Tag Archives: Contextualization

Are Your Efforts to Contextualize the Gospel All about You?

I never thought moving from one suburb to another would make me reconsider my approach to contextualizing the gospel. That stuff is for missionaries and urban church planters, right?

It turns out it’s also for a junior high pastor from a formal church in a conservative Midwest suburb who takes an associate pastor role at a casual church in a liberal suburb in the South.

I immediately enjoyed adapting to my new context. Being in a progressive part of the country, I felt closer to the “front lines” of the battle for the kingdom. My assignment to teach a Sunday school class of young adults—many earning MAs and PhDs—allowed me to indulge my theological and exegetical nerdiness in a way that I couldn’t with my former junior highers. The switch from preaching in suits to an open collar was a nice perk. (And I chuckled to myself when I checked the weather up North.)

Who knew contextualizing the gospel could be so great?

Then one morning the next empty box on my Bible reading plan sat beside 1 Corinthians 9. Though I had read this passage countless times, I noticed something I never saw before: sacrifice was the hallmark of Paul’s contextualization. Verse by verse, the Spirit began to show me that my enjoyment of my new context—even if not in egregiously sinful ways—betrayed more of a concern for my preferences and pride, not the lost.

Although my theology of contextualizing has remained intact, since that morning I’ve been forced to reconsider how I go about doing it. Despite how selfless “becoming all things to all people” sounds, our deceitful hearts enable us to apply the principle selfishly.

Are you contextualizing the gospel in a way that is more about you than the people you are ministering to? The following three questions that rise out of 1 Corinthians 9 will help you find out.

Are You serving Others or Yourself?

“I have become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22) is a theme verse for contextualizing the gospel. Paul determined to meet people where they are. If we are not willing to bring the gospel to unbelievers in the midst of their mess—just like Jesus met us—then it will be hard for unbelievers to see that Jesus can save them out of the mess they are in.

But when you scan your eyes up a couple verses, you see the way Paul becomes all things to all people: “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Cor. 9:19, emphasis added). Contextualization starts with service. Becoming all things begins with serving all people.

When you start with “becoming” instead of “serving” you run the risk of picking a context in order to acquire an identity. For example, consider urban church planting. One person has in mind the artists, the entrepreneurs, the sexually broken, and the homeless. He wants to meet their need for the gospel. Another person wants to escape what he perceives to be suburban superficiality. He is attracted to the urban lifestyle, with its cultural richness, diversity, and trendiness. Planting a church, to him, seems like a meaningful way to move to the city.

The first church planter becomes all-things-urban to serve the people there. The second becomes all-things-urban mainly to gain an all-things-urban identity. The first person is focused on others, while the second person, though perhaps not entirely narcissistic, is serving himself. Paul exposes the distinction between these two mindsets when he describes contextualization as “becoming” by serving, not “becoming” alone.

Are You Claiming Rights or Giving Them Up?

Over and over Paul shows how he set aside his preferences to see others believe the gospel. How can you know if you are serving others? The key is to give up your rights:

“Do we not have the right to . . . ?” (9:5ff)

” . . . we have not made use of this right” (9:12)

“But I have made no use of any of these rights . . . ” (9:15)

” . . . I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel (9:18)

What rights might you need to give up in order to bring the gospel to others? Your right to a certain standard of living? Your right to buy groceries without being asked for spare cash? Your right to preach without a tie?

One of the ironies of the gospel is that when you give up your rights you sense that you’ve received more from the experience, not less. Sacrificing to proclaim the gospel is immensely satisfying.

Are You Contextualizing to All or to Some?

In every sport I’ve played I’ve been coached to stay on the balls of my feet. Back on your heels, you are unprepared to react. But if you stay on the balls of your feet, you are ready to move toward the action. For Paul, contextualization was about doing gospel ministry “on the balls of his feet.” He was ready to serve anyone at any time in any way.

This is different from how I often hear people discussing contextualization. People often talk about aiming at one context: the poor, the city, the university students, and so on. But Paul was ready to contextualize the gospel to anyone at hand:

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:19-22)

Wherever you live—whether city, suburb, or rural—are you willing to contextualize the gospel to all, even people you don’t like so much? Or are you merely willing to become some things to some people, that by some means you might save some?

If you have an overly defined segment of the population that you are trying to reach, it is possible you are merely trying to reach people whose company you prefer.

Jesus Served Us

In Philippians 2:7, Paul describes the incarnation as Jesus “taking the form of a servant.” At the outset, Jesus looked to the needs of others. Moreover, Jesus was a servant through his death, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42). These bookends show that Jesus’ entire ministry—from birth to death—was marked by giving up his rights as the eternally begotten Son to serve sinful people like us.

How do we respond to the way Jesus served us? By giving up our rights and serving others, whomever they may be, to bring them the gospel. It will require sacrifice, to be sure. But that sacrifice does not come without a reward, as Paul says, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:23).

Are You Ready for the Urban Future?

Like it or not, it’s true: more people are living in cities than ever before. This migration cityward doesn’t appear to be waning, either; in fact, it’s projected that within the next 35 years our world will be 70 percent urban. (In 1800, that number was 2 percent. In 1900, it was 14 percent.)

So what bearing should this reality have on today’s church? In Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church (Crossway), Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard seek to address such pressing questions and trends. Their aim, as Um explains in the video below featuring Buzzard and Christ + City author Jon Dennis, isn’t to insinuate that city ministry is superior. It is, however, uniquely strategic.

“This book is not about why cities matter more. We need gospel-preaching, gospel-shaped churches wherever there are people,” Um says. “But more people are moving into cities than ever before. Around the world 5.5 million people per month are moving into cities. That’s another San Francisco every month.”

I corresponded with Um, senior minister of Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston, about Why Cities Matter, why American believers are often urban pessimists, how rural and suburban friends can champion God’s work in cities, and more.


What prompted you to write this book now? To whom is it addressed? 

No matter where you live, it’s an established reality that the world is rapidly becoming very urban. In 1900, the world’s urban population was only 14 percent. As I write, that number has reached 52 percent. By 2050, the number is projected to be near 70 percent. It’s hard to wrap our minds around this kind of enormous shift. So Why Cities Matter is addressed to anyone seeking to understand rapid global urbanization and its implications for our world, particularly as it relates to gospel mission. The book isn’t only written for people living in cities, but also for those in rural and suburban areas who want to prayerfully understand and support the work of God in urban centers.

We’re hoping the book is winsome enough to help the conversation move beyond the perceived divisions between urban, suburban, and rural ministries. We need churches wherever there are people. That’s something that we can all agree on. But we must also be honest about the fact that more people than ever before are moving to the cities of the world.

Tim Keller has observed, “Christians, particularly in America, are generally negative toward cities. . . . Very few American Christians have lived in urban centers or even like them.” Why do you think this is so?

Unfortunately, leaders like Keller are often subjected to the charge of being “anti-suburban” because of their willingness to speak clearly about a very real phenomenon. Research has shown that 68.1 percent of American evangelicals live in suburban and rural areas, while only 31.9 percent live in urban areas.1 Numbers like these force us to be honest with ourselves. The majority of evangelicals appear to have a preference for non-urban places, while the majority of the world’s population increasingly has a preference for urban areas. Simply put, if evangelicals stay where they are, in 35 years our geographical statistics will be the exact opposite of the rest of the world’s (i.e., we’ll be roughly 30 percent urban and 70 percent suburban/rural while the world’s population is roughly 70 percent urban and 30 percent suburban/rural). That ought to give us pause.

You remark that in 35 years the world is likely to be almost 70 percent urban. What kinds of challenges or opportunities does this trend present to believers?

The challenge will be keeping up with the combined phenomenon of rapid population growth and global urbanization. In the foreword to our book Keller observes, “In the next 20 years, China’s cities will add an additional 350 million people to their current population, more than the entire population of the United States.” Needless to say, if there isn’t a strategic gospel-centered church planting movement ahead of this curve, we’ll be playing catch-up for the next century or more. And this is just one example of how our world is shifting. But the opportunities for believers are endless. We can actually identify the urban areas to which millions of aspirational, marginalized, and explorational individuals will be streaming in the coming decades. These are people who are in great need of the gospel, and who will be uniquely open to hearing the gospel as a result of the cosmopolitan spirit so prevalent in cities.

Where do we see cities in Scripture, and what can we learn from those passages?

The Bible has much to say about the city, and we cover a lot of that ground in the third chapter of the book, so I’ll give just one example here. In Hebrews 11, we’re told Abraham was called by God to leave his birth city and to live “in tents” on the way to the land of promise (v. 9). The author assumes that this wasn’t an ideal way of life, and Abraham is seen to be “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (v. 10). In this way believers are seen as “not yet” sojourners en route to a city prepared by God (Rev. 21).

But in the next chapter, Hebrews 12, the author encourages his readers by stacking up the blessings they already have in Christ. Among those “already” blessings is this: you “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (v. 22). The implication is that while we’re still awaiting the full consummation of the new city of Revelation 21, we already experience the blessings of our heavenly citizenship. Citizenship in a future city shapes our approach to our penultimate citizenship in our present cities.

How can those who don’t live in cities be obedient to the call to love cities as God does?

It can begin with personal prayer to discern whether or not you’ve unknowingly adapted an anti-urban bias. What happens in your heart when you hear about cities or about city-specific ministries? If you find yourself getting defensive or polemical, you might ask God to disinfect your approach to cities. Not everyone is called to live in an urban area—many are called to live in suburban and rural areas—but everyone is called to pray for the spread of the gospel and the health of the church. If you have a hard time celebrating, supporting, and enjoying what God is doing in cities, then this may be an occasion for evaluating your heart posture toward God’s global kingdom work. The same goes for Christians in urban settings. We must be careful not to downplay or demonize the great work God is doing in rural and suburban areas. Justin and I lay out additional suggestions in the book.

What would you say to brothers and sisters serving in obscure places who may read a book like Why Cities Matter and feel like they’re missing out—perhaps even selling out—by not ministering in a city context? 

First, anyone who goes to the city because they feel they’re missing out or selling out needs to re-evaluate their sense of calling to the city. Though there’s much to love about cities and their culture(s), God’s call has little to do with what is culturally savvy. That said, if you’ve been called to an “obscure” place, Why Cities Matter isn’t a threat or a challenge; it’s a resource we hope will aid you in situating your own contextual ministry within a broad understanding of our world’s shifting cultural currents.

We are in this together. God is calling some to cities. He’s calling others to suburban and rural areas. We hope that Why Cities Matter will be an occasion for confessional evangelicals to be self-reflective and strategic as we think about what gospel mission might look like in an increasingly urban world.

1 Mark T. Mulder and James K. A. Smith, “Subdivided by Faith?: An Historical Account of Evangelicals and the City,” Christian Scholars Review XXXVIII, no. 4 (2009), 430. The numbers are even more striking when race is factored in: “Only 18.4% of white evangelicals live in urban areas, while 51.8% live in sub-urban/exurban contexts (just 29.8% live in rural areas).”

Gospel and the City from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Jesus-Drenched Churches: Matt Chandler on Gospel Culture

What makes a church Jesus-centered? The right doctrine? The right programs? The right pastors? The right people?

In their new book, Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church (B&H), Matt Chandler (lead pastor of teaching at The Village Church outside Dallas), Josh Patterson (lead pastor of ministry leadership at The Village), and Eric Geiger (vice president of the church resources division at LifeWay) explore what it means to build a church around the life, death, and resurrection of King Jesus. What characterizes congregations who have let the good news saturate and shape their very culture?

I corresponded with Chandler about Creature of the Word, common features of “off-centered” churches, contextualizing to our kids, and more.


There are a lot of good (and bad) books out there about the church. What’s the distinctive contribution of Creature of the Word

Few books on the local church combine both the theological and the practical without being overly prescriptive on individual church practice. We sought for Creature of the Word to find that sweet spot, to marry theology and practice without giving church leaders a vision statement to photocopy. From a distinctive vantage point, we simply wanted to help the reader saturate the church in the gospel from the parking lot to the preschool ministry to the pulpit.

What burdened you, Josh, and Eric to write this book?

We are incredibly grateful and excited that leaders are returning to an emphasis on the gospel as Christ’s redemptive and finished work for us. We are burdened that churches would embrace the gospel for all of their existence and not solely their doctrinal statements and teaching. Because of our proclivity to drift from grace, many churches could have a “gospel doctrine” without a church culture saturated in the gospel. We long for Christ’s church to be centered on him—for harmony between confession and culture.

I imagine many (if not most) Christians already assume they’re in a “Jesus-centered church.” What are some common traits or tendencies of churches that don’t sufficiently revolve around Christ?

We’re aware this assumption exists and are burdened by it. In fact, in January 2013 we are launching a “Year of the Word” campaign for churches and individuals to walk through an audit and renewal process looking into the reality of whether or not our churches and our lives are centered on the life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus.

Drift is always subtle, personally and corporately. We have to be vigilant to honestly evaluate the spiritual health of our community and culture. For instance, is your church a safe place to struggle? Is there an atmosphere of grace? Does the believer struggling with sin feel compelled by the culture of your church to wear a mask and promote an image? Or is there a healthy culture of confession and repentance? Is there a welcoming spirit of hospitality that exudes the hospitable nature of Christ to both the member and the guest? Is there an evident heart for the nations and missional living? Does your children’s ministry promote morals and virtues apart of the reality and empowerment of the gospel? Are sermons laced with Jesus and the promises of his gospel, or is he strangely absent? Is there a culture and pervasive spirit of prayer, or are most decisions pragmatic in nature?

Questions like these serve as primers for a vital discussion that we all need to be having on a regular basis.

You write, “At The Village we have grown in our understanding of contextualization in our next-generation ministries (preschool, children, and youth).” I can’t say I’ve ever heard this demographic mentioned in a contextualization discussion. What does next-generation contextualization look like at The Village?

As we stated in the book, everybody contextualizes; the question is how well. When you use the language of a culture, you are contextualizing. When you deliver age-appropriate messages from the pulpit or in children’s ministry, you are contextualizing. When you wear a suit rather than a tunic, you are contextualizing. These are very basic levels of contextualization, but they still illustrate the point: everyone makes contextual decisions. The essence of the message doesn’t change, but the delivery mechanism does.

For instance, in our preschool ministry we’ve structured the teaching based on a child’s age. Our 1-year-olds have eight narrative lessons that tie into five foundational truths. We intentionally repeat these lessons six times throughout the year. But a 3-year-old is introduced to a lead teacher format and has 26 unique lessons that we do two weeks in a row for the sake of repetition. This is entirely different than how we approach elementary-age children, middle school students, and high school students.

All of these decisions are based on the context we’re trying to love and serve with the gospel. We need to start recognizing that contextual thinking is not just for the church planter or missiologist; rather, it’s for everyone desiring to maintain the distinctive essence of the gospel message while sharing it in a meaningful way with anyone who would hear.

“Although the gospel does impact everything,” you observe, “everything is not the gospel. If everything about Jesus and the Bible becomes ‘the gospel’ to us, then we end up being gospel-confused rather than gospel-centered.” What are some on-the-ground consequences of this mistake?

There are places and programs in church life that are philosophical in nature and not necessarily theological. Things like small groups versus Sunday school, styles of worship and dress for weekend services, and so forth. I could name more, but I think that short list makes my point. When tools meant to stir up the truths of the gospel in us are viewed as the gospel themselves, we begin to fight over fringe things that, while perhaps important, should be handled in light of our preferences rather than elevated to a place of sacredness in and of themselves.

Trevin Wax has suggested that the ministry gifting rubric of prophet/priest/king is represented by you/Patterson/Geiger, respectively. How does this unique dynamic shape the book?

We share a strong and singular commitment to God’s truth and his church, but the Lord has given us unique functions in his body. By working together on the project, our hope and prayer is that the approach results in a more complete book than would have been possible alone. We also enjoyed the challenge and thought it was appropriate to write in community since we were writing on the church, the community of Christ followers.

The Twin Challenges of Gospel Renewal

Every fall since 1998, Tom McBride and Ron Nief of Beloit College in Wisconsin have released their Mindset List to “look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college.” The list originated as a way to remind teachers to make sure their cultural references connect with students in the classroom.

For example, they explain that the incoming college class of 2016:

was born the year of the professional baseball strike and the last year for NFL football in Los Angeles. They have spent much of their lives helping parents understand that you don’t take pictures on “film” and that CDs and DVDs are not “tapes.” In these students’ lifetimes, with MP3 players and iPods, they seldom listen to the car radio. A quarter of the entering students already have suffered some hearing loss. Since they’ve been born, the United States has measured progress by a 2 percent jump in unemployment and a 16-cent rise in the price of a first class postage stamp.

And here are some of the 75 thought-provoking things that this year’s 18-year-olds “know,” according to McBride and Nief:

  • They have always lived in cyberspace, addicted to a new generation of “electronic narcotics.”
  • Robert De Niro is thought of as Greg Focker’s long-suffering father-in-law, not as Vito Corleone or Jimmy Conway.
  • They have never seen an airplane “ticket.”
  • They have lived in an era of instant stardom and self-proclaimed celebrities, famous for being famous.
  • There have always been blue M&Ms, but no tan ones.
  • Mr. Burns has replaced J. R. Ewing as the most shot-at man on American television.
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has always been officially recognized with clinical guidelines.
  • They watch television everywhere but on a television.

As always, this list provides a fascinating look at the fast pace of cultural change, but one item in particular ought to arrest your attention—No. 3: “The biblical sources of terms such as ‘Forbidden Fruit,’ ‘The writing on the wall,’ ‘Good Samaritan,’ and ‘The Promised Land’ are unknown to most of them.”

Rising Tide of Illiteracy

As the school year starts up, particularly for those of us who enjoy regular contact with today’s students, that last item is worth pondering. Even if we work at evangelical redoubts such as Wheaton, Moody, Biola, or Taylor, the rising tide of biblical illiteracy ought to concern us. And it certainly isn’t just college freshmen who know so little about the Bible. Gallup has labeled the United States as “a nation of biblical illiterates.” Time notes, “Only half of U.S. adults know the title of even one Gospel. Most can’t name the Bible’s first book. The trend extends even to evangelicals.”

I have mixed feelings about “The American Bible Challenge,” the new game show hosted by Jeff Foxworthy. While I’m thankful for this somewhat quirky attempt to spread Bible knowledge in our increasingly fragmented culture, I’m concerned that we’ll learn just how few of us can pass the challenge. I expect that most students entering Wheaton or other CCCU schools will score better than the average biblically literate American, and our institutions will do their usual excellent job of filling in the scriptural gaps. But the main point of this article is not to get us to wring our hands. It’s to open our minds. To what?

Only this: We who seek to be agents of gospel renewal have twin challenges. We must not only know God’s Word ourselves, but we must also know our audience. We must be able not just to exegete and interpret Scripture, but apply it to the hearts and minds of our hearers. And we should take nothing for granted.

The latest Mindset List reminds us how cultures influence people’s thoughts, assumptions, and worldviews. We need to not only get into our books, but into their cultures. What moves them, excites them, interests them, and bores them? What do they know, and what don’t they know? How do we translate the Bible into terms they can understand? It is the Spirit’s job to open hearts to the gospel, and he doesn’t need our help. But we have no excuse for intellectual laziness.

I have been blessed to sit under powerful, biblically astute preaching for many years in several churches. But we have all heard preachers who seemed to use the same dusty illustrations they used in seminary decades before, or who referenced television shows or technologies long “gone with the wind” (and if you didn’t get that reference, you may well be a member of the class of 2016!).

So as we get back into the autumn swing—whether at church, school, or another place of our vocation, here’s a friendly reminder to expend some holy energy on getting to know those whom we hope to win for the kingdom. Because while technology and cultural references may change, our calling to gospel witness remains the same.

How Islamic Can Christianity Be?

Editors’ Note: Christians didn’t discover the need for missions in the Muslim world on September 11, 2001. The Middle East is the homeland of our faith, too, the site of many great acts of God’s miraculous redemption. Long before the Twin Towers fell in Manhattan that clear fall day, Christians debated why the church has struggled to gain a hearing for the gospel where the call once sounded freely. Yet in the last decade, the debate has intensified as we agonized over the depth of many Muslims’ hostility toward Christianity. Missionaries and academics have wondered aloud whether the problem extends beyond Western politics, military intervention, and spiritual bondage to the very way we present the gospel. Could our methods be to blame? Could more sophisticated contextualization unlock many more hearts for Christ?

These are the questions we asked experienced pastors and missionaries to answer this week. Whether you’re planning to take the gospel overseas yourself or supporting those who do, we hope these articles will help you make wise, informed decisions about this great missionary challenge of our generation.



“It was the best training that I have ever had on Muslim evangelism.” My friend went on to tell me that we had been doing it all wrong, that we needed to change our strategies. Be doing so we’d see many more Muslims come to Christ. When I inquired as to what she was referring to, she explained how we can introduce Muslims to Jesus through the Qur’an and how Muslims don’t have to stop being Muslims in order to enter the kingdom of God.

My wife and I had been working with Muslims for years and were aware of this training, commonly referred to as the Insider Movement. I listened to my fellow missionary and then began to share my concerns. I watched her countenance change. I felt like a spiritual killjoy. She was sharing her excitement about Muslims coming to faith, and all I could do was criticize the approach.

On reflection, I was probably a little harsher than I should have been. After all, when I first read about Insider Movements, I had the same reaction she did. I was hopeful and excited. I thought to myself, Could this be the tool that causes a spiritual awakening in the Muslim world? Over time, as we continued our ministry to Muslims in the Middle East, I realized the answer to my question was “No, it will not.”

The Insider Movement (IM) remains a hot topic in missions circles. IM ideology is often identified, but not necessarily affiliated, with organizations such as Common Ground, Jesus in the Qur’an, or Common Path Alliance. This issue is extremely complicated and extremely important, making it difficult to write about. I seek in this article to clarify the Insider Movement, highlight its positive aspects, and address some of its dangerous practices. Tomorrow I will offer some counsel for those doing ministry among Muslims.

What Is the Insider Movement?

Rebecca Lewis, a proponent, defines the IM as follows:

Insider movements can be defined as movements to obedient faith in Christ that remain integrated with or inside their natural community. In any insider movement there are two distinct elements:

1. The gospel takes root within pre-existing communities or social networks, which become the main expression of “church” in that context. Believers are not gathered from diverse social networks to create a “church.” New parallel social structures are not invented or introduced.

2. Believers retain their identity as members of their socio-religious community while living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. (emphasis original)

This definition is broad and can be interpreted many different ways—which is one of the difficulties in pinpointing the teachings of the movement. However, many supporters are united in their agreement that the opposition favors importing Western culture and making everyone Western-style Christians. In contrast, those opposed to IM seem to assume that proponents are syncretistic heretics. Such overly broad generalizations make productive dialogue impossible. In my experience, meeting with those who are engaged in ministry to Muslims and talking frankly about the issues has been most beneficial.

Those of us who criticize the movement need to highlight the good things IM proponents seek to accomplish. The IM advocates I’ve met are wonderful people. I sympathize with many of their goals and ideas. They do not seek to destroy the body of Christ. They are winsome, intelligent people who love the Lord and want to see Muslims saved. They strive to communicate the gospel and remove as many obstacles as possible. In the process, they have helped the wider church body take contextualization seriously. For that we can be thankful.

However, we need to address the dangerous practices within the movement, which varies to some degree from person to person and country to country. Therefore, my critique may not apply to all IMs. Nevertheless, the following key issues need to be addressed.

Muhammad is not a prophet.

Some within the IM recognize Muhammad as a prophet of God. They argue that we can say he was a prophet with a little “p” because he made true claims (there is one God, there is a judgment day, and so on). Some argue that God used Muhammad to bring monotheism to the Arabs—a kind of John the Baptist for the Arabs. This is a dangerous concession.

We can talk about Muhammad being a prophet with a big “P” or a little “p,” but in Islam, a prophet is a prophet. If I told my Muslim friends that I believed Muhammad was a prophet of God, they would respond by throwing their arms around me and saying, “Welcome to Islam my brother!” Rejecting Muhammad as a prophet does not require denigrating him before Muslims; it means we should not say more than necessary. Of course, Muhammad will inevitably come up in our conversations with Muslims, and we need to be prepared to respond appropriately. We can be respectful and identify the positive contributions he made to society without agreeing that he is a prophet.

The Qur’an was not inspired by God.

One IM practitioner told me he encourages Muslims to read the Qur’an correctly. By doing this, he claims, they will find Jesus. He and many other IM advocates believe the gospel can be found within the Qur’an, if you correctly interpret the text. But the gospel cannot be found in the Qur’an, because the Qur’an did not come to us through the inspiration of God as found in the Bible. While we may identity seeds of truth we can use to make in-roads for the gospel, faith in Christ cannot be built from within the Qur’an.

There is also an arrogant attitude—almost imperialistic—involved in this assertion. Imagine that a Muslim comes to you and says, “Jesus prophesied that Muhammad would come after him and lead us to the truth.” Muslims actually make this claim. They quote John 14 and 16 and say that the Greek word for “helper” actually means “praised one,” which is a form of the name Muhammad. Muslims argue that, read correctly, the Bible will lead us to Islam. Of course, we know this is completely false and offensive. Why, then, would we think we can impose that same type of thinking upon the Qur’an and be any less offensive?

Don’t continue to call new followers of Jesus Muslims.

IM practitioners seek to keep new followers of Jesus within their socio-religious networks. For support their cite various texts in the Bible (1 Corinthians 7:17-24, 9:19-23; 2 Kings 5:15-19). Therefore, a Muslim who follows Jesus remains a Muslim.

Before we criticize this controversial method, let me explain the reasoning. The word Christian is misunderstood among Muslims. For some it is synonymous with the West and what the West represents, including the Crusades. For others it simply means Roman Catholic. In other words, for Muslims to become “Christians” means that they have abandoned not only their religion, but also their culture and family. They may need to leave their city or country, preventing them from testifying to Christ before their people.

I am sympathetic to the concerns of IM advocates on this issue. I agree that Muslims who follow Christ shouldn’t be required to take on the name “Christian.” However, we should carefully think through the implications of this alternative.

We find among many IM advocates a belief that Islam can be redeemed—we should not abandon the religion but rather change it from within and welcome it into orthodoxy. In a limited sense, yes, some things can be reformed. For instance, Muslims fast, pray, and give alms—actions that, in the proper context, can be biblical. However, Muslims do these things to receive merit, attempting to earn God’s favor. Therefore, these things will need to be redefined and “de-legalized.”

How Islamic can Christianity be? Can a Muslim who now follows Jesus fast during Ramadan? Can a Muslim who follows Jesus use the Islamic prayer stances? Where do we draw the line? These are tough questions. Part of me says, “Make ‘em all Christian just like me!” But I know that’s the wrong response. Muslim-background believers (MBBs) need to have the freedom to try to redeem as much of their former life as they can. Some may be more willing than others. We should support them in this endeavor by continually praying for them, pointing them to the gospel, and guarding them from syncretism and heresy. We can help MBBs lace some of these former practices with Christian meaning and use them as a tool to share the gospel with other Muslims.

Concerning identification, I sympathize with the IM in its desire to help Muslims find an appropriate title. While the word Christian can have a very negative connotation among Muslims, encouraging MBBs to retain the title “Muslim” can be confusing at best and deceptive at worst. Advocates for using the title “Muslim” argue that it literally means “one who submits to God.” This is semantically true. However, the word connotes much more—namely, one who follows the religion of Islam by confessing, “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.”

I never encourage MBBs to retain the title Muslim. Nor do I encourage them to take the title Christian. I explain what has happened to them because of Jesus. I explain to them the dangers of both titles. Some choose to take the title Christian. Some choose another (believer, follower of Jesus, etc.). Some choose to retain the title Muslim and attempt to fill it up with new meaning because they strongly believe they now truly submit to God through Christ. Whatever they choose, I’m chiefly concerned that they adopt a biblical self-identity and Christ-honoring gospel witness. In other words, do they know who they are based upon Scripture and the gospel, and do they witness to Christ?

Don’t reinterpret the Father and Son.

Recent Bible translations for Muslims have created a frenzy by moving “Father” and “Son” language about the Trinity from the text to the footnotes. This debate is not as easy as it appears from the outside. Bible translation is an exceedingly tedious, and often messy, process. In Arabic, the words father and son can have literal or figurative meaning. Other languages have only one meaning for “father” and “son,” causing confusion and anger among Muslims who believe God can have no offspring. What if the only understood meaning is physical and sexual? How do we translate without losing or grossly misrepresenting the biblical meaning?

I would prefer that the divine familial terms stay in the text with a footnote or parenthetical note to explain its meaning. However, I also realize the decisions about how to make the Bible comprehensible in other cultures are not easy or made lightly. Again, we would all benefit by sitting down face-to-face with people who are involved in this process to learn their motivations and practices.

Don’t forsake the church for the kingdom of God.

Some in the IM prefer to talk about Muslims “entering the kingdom of God” as opposed to “joining” Christianity. In their view, the gospel is not about practicing religion but entering God’s kingdom. I applaud the motive of trying to remove the cultural baggage often attributed to Christendom. However, emphasis on the kingdom of God can downplay the importance of the church. Some proponents of the IM make no effort to help MBBs see their place in the universal and historic church.

We should view as suspect any form of church planting that does not seek to connect believers with the universal body of Christ and promote unity. Jesus prayed in John 17 that his followers would be one. To be a follower of Christ is to be a member of his body. We cannot accept Jesus and reject his people. This doesn’t mean believers in the Islamic countries have to memorize the Apostles’ Creed or the Westminster Confession of Faith (although I think every Christian would benefit from doing so). But as believers, we have a rich resource in the saints who have gone before us. We should not rob our Muslim friends of that blessing.

Leading Muslims to Jesus: Questions to Consider

Editors’ Note: Christians didn’t discover the need for missions in the Muslim world on September 11, 2001. The Middle East is the homeland of our faith, too, the site of many great acts of God’s miraculous redemption. Long before the Twin Towers fell in Manhattan that clear fall day, Christians debated why the church has struggled to gain a hearing for the gospel where the call once sounded freely. Yet in the last decade, the debate has intensified as we agonized over the depth of many Muslims’ hostility toward Christianity. Missionaries and academics have wondered aloud whether the problem extends beyond Western politics, military intervention, and spiritual bondage to the very way we present the gospel. Could our methods be to blame? Could more sophisticated contextualization unlock many more hearts for Christ?

These are the questions we asked experienced pastors and missionaries to answer this week. Whether you’re planning to take the gospel overseas yourself or supporting those who do, we hope these articles will help you make wise, informed decisions about this great missionary challenge of our generation.


My friend Bill works with another mission agency, in the same Asian city. Three months ago, Bill baptized Ibrahim, a 23-year-old single man who has since been disowned by his family, threatened, and fired from his job. Besides being discipled by Bill, Ibrahim has been attending a local church (whose members are from a different ethnic group than Ibrahim), and he is growing as a Christian. The church has hired him as a part-time janitor, which provides for his basic needs, as well as giving him a place to sleep. Bill emphasizes Romans 10:9: “Confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord.'”

My friend Jerry (also with another agency) takes a very different approach. He’s been studying the Bible with Ahmed, a 27-year-old single man who made a decision to follow Jesus two years ago. As they have studied together, Jerry has encouraged Ahmed to do everything he can to remain connected with his family and community, including maintaining his identity as a Muslim. He continues many of his former religious practices, such as attending the mosque, saying ritual prayers five times daily, and fasting during Ramadan. Ahmed has gathered a group of his friends who sometimes study the Bible together, yet they still maintain respect for Muhammad and the Qur’an. Ahmed identifies himself with Jesus but is careful not to say or do things that would imply he has become a Christian. Jerry emphasizes 1 Corinthians 7:17: “Each one should remain in the place in life that the Lord assigned to him.”

Uma is a national partner of mine who was talking with Khalil, a fruit seller at a local market, and asked him, “Have you ever had a dream you felt was from God?” Khalil looked stunned and told him he had recently dreamed of a man in white who told him, “You are on the path to destruction. I am the path to life. Ask my servant how to find the right path.” Uma volunteered as a servant of the man in white to show Khalil the path. He told Khalil to gather a group of his family and friends, and he would begin showing them the path. Seven friends of Khalil (mostly other sellers at the market) gathered with him for the first study of the “Holy Book,” at which Uma distributed a photocopied page containing Genesis 1:1-2:4. The group discussed how God had created all things, and what he might want them to do as an application of that fact.

After the third study, Uma stopped attending the group and met with Khalil outside the group, equipping him to lead the upcoming study week by week. At the end of 30 studies (covering the essential truths of salvation up through the New Testament), six of the eight original group members chose to be baptized and continue meeting as a house fellowship (the beginning of a house church). This group does not use the label “Christian” (which would imply that they had joined a different political and ethnic group despised by their people). Rather they call themselves “Followers of the Way of God” (see Acts 18:26; 24:14), and those around them realize they have chosen a new identity, a new way of life and faith. Uma’s favorite verse is 2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.”

Questions to Consider

All three of these approaches are currently being applied by missionaries with various agencies. Some encourage converts to make an individual decision to be baptized and join a church as soon as possible, regardless of the effect on their family, friends, and others in their culture. Others encourage those who follow Jesus to remain members of their birth religion and try to be a witness in that context. Still others are intentionally aiming to reach small groups of people all together—whether extended families, interest groups, or just groups of friends.

What would you do if you were a missionary? Would you want to use any of these three approaches?

Here are some of the issues and questions involved:

  • How much has our Western worldview shaped us to read the Bible through an individualistic filter (missing the fact that the vast majority of church growth described in Acts was reaching groups rather than isolated individuals)?
  • How much should we be content to reach individuals who are open and then encourage them to reach other individuals (versus intentionally aiming to reach families or groups)?
  • If a “fringe person” is the first to follow Jesus and subsequently forsakes his or her own culture to join the “church culture” of a different ethnic group, what effect does that have on the rest of their people?
  • How much should cultural outsiders tell seekers and new believers “the right answers” for belief and how much should we expect the Spirit of God to guide them to the best answers through direct group interaction with the Scriptures?
  • What parts of a person’s beliefs and practices must change when they begin to follow Jesus and as they mature in him?
  • What approaches are most likely to catalyze church planting movements rather than just reaching a few scattered individuals?
  • How can we plant churches that are truly indigenous: led, supported, growing, and multiplying with local resources, rather than dependent on outsiders?
  • How can we proclaim and live out the gospel’s implications in ways that believers’ identities are found in Jesus, not in our cultural, religious, and/or political affiliations?
  • How many of these issues are actually similar or the same in our Western context, but less obvious because of the lingering veneer of Christianity in our country?

Answers to questions like these influence outreach strategies. In Pioneers, our goal is church planting movements among unreached peoples. For that reason, we don’t want to “extract” isolated individuals from their social context, as happened with Bill and Ibrahim in our first case. We also don’t want our fruit to be only individuals or informal groups who are positive toward Jesus but still identify themselves as part of a non-Christian religion (e.g. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Animist, or Secular), as happened in Jerry and Ahmed’s case.

Our approaches to church planting span a creative variety of methods that are consistent with Scripture. Uma and Khalil’s case represents just one of the ways that networks of house fellowships are spreading as the beginnings of church planting movements. Please join us in asking God to give wisdom to our field workers and leaders as we seek to catalyze church planting movements among the remaining unreached groups of the world.

Contextualization Without Compromise

On April 26-27 I will have the privilege of joining men I admire and respect at the Advance the Church conference in Durham, North Carolina. My assignment is to speak on “contextualization without compromise.” I address this very issue at length in my book Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different. The organizers of the conference have asked me to share some of my thoughts on contextualization. So, for better or for worse, here they are (taken straight from Chapter 8 of Unfashionable).


The principle behind Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 9:22 to “become all things to all men” is what Christian thinkers call “contextualization.” Contextualization is the idea that we need to be translating gospel truth into language understood by our culture. Cross-cultural missionaries and Bible translators have been doing this for centuries. They take the unchanging truth of the Gospel and put it into language that fits the context they are trying to reach. Contextualization simply means translating the Gospel—in both word and deed—into understandable terms appropriate to the audience. It’s Gospel translation that is context sensitive.

Genna, my eight-year-old daughter, loves going to her Sunday school class for various reasons. She loves seeing her friends and singing her favorite songs. But she also loves to learn from her capable and creative teacher. He works hard to use language, concepts, and illustrations that she and the other children in the class will understand as he faithfully teaches them the Bible. And as a result, Genna gets it. She walks away Sunday after Sunday excited about what she’s learned. This thrills Kim and me. We’re both grateful that her teacher understands the need to contextualize.

Similarly, every English Bible translation is an effort to contextualize the Scriptures (originally written in Hebrew and Greek for ancient peoples) for an English-speaking audience of today.

Contextualization also involves building relationships with people who don’t believe. We don’t expect them to come to us; we go to them. We meet them where they are. We enter into their world by seeking to identify with their struggles, their likes, their dislikes, their ideas. Chuck Colson speaks of it as entering into people’s “stories”:

We must enter into the stories of the surrounding culture, which takes real listening. We connect with the literature, music, theater, arts, and issues that express the existing culture’s hopes, dreams, and fears. This builds a bridge by which we can show how the Gospel can enter and transform those stories.

Edith Schaeffer, wife of the late Francis Schaeffer, wrote about a visit the two of them made to San Francisco in 1968. One night they went to Fillmore West to hang out with the druggies and hippies and take in a light show. She records how heartbroken they were as they witnessed on that night “the lostness of humanity in search of peace where there is no peace.” She concluded, “A time of listening is needed—listening to what the next generation is saying, listening to the words of the music they are listening to, listening to the meaning behind the words. If true communication is to continue, there is a language to be learned.”

Contextualization begins with a broken heart for the lost and a driving desire to help them understand God’s liberating truth. Only by real listening and learning can we hope to persuasively communicate God’s unchanging Word to our constantly changing world.

Sadly, some well-meaning Christians conclude otherwise. For these Christians, contextualization means the same thing as compromise. They believe it means giving people what they want and telling people what they want to hear. What they misunderstand, however, is that contextualization means giving people God’s answers (which they may not want) to the questions they’re really asking and in ways they can understand.

This misunderstanding of contextualization has led these people to argue that cultural reflection and contextualization are at best distractions, at worst sinful. They admonish us to abandon these things and focus simply on the Bible. While this sounds virtuous, it ends up being foolish for two reasons. First, as we’ve already seen, the Bible itself exhorts us to understand our times so that we can reach our changing world with God’s eternal truth. To not contextualize, therefore, is a sin. And second, we all live inescapably within a particular cultural framework that shapes the way we think about everything. So if we don’t work hard to understand our context, we’ll not only fail in our task to effectively communicate the gospel but we’ll also find it impossible to avoid being negatively shaped by a world we don’t understand.

In a recent interview, pastor Tim Keller put it this way: “to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there’s no avoiding it.”

Whether translating the Bible or developing relationships with non-Christians, we’re to be missionary minded in everything we do. That takes work—the hard effort of maintaining the big picture and communicating comprehensibly and compellingly to those who don’t share our convictions and worldview. Therefore, every day and in every circumstance, we need to be consciously and rigorously translating our faith into the language of the culture we’re trying to reach.

This is the challenge: If you don’t contextualize enough, no one’s life will be transformed because they won’t understand you. But if you contextualize too much, no one’s life will be transformed because you won’t be challenging their deepest assumptions and calling them to change.

Becoming “all things to all people”, therefore, does not mean fitting in with the fallen patterns of this world so that there is no distinguishable difference between Christians and non-Christians. While rightly living “in the world,” we must avoid the extreme of accommodation—being “of the world.” It happens when Christians, in their attempt to make proper contact with the world, go out of their way to adopt worldly styles, standards, and strategies.

When Christians try to eliminate the counter-cultural, unfashionable features of the biblical message because those features are unpopular in the wider culture—for example, when we reduce sin to a lack of self-esteem, deny the exclusivity of Christ, or downplay the reality of knowable absolute truth—we’ve moved from contextualization to compromise. When we accommodate our culture by jettisoning key themes of the gospel, such as suffering, humility, persecution, service, and self-sacrifice, we actually do our world more harm than good. For love’s sake, compromise is to be avoided at all costs.

As the Bible teaches, the Lordship of Christ has a sense of totality: Christ’s truth covers everything, not just “spiritual” or “religious” things. But it also has a sense of tension. As Lord, Jesus not only calls us to himself, he also calls us to break with everything which conflicts with his Lordship.

Contextualization without compromise is the goal!

Contextualization or Effective Communication

My brother and friend Thabiti Anyabwile has raised some legitimate questions about contextualization over at Church Matters. His post is a model of how Christians are to speak to one another in love with a view to sharpening one another.

I sent him a personal response and he has graciously posted it. I hope this open conversation is as helpful to you as it has been to me.


In an earlier post I introduced the biblical practice of contextualization. We all contextualize; the question is whether or not we will contextualize well. What are some ways we get it wrong?

Under-Contextualization: an unwillingness to contextualize because of . . .

Fear – Some Christians are unwilling to identify with particular aspects of people’s culture because they are genuinely seeking to preserve the gospel. They may be motivated by passages that instruct us not to associate with this world (e.g., Romans 12:2; 1 John 2:15-17); therefore, they fear that identifying with unbelievers will compromise the gospel.

Legalism – Some Christians begin with the gospel but want to add other requirements which merely represent personal preferences or traditions. We see this in the Galatian heresy where the Galatians began with the gospel but wanted to add circumcision as a requirement. We may do the same thing when we see someone come to faith in Christ then expect that they should look a certain way, asking them to get a hair cut, change their clothes and remove their piercings. Think of a missionary who travels to reach a tribe somewhere in the world, and he introduces Western clothing as the only appropriate dress for Christians and the King James Bible as the only authorized version of Scripture. Of course it works the other way around as well.

Pride – Sometimes we are tempted to identify a particular culture as THE Christian culture. Pride is evidenced in an unwillingness to forsake our “cultural” rights for the sake of the unchurched.  Our particular music, for example, is THE only acceptable biblical expression. At a grotesquely sinful level, we identify with a particular culture, people or nation to the point of discrimination.

Laziness - Unfortunately, perhaps many of us are simply too lazy to be concerned about the hard work of contextualization. We don’t want to learn about others and their culture; we don’t want to be uncomfortable; or we’re just simply to busy with our own lives that we don’t have time to concern ourselves with others.

Ignorance – Perhaps for too many Christians, they are just ignorant. I pray this is the case. Their hearts are not closed; they simply don’t know what to do.  In this case I would encourage us to begin by asking questions and being open to learning about the people whom we are trying to reach with the gospel.

Over-Contextualization: a willingness to embrace worldliness through . . .

Marketing – In my mind this represents a superficial attempt to “look” like the people you are trying to reach without any real effort to know the people you are trying to reach.  As an example take a church that wants to reach younger generations. They may start a contemporary service where the preacher takes off his tie, and they think they are contextualizing when they are only marketing: marketing a particular service or a particular “brand” in order to attract a certain market niche.

Syncretism – In this case biblical parameters (1 Corinthians 9:21) are re-interpreted, relativized or completely set aside in an effort to reach people. The result is that we become like the world, losing all distinction, and the gospel is devoid of power.

Contextualization requires continuous self-control and discipline (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

It requires the self-control and discipline to learn about those who live in your mission field, to pray for them and to serve them in order to bring the gospel to them in an understandable manner. Therefore, let us embrace the fact that we all contextualize, while asking ourselves whether or not we are contextualizing well.