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Does contextualization heighten the likelihood of a positive response to the gospel?

This entry is part 15 of 16 in the series

"Missions and Music"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

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.

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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. []
  4. 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. []

3 Responses to Does contextualization heighten the likelihood of a positive response to the gospel?

  1. I appreciate so much this post. The "church" is the ecclesia: those called out by name. The church is the body of Christ. By definition, that means the church is comprised of believers. Our attempts to be "seeker-sensitive" within the church completely miss the mark. Our worship, along with the other ingredients of a gathering of believers, should edify the saints.

    Furthermore, by definition, a non-believer cannot worship because they do not acknowledge God's "worth-ship."

    We may use popular music in evangelism efforts in order to be winsome and open the doors of the heart to receive the gospel, but as the writer rightly notes, such contextualization is in no way the operative mechanism in seeing a non-believer restored to new life in Christ.

  2. What if we change our music styles not to attract those who are without, but to edify those who are within? Even the "seeker-sensitive" movement admits their downfall in the above noted area and those in our circles have rightly rejected their antiquated model, but the real challenge seems now to be whether or not we will be sensitive to our fellow-believers who prefer to worship with more popular forms.

  3. Thanks for your words, Scott.

    Philip, I think you raise an excellent point, on that this post is not specifically targeting, but one that deserves discussion.

    I think there are two possible motivations for using pop music (or "indigenous" music for that matter): The first is evangelistic; the second is "authenticity" in worship.

    This post addresses the first motivation (as do others in this series).

    I address the second motivation in this post:

    Perhaps you could read that (and others in this series), and then express where you think I (we) am (are) wrong?

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