Conversations about missions and music often revolve around an insistence that in order to reach unbelievers in a target culture, we need to contextualize the message into their language, be it spoken, acted, or sung.
Here are some helpful words from an excellent journal article by Mark Snoeberger that I think get to the heart of a potential theological problem with this thinking:
As one reads through modern works on contextualization, he is immediately struck by the impression that many of the authors believe that contextualization heightens the likelihood of a positive response to the gospel. In a sense this is true. If an evangelist cannot gain a hearing for the Word of God, for instance, because he cannot speak a language or because he bumbles about needlessly offending his potential audience,1 he will never have opportunity to announce the Word of God that the Spirit mixes with a faith imparted to make the hearers wise unto salvation.
However, in another sense this is not true. Means may be effective in drawing a crowd and even in garnering a positive appraisal of Christians in general, but they can never increase the likelihood that the hearers will embrace the gospel. In fact, in keeping with the truth of Romans 1, the unaided human mind will consistently exchange the gospel for some alternative to its truth that is more palatable: faced with the resurrection of Christ, an alternative explanation was circulated that persists to this day (Matt 18:11–15); faced with the witness of a man who had seen Sheol, unbelievers would scoff (Luke 16:31);2 faced with Christ’s astonishing miracles of feeding, the hearers responded favorably only to get free handouts (John 6:26);3 faced with the miracles of tongues, the hearers concluded that the disciples were drunk (Acts 2:13); faced with miracles on another occasion, the hearers concluded that Paul and Barnabas were Greek gods (Acts 14:13).
The effectiveness of the gospel is not tied to the winsomeness of the presentation, but to the regenerative activity of God in conjunction with his Word. No amount of contextualization can ensure that God will regenerate or even increase the likelihood of God’s regenerating work.4
From “Noetic Sin, Neutrality, and Contextualization: How Culture Receives the Gospel,” DBSJ 9 (2004): 345–378. I strongly encourage you to read the entire essay.
- By “offense” I do not mean a theological stumblingblock by which the gospel inherently necessarily offends the unregenerate. This can never be avoided, and any attempt to do so by altering the gospel is detestable. [↩]
- The implication of this verse, in fact, is that the plain Scriptures are more likely to elicit a response than a voice from the dead. [↩]
- I am aware that the function of Christ’s miracles was not directly evangelistic. However, miracles were designed to authenticate Christ’s Messiahship, which in turn should have led to a wholesale repentance and acceptance of Christ and his kingdom offer, so they were at least indirectly evangelistic (cf. also John 20:30). However, because of the noetic effects of sin, the hearers, unaided by the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, consistently came to incorrect conclusions about the person and message of Christ. [↩]
- Even the miracles of Christ could not penetrate this barrier (John 10:25, 38). It is for this reason that he refused at times to give signs (Matt 12:38ff; 16:1–4) and dramatically scaled back the performance of miracles toward the end of his ministry (John 6:30–40)—they could not and would not follow him based on signs and miracles alone. They had neither eyes to see nor ears to hear that they might understand and respond to Christ’s message. [↩]