I have been reading and thinking through Tim Challies interview with John MacArthur. I encourage you to go and read it if you have any interest at all in this issue. I want to talk a little bit about the issues of contextualization, culture, and ministry as I see it.
What is contextualization? In the best sense, it is the process of understanding your culture/audience well enough to be able to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ to them in a clear and undistracting way. For example, if you want to be able to have a conversation with guys in Alabama, you should probably learn something about hunting, fishing, or NASCAR. If you want to have a conversation with the local redneck, you should probably realize that if he offers you a Budweiser, he's being nice and not testing your teetotal conviction. You should further realize that, if you refuse his offer, you need to do so in such a way that he you do not needlessly offend him over the matter.
If that's all it meant, then John MacArthur would probably not be saying the things he is saying. I do not think that John MacArthur wants the Acts 29 guys to start wearing suits and ties. I do not think he minds a soul patch, cool glasses, and Steve Jobs type sweaters. He just does not think that our evangelistic strategy should center on our cultural relevance. Not that culture is unimportant. It is the fact that culture shifts pretty fast, it takes a great deal of energy to keep up with it, and the payoff at the end will not be worth the effort to stay abreast of the trends.
I think he's right. I think I need to hear that correction. I'm not anti-contextualization. Seriously, I'm not. I'm also not an anti-cultural Luddite. However, I find that it is easier for me to study culture and contextualization than it is to really pray for people and do ministry.
First, let me say that I do not believe that this is an "either/or" proposition. I am saying that I think that this could easily get out of balance, and I think that maybe it does for people like me. That is, I find it far easier to buy a new shirt than I do to pray for men. I find it easier to make friends when I talk their talk and wear their clothes than I do when I begin to speak of God's law and the gospel. I can get the feeling that I am getting somewhere with a guy when I "blend", culturally speaking. And perhaps I can. But what I really need is to be filled with Holy Spirit, I need Him to come in power, and I need His wisdom to let me know when to speak, when to be silent, and when to turn the conversation to NASCAR or the gospel.
Here's the bottom line, you could dress up like Bozo the Clown, go into town, and if the Holy Spirit came "suddenly" like he did at Pentecost, people would be convicted and saved through your witness. You could also get relevant, dress like the world, look like the world, gain the favor of the world, and after you have fit in you might open your mouth to speak truth, and the world would run you out of town in mockery. Again, it isn't either/or, but given the choice, I will choose the easy way. The easy way is conforming to the world, not conforming in prayer.
All of our strategies: Super Bowl parties, clothing choices, TV watching for relevance, bus ministries, door-to-door witnessing, none of this matters one bit without the power of the Holy Spirit. I hear a lot about contextualization. I hear little about prayer. Puritans talked about prayer and holy living. We talk about context and culture. Maybe Jonathan Edwards should have thought harder about his wig choice. I don't know. But I do know that I need to think more about prayer and my dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
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