We’re told we should contextualize the gospel, but this sounds like watering it down or forfeiting important principles. So, what nonessential gospel elements can be contextualized?
The word “contextual” comes from the Latin, contextere, which means “to weave together.” The idea of weaving two different materials together to form one cloth serves as a beautiful picture of what happens every time we share the good news of Jesus Christ. When we share the gospel story, we attempt to communicate how God already has woven together his story with ours in the coming of Jesus Christ.
The gospel of Jesus Christ constantly contextualizes the message of God’s kingdom with the various people of this planet. When God sent Jesus into the world, he contextualized the good news of the kingdom of heaven in such a way we who lived here on the earth could hear, understand and believe. Jesus came teaching about the kingdom of God in the language of his community at that time. He also taught with pictures and parables that employed everyday things to teach deep truths about the kingdom of God.
Started at Pentecost
At Pentecost, the Spirit of God blessed the process of contextualizing the gospel message when he helped each person in the crowd hear the good news of Jesus Christ in their own language (see Acts 2:7-8). Translating any message from one language into another requires tough choices on the part of the translator. It isn’t always easy to figure out which word or phrase in one language best represents a word or phrase in another language. Nevertheless, guided by the Holy Spirit, the contextualization of the gospel at Pentecost resulted in 3,000 people having their lives woven into the life of God.
Following the pattern set forth at Pentecost, God’s people continually look for ways to communicate the gospel so people can hear, understand and believe. At a bare minimum, this means church continually works to translate the gospel into the various languages of the world. It also means the church uses different musical styles, different kinds of worship services, different kinds of community gatherings and different word pictures to accomplish the same goal.
The right story
Contextualizing the gospel does not mean anything goes. We can’t tell just any story and end up woven into the story of God. We must tell the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as we have received it in the Scriptures. Without Jesus’ story, we fail to actually contextualize the gospel message.
The location of the line that separates good contextualization from bad contextualization isn’t always clear. Communities often struggle over how best to translate the gospel message. Nevertheless, if we do our best to tell the story of Jesus with words and images that make God’s kingdom accessible to the various peoples of the earth, we can trust the Spirit of God will continue to do the work of weaving people into the kingdom of God.
Taylor Sandlin, pastor
Southland Baptist Church
San Angelo, Texas
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