Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Contextualizing the Messenger

"Are your efforts to contextualize the gospel all about you?" asks Eric McKiddie in a recent article for The Gospel Coalition. Like many who hear about the concept, those words brought to mind the goateed, hipster urban church planter or the foreign missionary in native dress. Contextualization was, well, kind of cool. And here he was moving from a somewhat stuffy church in the heartland to a more casual, trendy church plant in the Bible belt. Score! Preaching without a tie!

But as much as Eric enjoyed adapting to his new context, he came to realize he had yet to learn some of the lessons from 1 Corinthians 9.
Though I had read this passage countless times, I noticed something I never saw before: sacrifice was the hallmark of Paul's contextualization. Verse by verse, the Spirit began to show me that my enjoyment of my next context—even if not in egregiously sinful ways—betrayed more of a concern for my preferences and pride, not the lost.
Are You Serving Others or Yourself?

"I have become all things to all people" (1 Cor. 9:22) is a theme verse for contextualizing the gospel. Paul determined to meet people where they are. If we are not willing to bring the gospel to unbelievers in the midst of their mess—just like Jesus met us—then it will be hard for unbelievers to see that Jesus can save them out of the mess they are in.

But when you scan your eyes up a couple verses, you see the way Paul becomes all things to all people: "I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them" (1 Cor. 9:19, emphasis added). Contextualization starts with service. Becoming all things begins with serving all people.

Over and over Paul shows how he set aside his preferences to see others believe the gospel.

Are You Contextualizing to All or to Some?

In every sport I've played I've been coached to stay on the balls of my feet. Back on your heels, you are unprepared to react. But if you stay on the balls of your feet, you are ready to move toward the action. For Paul, contextualization was about doing gospel ministry "on the balls of his feet." He was ready to serve anyone at any time in any way.

This is different from how I often hear people discussing contextualization. People often talk about aiming at one context: the poor, the city, the university students, and so on. But Paul was ready to contextualize the gospel to anyone at hand:

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:19-22)

Wherever you live—whether city, suburb, or rural—are you willing to contextualize the gospel to all, even people you don't like so much? Or are you merely willing to become some things to some people, that by some means you might save some?

If you have an overly defined segment of the population that you are trying to reach, it is possible you are merely trying to reach people whose company you prefer.
Jesus Served Us

In Philippians 2:7, Paul describes the incarnation as Jesus "taking the form of a servant." At the outset, Jesus looked to the needs of others. Moreover, Jesus was a servant through his death, "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42). These bookends show that Jesus' entire ministry—from birth to death—was marked by giving up his rights as the eternally begotten Son to serve sinful people like us.

How do we respond to the way Jesus served us? By giving up our rights and serving others, whomever they may be, to bring them the gospel. It will require sacrifice, to be sure. But that sacrifice does not come without a reward, as Paul says, "I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings" (1 Cor. 9:23).

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1 comment:

California Girl said...

"If you have an overly defined segment of the population that you are trying to reach, it is possible you are merely trying to reach people whose company you prefer."

I needed to read this. Thank you. I feel chastised but encouraged to climb out of my box again!!!