There is a popular thought today in evangelicalism that says that if we as Christians are going to reach unbelievers around us, we need to be more tuned into contemporary culture. If we want people to accept our gospel message, they say, then we need to present the gospel by packaging it in the language of contemporary culture.
The catch phrase for this philosophy is “contextualizing the gospel.” Now, contextualization in and of itself is absolutely necessary and biblical. To contextualize is simply to transfer a message from one cultural context into another. The very fact that I am writing about the Bible in English is an example of contextualization. Whenever I cite examples from current culture as illustrations or applications, I am contextualizing. Bible translators use contextualization all the time to transfer the message of the Bible into modern language.
So contextualization is a biblical concept. A problem arises, though, when one of two things happens in the process of contextualization. First, some believers contextualize the gospel by adopting sinful cultural practices. For instance, some would say that in order to reach this generation, Christians — and especially pastors — need to immerse themselves in MTV and familiarize themselves with all of the latest themes from the Simpsons or South Park and learn the lyrics to all the latest rap and hip hop music and be familiar with the content of all the hottest movies. And then when they present the gospel, they can do so in such a way that is right in step with contemporary culture. In other words, they see contextualization as packaging biblical truth in the pop cultural idioms of the day, and the problem is that they are not careful about what cultural idioms they use.
I’ll give you an example. One New Year’s Eve Mars Hill Church, a church in Seattle, hosted what they called their “New Year’s Eve Red Hot Bash” featuring Bobby Medina and his Red Hot Band. They say this on their website:
Come bust a move on the enormous dance floor when the Ballard Campus transforms into a posh club to celebrate the new year. A smoking band, tasty desserts, a champagne toast at midnight – Mars Hill has never seen a party like this.
Now this is not some liberal church with watered down theology. This is a church with which any theological conservative would agree almost completely in terms of the doctrine that they preach. But they very deliberately have chosen to adopt the pop culture around them in their presentation of that truth. And I say deliberately, because the pastor of this church, Mark Driscoll, is widely known for his philosophy of contextualization, and he is gaining influence particularly in this area.
Driscoll’s philosophy is this. He has what he calls a “two-hand” philosophy. In the one hand he puts important doctrines like the authority of Scripture, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, etc. That hand, he says, is closed-fisted. In other words, he will not compromise on those issues. I applaud him for that, because there are plenty of people in our day who are compromising on important doctrines. This is not like the typical church-growth philosophy that waters down the gospel message. Driscoll doesn’t water down the gospel; he’s got doctrine right. But then in his other hand he puts everything else including how we relate to culture, how we present the gospel, etc. And that hand, he says, is wide open — anything goes.
So Driscoll’s method is to carefully preach truth — good, doctrinal truth — but to do so by packaging it in whatever pop cultural idiom will make the truth “relevant.” And when I say “whatever pop cultural idiom,” I mean “whatever pop cultural idiom.” Driscoll’s off-color method of preaching has earned him the title of “Mark the Cussing Pastor,” because he is known for his crude, vulgar, offensive preaching style. In fact, I watched one sermon of his on the internet and before it started, a screen popped up that said: “Warning, MH-17, Under 17 requires adult permission.” Then an introductory video of Driscoll comes up where he says that they divide the content they provide on their website into the categories of “offensive” and “really offensive,” and he says that “this one is really offensive. The reason being it’s not typically the kind of thing that is said in a church.” He goes on to justify it by saying this:
To be fair, we’re in the least churched city in America, the services tend to include a lot of non-Christians and new Christians. Our evening services don’t even have child care or families at all. And so . . . sometimes I’ll teach things that are kind of intense and you wouldn’t normally hear in a homeschool co-op or a rural church with ladies who have head coverings and guys who churn their own butter. Nonetheless, the content is, I think, pretty fun.”
So that’s how he justifies having to put a rating on a church service. And it’s not just because the content has to do with issues that children shouldn’t hear — it’s how that content was presented. I watched part of the service and was embarrassed. I would have expected what I saw to be in a night club, not a church. I cannot even repeat in public most of the things that I have read and heard him say from the pulpit of his church. Again, the content is right on, but the presentation is vulgar and crude and “really offensive.”
And let me tell you, it works. He’s got thousands of people coming to his church, and he’s preaching right things. I’ve listened to many of his sermons, and he always has very good, insightful, biblical, doctrinally rich things to say. But he presents them in a such a crass, flippant, stand-up comedy kind of style flowing with references to pop culture and language that is downright banal, that the good message is all but lost.
And that’s the second danger of unbridled contextualization. The first danger is when the contextualizer actually adopts sinful cultural idioms. The second danger is when the presentation of the truth actually contradicts the truth, and that’s what I think happens when someone like Mark Driscoll presents good truth in vulgar, banal, sarcastic ways. The content of the truth might be correct, but the way that it is presented is not worthy of the truth; in fact, it contradicts the truth. Philippians 1.27 says, “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” There is a way of conducting yourself that is not worthy of the gospel. The whole second chapter of Titus contains instructions about how to live in such a away that “accords with sound doctrine,” that is, fitting with biblical truth. There is a way of acting that is not fitting with sound doctrine, and we should never adopt those cultural idioms to present doctrine because then we contradict the doctrine.
Where do people like Driscoll get this kind of philosophy? Here is a statement from the website of Mars Hill Church:
When the apostle Paul stood atop Mars Hill, he proclaimed good news to a diverse people steeped in philosophy, culture, and spirituality. Mars Hill Church seeks to continue that legacy in modern-day Seattle. Our city is a place much like first-century Athens: a marketplace of ideas, a vibrant arts community, and a metropolitan hub.
Our church is more than a building, an organization, a man, or a Sunday. Mars Hill Church is a group of missionaries united by a common relationship with Jesus Christ. We want to share him with Seattle by serving and loving the city and preaching the gospel like Paul: using the artifacts and language of our culture to point to Jesus.
The philosophy of this church, even the name of this church, comes directly from Acts 17. In verse 19, the Areopagus literally means in Greek, “Ares Hill.” Ares was a Greek god whose Latin name was “Mars.” So this was known as “Mars Hill.” That’s where this church gets it’s name, and this event of Paul preaching in Athens is where they get their philosophy of contextualization.
We must contextualize the gospel, but is there a line we must never cross? Is Mark Driscoll’s philosophy of contextualization really reflective of Paul on Mars Hill? A careful examination of Paul’s evangelism in Acts 17-19 will give us very helpful principles regarding how we should contextualize the gospel in the 21st century.
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.