The City On A Hill–A Call To Biblical Contextualization

by Rick Pidcock

One of my favorite games growing up was, “Find Daddy.” My dad would hide somewhere. And then my brothers and I would search for him. Occasionally he would call out to us, which would make us even more determined to find him.

Unfortunately, however, many churches today have taken a “Find Daddy” approach to ministry. Rather than proactively engaging our communities every day with the gospel, we occasionally invite them to our evangelistic meetings. Rather than attempting to communicate the gospel openly to them in their language, we assume that they should come learn our cultural language.


Christ has called us to be the city on a hill that cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14). Yet, many of us have taken a “Hide and seek” approach to the culture around us. This isolationist approach to Christian living is slowly, yet surely destroying our effectiveness in the mission that Christ has called us to.

The fact is that we all to some degree already are sensitive to our culture. In his book Planting New Churches In A Postmodern Age, Ed Stetzer writes, “Every church is seeker-sensitive to some degree. If we are worshiping in the local language, wearing local clothing, and singing music written in the last one thousand years, we are using a worship style that is sensitive to those who attend…The real question is to what degree we will be seeker-sensitive.”1

One author jokes, “We invite the unchurched to come and sit on seventeenth-century chairs (which we call pews), sing eighteenth-century songs (which we call hymns), and listen to a nineteenth-century instrument (a pipe organ), and then we wonder why they think we’re out-of-date!”2

While many of us may not agree with the goals or solutions that most seeker-sensitive churches have promoted, we all must admit that there is a struggle within ourselves over how to proclaim the eternal, unchanging truth of God to the ever-changing culture of our post-modern world. If we are to effectively make disciples of this generation, we must understand how to communicate the revelation of God to our own communities.

Biblical contextualization is the proclamation of and response to the revelation of God in the cultural language of a local community, as displayed through the incarnate Christ.

SECTION ONE: THE THEOLOGY OF CONTEXTUALIZATION

At the very heart of biblical contextualization is the incarnation of Christ. During the high priestly prayer of Christ, Jesus says in John 17:18, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” As Christ ministered to His culture through the incarnation, He has called us to minister incarnationally as well.

Incarnational ministry is rooted in the gospel.

The gospel is the good news that the Person and work of Christ fulfills and guarantees all of the promises of God for us. In Christ, the law and prophecies of God are perfectly fulfilled (Matthew 5:17). In Christ, the central theme of the Bible is revealed (John 1:45; 5:39). And in Christ, the promises of God are guaranteed to us who believe (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Only through the incarnation of Christ would we have any hope of experiencing the gospel. Because through the incarnation Christ is both fully God and man (Colossians 2:9), He guarantees that His substitutionary life and death are both satisfactory to God and sufficient for our salvation. Therefore, the incarnation itself is the unifying factor of the gospel, in that it brings sinful man into perfect, eternal oneness with the holy God.

Thus, when Christ says that He is sending us into the world, He is saying that incarnational ministry (biblical contextualization) is rooted in the gospel.

Incarnational ministry is characterized by humility.

The primary attitude of biblical contextualization should be one of humility. The incarnation of Christ was the most humiliating event in all of history. Although Christ is divine by nature, He humbled Himself by becoming as nothing, becoming a servant, being born as a man, and by obediently dying on the cross (Philippians 2:7,8).

It is that attitude of selfless humility that Paul says we are to have ourselves. Thus, biblical contextualization views the community being ministered to as having no less value than the minister himself. We must forsake the idea that we are somehow qualitatively above the sinful people in the surrounding neighborhoods. We must consider ourselves as nothing, become their servant, wrap ourselves in their struggles, and die to our own personal ambitions of ministerial pride and greed.

Incarnational ministry is displayed in the local community.

The context of incarnational ministry is in your local community. Christ did not come to this earth and seclude Himself with His “Christian” friends. Instead, He “dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This phrase carries the idea that Christ pitched a tabernacle in the midst of the people. His ministry was very personal and interactive with those around Him.

In the same way, we are to be tabernacles living amongst this world, showing our communities the glory of God through grace and truth. We must not live secluded lives. Alto often we get so immersed in our Christian churches and schools, and with our Christian friends, that we have indirectly secluded ourselves from the lost world around us. But we must be the city on a hill, not the village hiding in the woods.

Incarnational ministry is expressed in the local language.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 is a commonly misunderstood and misapplied passage in evangelicalism today. Many churches use this passage as their license to do whatever they want to do. But we need to carefully consider what Paul is actually saying.

Once again, Paul begins by stressing that a humble spirit must characterize biblical contextualization (vs. 19). Then he shows how that attitude of humility transforms the way he pursues making disciples. Paul contextualized his life and ministry to the specific community that he was trying to reach with the gospel.

We must have an authentic interaction with our immediate culture. Archibald Robertson says, “He was a Jew and was not ashamed of it (Acts 18:18; 21:26)…He was emancipated from the law as a means of salvation, yet he knew how to speak to them because of his former beliefs and life with them (Gal. 4:21).”3

Paul understood that the true stumbling block of the gospel message should be Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23). Unfortunately, many churches have designed their ministries so that the stumbling block is their irrelevant ministry style.

When I was studying at Bible college, one of my professors told the ministerial class of a recent graduate that determined to wear a coat and tie to his church everyday. The young man’s pastor called my professor complaining that this young man was perceived as stuffy and arrogant in their local church. That young man was making the stumbling block his suit coat and tie, rather than the message of the gospel.

We also must have a pure interaction with the immediate culture. Paul makes certain to say that it is an interaction “not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21). Although Christ had an authentic ministry, He also maintained His distinctive purity.

Paul also understood the boundaries of biblical contextualization. He would not have determined his worship style simply by taking a poll of what the unsaved community wanted. He would not have watered down the gospel just so that more people would buy his newest book. He had disciplined, authentic interaction with the local communities, being governed by the clear Word of God.

Robertson summarizes these two aspects of using local culture in biblical contextualization when he says, “He knew how to put the gospel to them without compromise and without offense.”4

SECTION TWO: THE APPLICATION OF CONTEXTUALIZATION
Biblical contextualization must take into consideration both the proclamation of and the corporate response to the revelation of God. These are a few ways that our ministry has applied biblical contextualization to our community. I do not mean this as a legalistic set of rules that guarantee God’s stamp of approval on your ministry. And by no means is this a comprehensive list of all the ways we have applied biblical contextualization to our ministry. But I hope that these practical examples will help you in your pursuit of making disciples within the context of your own community.

Concerning the proclamation of God’s revelation.

Keep the simplicity of the gospel central to everything.

Theology can become very complex. But the gospel is very simple. The biblical response to the gospel is repentant faith. Just as we receive Christ by faith, we also continue to grow in Him by faith. Everyone needs the gospel. The unsaved need to believe the gospel in order to have eternal life. The saved need to believe the gospel in order to have a continually transformed life. So when dealing with a culture that does not understand the complexity of deep systematic theology, show them how the simplicity of the gospel transforms everything.

Preach in the language that best communicates God’s eternal truth to your community.

A few months ago, during one of our small group Bible studies, an unsaved couple asked us, “What does it mean to be saved?” As we were explaining this to them, we used the term, “born again.” Then, with a rather confused look on his face, the husband asked, “So what’s the difference between being born again and being saved?”

This is the perfect illustration that unchurched people do not speak Christianese. If we preach in certain communities using words such as, “Justification, sanctification, glorification, ecclesiastical separation, hypostatic union,” and other such terms, they are going to feel lost, confused, and dumb.

We do preach about those great doctrines. But we always try to accompany each term with a definition or an illustration that they can understand. We cannot speak the language that we do in college, seminary, or even in many of our churches. We must communicate God’s eternal truth in their language if we wish for them to understand and respond in faith.

Preach in a setting that is as non-distracting and as efficient as possible.

If the attention is to be on the message of the cross, then we must work to eliminate distracting elements from the setting that we preach in. For example, we have found that having a children’s ministry for younger kids during the message will eliminate many possible distractions as well as provide a more efficient avenue of discipleship for all age groups.

Sponsor community events that incorporate a common interest with some aspect of the gospel.

We have monthly, and sometimes spontaneous, activities called “City Lights,” in which we gather together to do something that we enjoy for the sake of fellowship in the gospel. We may play games, watch the Denver Broncos blow their games, attend a local cultural event, or rent a movie such as The Village in order to evaluate its message in light of the gospel. For an example of such an event, read our review of The Village at www.northfieldchurch.com. You can find it by clicking on the “Archive” link of the Pastor’s devotional.

Utilize the gifts of each church member in their own individual context.

Your local context is as extensive as the individual contexts of each member in your church. And ultimately, the pastor’s goal should be to prepare each member to minister incarnationally within their own context (Ephesians 4:12).

Concerning the corporate response to God’s revelation.

Communicate the theology of whole-life worship.

Biblical worship is the gospel-driven sacrifice of one’s entire life to God (Romans 12:1). We must communicate that worship is not merely a time of singing five songs on Sunday morning. But rather, it is a continual sacrifice of magnifying the supremacy of God through every moment in life.

Communicate the connection between whole-life and corporate worship.

Corporate worship is the unified offering of praise to God from believers that have been offering whole-life worship throughout the week (Romans 15:5-6). It is important that every worshiper understands how the whole-life worship “one anothering” of Romans 14 prepares them for unified corporate worship.

Communicate the biblical commands and principles of corporate worship.

While our confidence lies not in a list of “do’s and don’ts,” we must still be obedient to what God requires in His Word. Thus, it is important for every community of believers to understand exactly what kind of worship God desires from us.

Allow for a variety of orderly biblical responses in your corporate worship time.

Worship is a response to the revelation of God (Romans 12:1). Responses recorded in Scripture include singing, praying, reading Scripture, communion, testimony, and giving, among other things. Postures include bowing, lifting up of hands, dancing, clapping, as well as a number of other actions. It is just as important that we avoid vain repetition in our worship as we should in prayer.

Utilize the musical gifts of growing church members.

Just as there are so many varied responses and postures in worship, there are also a great variety of musical instruments used in the Bible (Psalm 150:3-6). Not everyone plays the piano and the organ. But their musical ability to play something other than the two “fundamental instruments” can still be used in some setting of corporate worship. Not everybody who plays an instrument is professionally trained. But they should also have an opportunity to minister with the abilities God has given them. And not everybody who is professionally trained is spiritually growing. Yet, it is vital that all musicians being used in the church have a growing relationship with God.

Use a style of music that best applies the principles of God’s character, worship, music, and one-anothering to your community.

Most of us will admit that the Bible never commands us which style of music to use in worship. Of course, some have tried to find a 1/3 beat pattern requirement through the trumpet in 1 Corinthians 14, from the ocean tides, and from an old man with a pacemaker who died in a rock concert. But for the most part, we understand that music styles will mostly be determined by applying biblical principles, not by obeying explicitly detailed commands.

With that in mind, we must be passionate about having a corporate worship time that is governed by the biblical principles of God’s character, worship, music, and one-anothering. But we must also make musical applications that most expediently flesh out those principles in our own individual communities (1 Corinthians 10:23).

In our church plant, we use a variety of hymns, praise choruses, and psalms. But each song must be written in a language both magnifies the supremacy of God, and that is understandable to our community.

For example, a few weeks ago we sang “Come Thou Fount.” But we changed the words in stanza two from “Here I raise mine Ebenezer” to “Here I raise my sign of victory.” When we stand before God, He is not going to ask us whether or not we worshiped Him in the same language that they did two hundred years before we were born. But He wants us to worship Him according to how the timeless principles of God’s Word apply to the community that He has placed us in.

Musically, we are using a piano, guitar, and violin. These three instruments have been really effective in helping our diverse community of worshipers magnify God with their minds and hearts.

Allow your community to respond in a biblically-driven way in their own language.

Ever since the tower of Babel, language has continually been changing. There is no universal worship language, just as there is no universal language. God does not intend for us all to speak and to worship Him within the same culture.

We must allow room for other cultural responses than merely the classical English culture of decades and centuries past. We must apply the biblical principles to our own context, rather than simply copying what all of our friends and mentors in ministry are doing either out of habit or fear.

Rest in the knowledge that Christ perfects our always imperfect worship.

Ministering incarnationally as Christ did means that we may find ourselves in a culture that is rather uncomfortable for us. Yet, the incarnate Christ joined in imperfect worship with sinners, even after having experienced the perfect worship of heaven.

It is not the quality or style of our song that makes it acceptable before God. Rather, it is the high priestly work of Christ. 1 Peter 2:5 says that we are “a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Conclusion

We must learn to proclaim and respond to the revelation of God in the cultural language of each local community, as displayed through the incarnate Christ.

In order to do this, we need to give each other freedom to have ministries that may appear different from each other. We must not be afraid of updating our application of biblical principles. And we must not be afraid of rejection from those brothers in Christ who may think we are forsaking holiness.

We must believe in the indisputably foundational doctrines, obey the universal commands of scripture, and apply the biblical principles of ministry to our own communities. But when our identity becomes one single application of a principle that God intended to be applied individually to each context, our ministries will begin to die.

Christ has commissioned us to incarnationally make disciples through the gospel. And we must not allow the abuses that many churches have given certain biblical terms to deter us from what Christ has clearly called us to. As God the Father sent His Son into the world, so let us minister incarnationally as the city on a hill that cannot be hidden.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1 Stetzer, Ed. Planting New Churches In a Postmodern Age. (Nashville, TN.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), p. 269.

2 Warren, Rick. The Purpose Driven Church. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 290.

3 Robertson, Archibald Thomas. Word Pictures In the New Testament. Volume IV (Nashville, TN.: Broadman Press), p. 147.

4 IBID, p. 147.

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4 thoughts on “The City On A Hill–A Call To Biblical Contextualization

  1. I was doing some research on biblical contextualization for a class and I came across your site. you should read The Shaping Of Things To Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch
    It’s an amazing book. It speaks a lot on the stuff you talked about.

    kacie 🙂

  2. Contextualization is one of those vague terms used today by alot of people meaning different things. So I understand the confusion behind it.

    I would simply define it as the following:

    Contextualization is living your life, in response to the way Christ lived his life, in a way that clearly points those around you to their hope in Christ, in a cultural language that they understand.

    If you would like Bible verses for that definition, I can provide some. But I think that simple definition pretty much covers what I think the Bible promotes as contextualization.

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