Sunday, August 3, 2014

Contextualize or Compromise?

by Pastor Ron Bridge of Rehoboth Baptist Church

My friend Jim Harrison is the pastor of Red Mills Baptist Church in Mahopac, NY. You might remember Jim as one of the speakers at the Rehoboth Bible Conference a couple of years ago. Jim is one of those pastor's who is deeply concerned over the accommodations that the church is making in order to reach people with the gospel in our post modern - and we can say with growing certainty – post Christian culture. The concern is that many of the accommodations have the unintended consequences of lessening rather than increasing spirituality.

You are familiar with some of the accommodations. In the majority of churches hymnals are rarely, if ever, used and have been replaced by choruses projected on a screen. While ostensibly making it easier for the person in the congregation to participate in singing, much that is important has been lost. The modern chorus, which can only be sung to a melody, lacks the depth and richness of the harmony that can only be achieved with a written musical score. This is especially evident when one of the great traditional hymns is attempted without a score. The long term result is that worship singing is reduced – with some exceptions – to a monotonous sameness.

An increasing number of churches no longer supply a Bible that can be held and referenced during a sermon. Some project the Scripture on the screen, often against a distracting background picture. All this is done in recognition that we live in a visual, rather than a word based culture. But the Bible is word based and studying the written word is essential to Christian growth and maturity. While projecting a verse on a screen may be convenient the long term impact is to lessen the importance of carrying and reading a personal Bible. Last week Mickie and I attended a large modern church and in my estimation about half the people did not carry a Bible. There are many other examples where the attempt to make the church and worship relevant to post-moderns – what is called contextualization - often ends up compromising something fundamental.

Now it can be argued that the two areas cited above are themselves cultural accommodations. It was not until the middle ages that musical instruments and musical scores were introduced into the church. Prior to that any singing was performed without accompaniment or score. Nor did worshipers prior to the same era have access to a Bible – most churches had a handwritten one or only portions. What the people knew of the Scriptures was through the teaching of priests, through oral tradition, or pictures, or icons. The consequence was a population heavily influenced by superstition and living in spiritual darkness. So, clearly, some cultural accommodations are helpful. Musical instruments, written music and readily available Scriptures have contributed greatly the church's worship. Any move away from these is a retreat to the dark ages.

Paul said that “he became all things to all men in order to save some” – he was willing to change methods but never to mess with fundamentals. This brings me back to some information that pastor Harrison sent to me. It is an analysis of the trends in preaching methodology titled: Preaching to Post Modern America for the Next Generation. Here are the key points:
1. The logic of the scripture is emphasized over its authority.
2. The love in the scripture is emphasized over its condemnation
3. The stories in the scripture are emphasized
4. The universal “calling” of the gospel is emphasized over its exclusive “choosing”
5. Preaching stems from a single text, without introducing other texts during the message
6. Preaching involves delivery of a single point sermon
7. Preaching provides intrinsic (internal) motivation while avoiding extrinsic (external) motivation i.e. “you must, you should, therefore you need to,”
8. Preaching involves avoiding technical language
9. Preaching involves avoiding the discussion of the Greek and Hebrew
10. Preaching involves a message that appeals to the pre-believer and believer in the body of the message not just an evangelistic conclusion and application
11. Interaction is encouraged during the preaching/teaching period
Now, I could spend a great deal of time addressing each point, one or two of which are good, for instance: a single text and single point can be very effective when speaking to unbelievers – I haven’t figured out what a pre-believer is yet, nor do I know of any message that appeals to one. But if adopted uncritically this methodology cannot but reduce the word of God to something on a par with Joel Osteen's “Your Best life Now.” In an attempt to be culturally relevant the offense of the gospel is removed. Let me take just two of the points.
 - The logic of the scripture is emphasized over its authority. What is the good of logic if the conclusions reached cannot be held as authoritative? That for me is vital. How can I preach if I cannot say: Thus saith the Lord! And having said it command the church to obey the Lord? If the authority of scripture is not established up front everything is up for grabs. That is why the very first article of this church is: “We believe in the absolute authority and accuracy of the 66 books of the Bible.”

 - Preaching involves avoiding technical language. Try preaching through Romans without getting technical. Justification, propitiation, imputation, election and predestination are deeply technical terms and must be explained in detail. To avoid such language is to avoid essential truths in an attempt to make the message palatable to post modern tastes. The gospel was never palatable to human taste or logic – it was never intended to be.
I could say a great deal more about the last point and can only imagine the scene in our church on Sunday morning if we adopted that approach! Sadly, this is not just a discussion list, it is representative of what is taking place in an increasing number of churches as they attempt to contextualize the message to modern Americans but fall prey to the law of unintended consequences - For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine...

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