Culture and the Church: Biblical Methods- Part 1: The Beginnings of Contextualization

As we looked at yesterday, the issue of the church engaging culture begins with Jesus’ call to “go and make disciples.”  The book of Acts contains the narrative of the first group of Christ-followers seeking to fulfill this call.  You see the apostles as primary players throughout the course of this book in addition to the Jewish religious leader turned Christ-follower, Paul.  The scriptural example of Christians engaging culture is through missions movements to go and tell the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth.  I want to focus on a particular message given by Paul which presents a very interesting way that the church can engage the culture – contextualization.  This is a very modern term that means that, as we will see in the passage to follow, Paul took the language and terminology of the culture and used it to point the people to Jesus.  The passage where this is seen is Acts 17Open Link in New Window: 22-31 (ESV):

“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown this I proclaim to you.  The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’, as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we are his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.  The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

It is very interesting how Paul looks around the culture that he is in, sees an idol to an unknown god, preaches a sermon quoting several poets and thinkers of the day (see bold text above), and then ties it all back into Jesus.  This is the idea of contextualization.  This is a form of cultural engagement that is very practical not only in Paul’s time and culture but ours as well.  We can so easily engage in discussions on movies, television, books, music, and news and bring the conversation around to presenting Christ.  We do not have any altars to unknown gods in our cities, but we do encounter many people each day who are living their lives totally unknowing where they can find purpose, meaning, and satisfaction.  Jesus is the answer to the cries of the heart of every man.  The question is: Will we keep our eyes open to cultural doors that can be opened to the gospel?