The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) was the final instruction of Jesus Christ, and left Christians with the charge to take Christ’s message to the ends of the earth. Since that time there has been no small debate over the practical implications of evangelism in secular society. If one preeminent question encapsulates this debate in the past century, it is this: “how do we make the gospel relevant?” Whole organizations and networks have been formed around the idea of doing so-called “relevant” ministry, and other organizations and networks have risen up in resistance to the same idea. Conferences, books, and websites abound promoting both sides of the issue, and though much has been said, the actual substance of the argument has remained very difficult to define. This article will provide a workable definition for “relevant ministry”, and highlight a few implications for applying the concept in the modern world.
At the heart of the impasse is a lack of clear definition, and a tragedy of unfortunate assumptions that often causes participants to talk past one another. It is assumed here that all sides in this debate agree that “the gospel” is the basic message that Jesus is King and that in his work as God on earth he accomplished the redemption of all those who have faith in him. Second, I am assuming the words “make the gospel…” do not imply a desire to change this central message in any way. The concern is rather for the methods used in communication of the gospel. Third, it is assumed that all sides recognize the gospel is in some sense always relevant, as it is an objective truth that is true for all people in all places and times. With this said, it is obvious that the question of making the gospel relevant is a question of communicating in such a way that the hearers care. What is necessary to break through cultural differences and communicate truths about Jesus that will bring people to a point where they understand the gravity of his work and its relevance to their daily life?
The Problem of Contextualization and the Definition of Culture
What has been described is the basic dilemma of contextualization, the task of communicating the truth of Scripture in a way that people will understand in the context of their own culture, in a form that they are able to apply to their everyday life. The important word here is culture, a concept that is often misunderstood and notoriously difficult to define. While many, many scholars have done great work to define the concept and its many elements, a great debate has persisted over whether the concept is inherently connected to the message of Christianity at all. Therefore, in order to establish any sort of framework for relevance in contextualization, it seems that one must first define culture and establish wether or not a gospel connection exists.
In its earliest usage, the word “culture” was connected to the concept of agriculture, and eventually came to be an umbrella term for all the things that people cultivated or developed in any place where they began to settle. The word has been further developed over the centuries, and in modern usage has come to describe all of the things that humans construct or add to the natural world. So, it is part of the world, but it is the part of the world that is manmade and artificial – the various traditions, customs, buildings, and methods of communication – which mankind constructs around himself in order to make the world livable.
The last part of that statement – to make the world livable – is quite important, and gives us an opportunity to take culture apart, or lift up its metaphorical hood and take a look at the bits underneath. If culture is all the things people make in order to make the world a livable place, then that means that culture is a collection of things that humans have deemed necessary for life in this world. The great creativity and diversity of human culture makes it obvious that the purpose of culture is not merely to ensure survival; if that were the aim, one might imagine humans subsisting in a state similar to animals, creating only that which is absolutely necessary. But the richness of human language, art, traditions, education, and other cultural elements points to a clear desire to establish a system of significance and meaning, and therefore it is no stretch to say that culture is what humans create in order to establish a meaningful life. The connection between meaning and culture means there are some core beliefs about the meaning of life that are implied in every culture. That is to say, the way that people use and develop their culture implies the basic things they believe about life itself. These beliefs are all connected to the most basic questions about human existence: the questions of human origin, identity, and significance.
The Connection between Culture and Christianity
One can see this connection between existential beliefs and culture in Genesis, in the very first recorded communal activity after the story of the Flood. In the story of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), the author says very clearly that the entire known world had a single “language and speech” – one universal culture. People came together to build a great city, with a tower that would reach to the heavens, because they wanted to make a name for themselves and avoid being scattered over the whole earth (11:4). The implication is that, in their minds, origin, identity, and significance would all be secured if their cultural project of the Tower of Babel was successful. It was an entirely humanistic foundation for society, a pattern that has been repeated in virtually every subsequent culture throughout history. The failure of that great project and the subsequent dispersal of the people into rival cultures reveals the universal problem of brokenness that lies at the heart of all humanistic culture.
It is here that the Christian narrative most clearly connects with the concept of culture, as all questions of origin, identity, and significance are fully resolved in the covenant of redemption. Where human cultures usually trace their origins to some great migration, revolution, or conquest, the Bible originates all humanity in the good creation of God himself. Where human cultures stake their identity on the achievements of their tribe or nation, the Bible identifies humanity with the eternal image of God himself, an image that is corrupted by sin but ultimately redeemed in Christ. And where human cultures find significance in self-aggrandizement and expansion, Scripture unveils the incredible narrative of redemption and eventual consummation.
The significance of Babel in the Scriptural narrative could not be more clear. For those who have faith in God, the brokenness of human culture will eventually be fully healed when God’s priestly nation (1 Peter 2:9), called together out of every other tribe and language (Revelation 5:8), comes together in a pure and holy city (Revelation 21:22-27). Towers reaching to heaven (Gen 11:4) will be rendered obsolete, as heaven comes down and Jesus himself dwells at the center of the New Jerusalem, in the New Earth (Rev 21:22). With the end of all things revealed, the Christian foundation for culture building stands in direct opposition to the humanistic foundation implied in all other human communities.
The Connection Between Culture and Christianity in the New Testament
How does this renewed worldview affect one’s interaction with the everyday elements of culture? An excellent example can be found in the work of the Apostle Paul in Corinth (Acts 18). In Paul’s declaration that he had become “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22), it is clear that he did not merely strip away his native Jewish culture (Philippians 3:4, Romans 10:1) and relate to the Greeks from some sort of a-cultural center, as some might imagine. Rather, Paul took pains to put on the culture of the Greeks, as much as he could, in order to show them how to apply their new worldview in their native, pagan culture. Paul did not try to relate to the Corinthians as the former professor and temple official that he was, but rather opened up a small business, so that he could approach them in a form they would understand (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). He did not merely say that idol worship and sexual immorality were wrong – he rather entered into an incredibly specific discussion of how Corinthian Christians should interact with these specific aspects of their pagan culture (1 Corinthians 5-8). And in perhaps his most well-known passage, he goes to great lengths to explain how their new foundation must result in a radical healing of the brokenness that persists in all other human communities (1 Corinthians 13).
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is especially helpful because it makes clear that these practical applications of Christianity emanate from the believers’ new understanding of their origin, identity, and significance. In the introductory portion, Paul explains that the origin of their faith, and therefore of their new community, is in the eternal and invisible power of God (1 Corinthians 2:6-9). The phrase “in Christ”—found several times in 1 Corinthians—is a phrase that Paul coins to help Corinthians understand their new new identity. And his references to the Day of the Lord and the breaking down of ethnic barriers imply a passionate expectation of the redemption and consummation of all things (1 Corinthians 3:13, 4:5, 7:17-19). The entire thrust of Paul’s interaction with the Corinthian church was aimed at getting this new congregation to “assert the transformed identity of the baptized” that comes from this complete reformation of their worldview, resulting in a community where the persistent brokenness of society is finally healed by the love of Christ.
Drawing from Paul’s work, one might argue that Christianity is inseparable from the culture in which it is located, for it is hard to see how a truly reformed cultural foundation (based on the biblical narrative of creation-fall-redemption) can do anything but overflow into renewed cultural expression. Christianity is not some mere mental exercise or philosophical principle that one can adopt in private and sequester away from other daily activities; it is not separate from one’s culture at all, though many Christians may imagine that it is. Christianity is always applied to culture, either well or poorly, in whatever situation it exists. The body of Christ that exists in any particular location is an application of the Christian faith to that culture, and the way that it operates will be a reflection of the biblical foundation, to the degree that its members understand the truth of Scripture and its implications for their lives. The most relevant methods of gospel communication will always be those that most clearly reveal the antithesis that exists between the worldview of Christianity and the humanistic foundations of every culture.
At this point one might could conclude that only those deeply versed in cultural or theological studies are able to engage in truly relevant ministry. But that is simply not true. In all contact between the church and the world, the most relevant demonstration of gospel truth is not primarily in the words of the seminary professor, or even in the sermons of the pastor, as essential as these things may be. The clearest proof of the gospel’s relevance for the human condition is not in either of these alone, but in the whole life of Christian communities, wherever they are located. For in the community of the church, the world no doubt expects to see a denial of their sexual freedom, of moral relativism, of hedonism, of alcohol, or whatever else. But what the world does not expect, and what must be made abundantly clear, is that the gospel message both denies all the humanistic foundations of human culture, and yet accomplishes the things that human culture has been trying to do since the failure of Babel.
How should the “whole life” of the Christian look, if it is operating from a worldview that is truly transformed? Obviously, there is not space here to construct a comprehensive framework, but a few general things can be mentioned. The reality of divine creation must result in an overt respect and care for human life in all its forms, young and old, able and challenged. This means that the Christian community must be seen to support the flourishing and preservation of human life, with motivation that is clearly drawn from their core beliefs about life’s sanctity, and not hindered by financial limitations or ethnic differences. In addition, the rooting of human identity in the divine image has wide implications for any gratuitous or unnecessary building of celebrity or reputation within the Christian community, as identity among God’s people is flattened out, and not based on one’s own achievements, origin, or education. Finally, the rooting of personal and communal significance in Christ’s work of redemption and consummation implies that the Christian community should be passionately concerned with establishing itself as an earthly community that mirrors the appearance of the eventual community of God in the New Jerusalem, not out of some desire for aggrandizement but out of their deep longing to one day dwell in the city of God with their Lord. The desires of the Lord, as revealed in Scripture, must be reflected in the aims, activities, and words of his people, and when this is not true, one can be sure that the underlying foundations have in fact not been transformed.
In conclusion, gospel communication that is relevant is that which shows that under the lordship of Christ, human origin is more compelling, human identity is more secure, and human significance is far more important than anything that is manmade. In the eyes of those who do not acknowledge the rule of Jesus, the Christian foundation allows one to live and speak in a way that is profoundly different from the behavior of other people. But most importantly, these foundational beliefs must result in a radical healing of the brokenness that persists in all existing human communities, for it is on the basis of our love that the world will know Jesus is who he claimed to be (John 17:21). This is why, as important as scholarship and debate may be, the final apologetic for the Christian faith will never be heard from a stage or read in an online forum, but will be seen with the eyes and felt with the heart, as the love of Christ lifts up the weak and binds together the brokenhearted into the human community that is his body, the evidence of his kingdom on earth.
- Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament, pp. 18-19
- It is my opinion that much of the public debate on this topic is done in bad faith, with both sides making inappropriate accusations. The assumptions mentioned here are an attempt to head off any of this at the start.
- Timothy Keller, Loving the City (Center Church). pp. 36-45.
- Raymond Williams, Keywords: Vocabulary of Culture and Society, p. 87.
- H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 31.
- Andy Crouch, Culture Making, pp. 23-24.
- See Geertz’s definition of culture in Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 89. See also Darrell Whiteman, “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge” in International Bulletin of Missionary Research (January 1997).
- William Edgar, Created and Creating, p. 51.
- Edgar, p. 209.
- See 1 Corinthians 1:4, 1:30, 3:1, 4:10, 4:15-17, 15:18-19.
- Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, pp. 99-101.
- Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, p. 185.
- Abraham Kuyper: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!” Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 488.
- Francis Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, p. 39.
- Francis Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, pp. 138-139, 153.