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Contextualization Is Not Optional

Last month, we ran a profile on Alex Early, a current student in Western Seminary’s Doctor of Intercultural Studies program (see here and here for the two-part feature). Today, we are posting an article that Alex has written, wherein he shares his thoughts on the topic of contextualization.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Steve Timmis who serves as the Global Director for Acts 29. He talked to me about our commitment to theological clarity, cultural engagement and missional innovation. Here are some thoughts from our time together.

There’s way more to church planting and pastoring than meets the eye. That is to say, there’s more going on than writing sermons, praying with people, going to leadership meetings, raising money, training up others, and overseeing staff/volunteers. For those like me who happen to be engaged in this world of pastoring and church planting, we are in a constant state of study and exegesis, not only of Scripture but of the culture in which we find ourselves.

The church planter is constantly asking questions such as:

  • “Who actually lives here?”
  • “What do they value?”
  • “What are they super-interested in?”
  • “What is the history of this place?”
  • “What are the obstacles to the gospel here?”
  • “How can I speak and live in such a way as to really connect with this community?”
  • “What are the real needs of this city?”

It is ever so tempting to read a book or blog by somebody out there that is really impacting their context and seek to copy/paste their philosophy of ministry in one’s own. But here’s the deal – what may be working in one context may not, and in fact often won’t, work in another context. One size does not fit all. One way will not work. One model is not enough. What works to advance the kingdom in one place may not actually work in another. What works in Manhattan will probably not work in Hueytown, Alabama. This is because of how vastly different the cultures really are. There are different kinds of people groups, rhythms of life, belief systems, values, political affiliations, and so forth represented within each ecosystem. The thoughtful, engaged, strategic leader is thinking through these kinds of things so as to love and impact the context with the gospel of Jesus. So, pastor/church planter, plant your church, preach to your context, and serve the flock of God right in front of you well by thinking about and praying through where God actually has you.

On one occasion the Apostle Paul gave real insight into exactly what he was doing and shows some of why his ministry was so impactful. He said, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9.22). Today, this is commonly referred to as the contextualization of the gospel. 

As Christians, we can’t just throw those ideas around without explaining what we mean when we use them.

Contextualization is not optional. Hear me, working to contextualize what you’re doing is not just mere pragmatism – “how to get stuff done” and “be more effective” (though those things are important). It is about loving people. A church that does not seek to contextualize itself, its ministries, the gospel message, and every other avenue of communication inevitably creates more barriers than bridges for the advancement of the gospel in our communities. To put it bluntly, we as Christians believe a few things that aren’t so simple and therefore we’ve got to live and speak in a way that makes sense to those around us. Remember, the people in our communities aren’t dull or dim. We’re preaching a message that even our own Apostle calls “foolish” (i.e. the Triune God spoke creation into being, a talking serpent deceived the human race and we “fell” into our current state of depravity, the long-expected, prophesied Messiah was born through the Virgin Mary as He was conceived by the third person of the Trinity, lived a sinless life, died a sinner’s death, resurrected from the grave, ascended back into heaven, sent the Holy Spirit to endwell/empower all who have the faith – and nerve! – to believe this gospel message, and take us to heaven to be with God and all the saints forever and ever). Listen to all those “Christianese,” “churchy,” Bible/theological/insider-lingo terms. As Christians, we can’t just throw those ideas around without explaining what we mean when we use them.

So you can see that trying to go about gospel ministry in a place without contextualizing isn’t just bad form. Contextualization is a labor of love.

“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9.22).

Our desire in the Acts 29 Network is to continue to see thousands of churches planted all over the globe and millions of people come to faith in Jesus Christ, deepen their relationship with the One who gave his life for them, and serve on his mission.

We don’t want to see churches planted that just share our theological convictions. Certainly theological clarity and unity is essential, but so much more is required of us in order to be effective at reaching the specific places that God has uniquely placed us. Cross-cultural missionaries have been doing this for thousands of years. They venture into a new country and learn the language as well as the theological, philosophical, political, and overall worldviews and ideas that shape that culture. Then, the gospel is proclaimed in ways that don’t give it new meaning, but rather in ways that take more ground because the missionaries are speaking directly to that culture in that place at that time. Church planters and pastors are to do the same. Successful church planters are successful because they are doing everything with the utmost intentionality — namely, they consider the enormous task of contextualization and then by the power of the Holy Spirit, engage that community with the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Alex Early is the husband of Jana, and father to Tovah and Jude. He is a pastor, professor, student (in Western’s Doctor of Intercultural Studies program), and author. His most recent publication is “The Reckless Love of God” (Bethany House, 2015).