Contextualization and Relevance

Internet Monk has a post titled The Meaning of a Suit: A Response to John Macarthur’s Comments on Contextualization.

There he quotes Dr. John MacArthur about contextualizes the Gospel. His commentary is really good, so if you get a chance, read the entire post. MacArthur said the following:

The first is regarding my strong statements regarding contextualization. I believe that byword has become a curse. “We have to change the way we dress, look, sing, in order to ‘contextualize,’ to connect with people at the level of their exposure to broader culture.” This isn’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. That’s actually 15 years ago, the first time I’d seen something like that, and it seemed very extreme. But it’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. We’re after how people think, and how they think about truth and God and sin and salvation. In any context, all you’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. I’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 don’t want to join with our culture in sinking into the casual. We have a generation that’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 I’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 don’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.

I have read one of MacArthur’s books, and while I disagree with some of his perspectives, he does have some good things to say. So, in addition to what I said yesterday about relevance, I’ll comment on MacArthur’s statement.

MacArthur is using a ‘straw man’ logical fallacy in the first paragraph. Yes, it’s an extreme example, and he misrepresents the entire discussion. What contextualization means varies, and doesn’t necessarily mean changing the way we dress, look, and sing in order to connect. It is then, ironic, that he appeals to logic and says, “All ministry is mind to mind.” I thoroughly disagree with that statement. Ministry is mind, body, heart, and soul: the entire person. The Bible appeals to more than the mind.

Leapfrogging the culture is a good goal, in that, you try to find the essence of the Gospel apart from culture. BUT, then you have to apply it to the culture you are in. Then he says that all we’re trying to do is help people understand the authoritative Word of God. Again, I disagree. We’re trying to point them to God and to trust and love Him. One could, in theory, understand the Bible, and even believe it’s the Word of God, and still not love God. We can say we believe something without it apprehending us or changing us.

His discussion about wearing a tie shows how much he’s immersed in his cultural tradition. What he’s doing is contextual because what he’s doing means something in his cultural context. I applaud him for doing so though, because he’s being authentic in doing so. There are preachers who change the way they dress in order to relate and look totally uncomfortable doing so. Guess what, if your contextualization isn’t authentic, people will see through it, and you’ll probably fail to connect.

2 thoughts on “Contextualization and Relevance”

  1. Heidi says:

    I thought his comment about wearing a suit and tie was interesting too. He said he dressed that way out or respect for the responsibility. The problem with that, though, is that for today’s culture, that means that the Word of God is totally removed from their normal lives. It communicates this idea that there are some places where God is not– it makes a strong distinction between the spiritual and the secular (a thinking, which, perhaps could be the crux of his argument).

  2. Seth Daire says:

    MacArthur also believes preaching is the best way to communicate the gospel, period, which adds to the seriousness of the responsibility for him. At least he has a reason born out of conviction. I respect that. Implying that those who decide to dress more casually are not taking the gospel serious enough…I don’t respect that.

    I actually disagree with his discussion of the casual, in my experience. When we lived in a culture where most work was agricultural and/or industrial, people’s work required that they didn’t dress nice, so dressing up nice on Sunday was a special occasion. We have so many jobs that require at least business casual today, that it’s kindof nice to not have to put on the ‘front’ and just go to church to be ourselves.

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