less a suit. Where do I stop them and say it’s Biblical and “serious” to wear a suit? It would be completely OUTSIDE of the Gospel for me to do so.
That’s not a condemnation of Dr. Macarthur’s suit. It’s simply what I’ve learned from my own awareness of cultural context, and it’s why I can say “Jesus doesn’t need you to wear a suit to be a serious Christian.”
2. Dr. Macarthur’s church architecture, worship service style, Bible translation, music and vocabulary are also aspects of a culture. They may be influenced by the Bible, but they are also influenced by being a white, western, American in the evangelical tradition. No one leapfrogged culture on any Sunday morning at GCC any more than they did at any church anywhere. We all brought our culture with us and the church has its own waiting for us when we get there.
3. Dr. Macarthur doesn’t leapfrog the culture. He preaches the Gospel from within a culture: the culture of independent Baptist fundamentalists, dispensationalists and Calvinists in California and America. He and his church are just as acculturated as Surgeon, Luther and Paul.
4. The Gospel can exist within any cultural setting, but IT JUDGES THAT CULTURE. It judges our language, our notions of race, our values, our politics, our definition of normal, our families, our religion, our economics, and on and on. Openly and honestly admitting this allows us to imperfectly deconstruct our cultural influences and move toward greater obedience to the Gospel.
5. Dr. Macarthur seems to believe that to admit any influence or any use of culture is to automatically be compelled to embrace the worst aspects of that culture and to immediately compromise the Gospel. That is simply not the case. it’s as if Tim Keller’s adaptation of a church plant to the culture of New York City or Driscoll’s to Seattle don’t exist. I know that’s not true, but what in the world does he think about Keller’s continually discussion of culture, Gospel and church planting?
6. Dr. Macarthur seems to think that once cultural context is recognized, the church will start on an inevitable road to becoming Steve Chalke and Brian Mclaren. This is, again, not true. What I really see here is a tension between the Macarthur style of reformed evangelicalism and the Driscoll style of the same. What would Macarthur say of Driscoll’s book Radical Reformission? It seems to me he would call it dangerous compromise.
7. At the end of the day, these comments seem to reflect the turn of the century, fundamentalist, separationist Baptist roots so many of us grew up in; a tradition that was highly reluctant to see and admit its own distinct culture; a culture that could have dress codes, rules, traditions and meanings, yet simply said they were being “Biblical.” A tradition that condemned many good things and still does in maintenance of its loyalty to itself. A culture that resents the fact that a newer generation of serious, Biblical evangelicals aren’t making the same choices about church and culture.
8. It is the recovery of a more consistent concern for being thoroughly Biblical that is causing the Kellers and the Driscolls to depart from the approach that tells itself it has leapfrogged culture. No one has, but without the admission of our own cultural settings and an awareness of the hazards and opportunities of working in a multi-cultural Kingdom for a King who is determined to get glory from all cultures, some will continue to promote a completely unneeded hostile pose toward people doing good missional thinking, church planting and evangelism.
9. I cannot help but believe that this discussion is not about the use of “context,” but about allowing the wrong elements of culture to determine the shape of the Christian message. To that, I add a wholehearted “amen.” But to the notion that all contextual thinking and context sensitive ministry is a waste of time, I can only be in wonder, and I am sure I am not alone. We needed our eyes opened to what it means to be missional in context. We taught our missionaries to do it, and we needed it in our own culture.
10. I truly appreciate that Dr. Macarthur is bold to raise, discuss and answer these issues. They are important. I believe he makes an important contribution, but I believe that many of us are eager to understand context, deconstruct our own, find contact points and speak contextually so we may speak Biblically. This is good, missional evangelism, preaching and church planting, and always has been.