Hear ye! Hear ye!
All ye with Warby Parker thick-rimmed glasses and skin-fade hipster dues.
All ye with full sleeves and skinny jeans, with tobacco breath (not from cigarettes, that’s gross; totes pipes and stogies, just like Spurgeon, duh).
All ye with Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics at the cafe.
All ye who have The Gospel Coalition as thine homepage.
All ye with top-buttoned button-ups.
Mr. Reformed. Credo-Calvinist. Rebel-blogger with a cause.
Hear ye! Hear ye!
All ye with the scarves (the massive, fringy scarves) and tasteful nose rings.
All ye with thine teased-to-perfectly-look-like-thou-doesn’t-care hair styles.
All ye with the recycled-paper prayer journals and thine boyfriend’s over-sized flannels.
All ye with Jeremiah 29:11 tattooed on thine forearms.
Ms. Essential Oils. Queen of Instagram. Photographer of sunsets.
Come hither! Receiveth correction!
Now that I have your attention…
In all honesty, the above description basically paints a perfect picture of my wife and I, except I should point out the fact that my glasses are not from Warby Parker, my sleeve isn’t finished, my wife has Song of Solomon tattooed on her forearm–not Jeremiah–and she straightens her hair more often than she teases it.
Anyway. Christians, I would like to warn you about the dangers of cool-shaming. This is an exhortation for myself first and foremost, so think of it as me preaching to myself in public.
Let’s talk about “contextualization.” You’ve heard of it I trust. At its best, the word describes the necessary concept of Christians communicating the gospel to whoever they happen to be around with a terminology that makes sense. It’s becoming all things to all people so that, by all means, some might be saved. It’s becoming incarnational in imitation of the second member of the Trinity, who became flesh and tabernacled among his creation, in part, to show us what God is like.
Contextualization, at its best, is simply faithful communication.
At its worst, contextualization is the Christian’s code word for “I can do whatever I want.” It’s the word we use to dignify our undignified attraction to worldliness. It’s our way to explain why we’re so cowardly in our interactions with our non-believing friends; it’s the word we use to explain why we simply haven’t articulated the gospel to anyone for weeks. It’s the word we use to explain why we try our darndest be cool in the eyes of the coolest of this world.
“You’re a Christian? Huh! I never would have guessed that!”
*Yes! Successful contextualization!*
Contextualization: Perfectly Demonstrated
Question: How well did Jesus contextualize the gospel for his audience?
Just like everything else he did, Jesus contextualized perfectly. He was perfect. Think about the implications here. Seriously, stop and think about them. You can never say that Jesus was “too” anything. There was never a moment in any social interaction in which his tone was too harsh or too tender. There was never a word that was untimely spoken. There was never an insult that was untimely offered. He never went too far. It was the perfect thing to do for an enraged Jesus to flip money-changing tables over and drive crooks out of the house of God with a homemade whip. It was the perfect thing to do for Jesus to call these same crooks “brood of vipers,” “sons of the devil,” “whitewashed tombs,” “hypocrites,” and “blind guides.” There was never a time in which any of us would be justified in saying, “Your heart was in the right place Jesus, but your execution was a little too much. Try to use some restraint next time.”
Question: What was the result of Jesus’ contextualization?
Do we really think that we should expect anything different? Are we really so audacious to think that our social interactions can be more tastefully navigated than Jesus’? Should we really expect better results than he got?
I think we may have a problem here. I think we may define successful “contextualization” by how well we’re received by the people we are trying to reach. We think that we haven’t properly contextualized the gospel if we’ve offended someone–or if someone walks away with the impression that we are out of touch or stupid. But most of the time, that’s exactly what successful contextualization looks like! Perfect execution of contextualization put Jesus on a Roman death machine. His perfect cultural engagement produced an angry mob, shouting “crucify him!”
Let me anticipate a couple of objections.
First is the “You’re not Jesus!” objection. This is true; I am not Jesus. He can perfectly navigate through the waters of controversy, and I cannot. What should we then conclude? That I should not try to imitate Jesus in his faithful, gospel-drenched, God-honoring trouble-making? Well, let’s just carry this thought through. I can’t perfectly love, or sacrifice, or instruct, or pray, or do anything else that Jesus did perfectly either. Should I not try to imitate these characteristics of Jesus on account of my imperfect abilities? Of course I should. We can’t pick and choose which of Jesus’ characteristics to imitate and which ones to ignore. “Imitate Christ” we are told in the Scriptures, and we should, in part, respond by looking for tables to flip.
The second is the “Jesus was a friend of sinners, not religious people” argument. This is the argument that points out that all of this controversy surrounding Jesus’ life came from the religious elite, not the sinners of the world; therefore, worldliness wasn’t the problem, religion was. In response to this argument, let me simply point out the contrast between Jesus’ worldly friends and his religious opponents; the main difference that divided these two groups of people was that the former received Jesus and the latter rejected him. In other words, worldliness is not a virtue and piety is not a vice. In fact, during his earthly ministry, Jesus instructed those to whom he ministered to conform to the religious requirements of the law. The great thing about Jesus’ sinner-friends was that they were friends of Jesus, not that they were sinners. The unfortunate thing about Jesus’ pious opponents was that they were opponents of Jesus, not that they were pious.
All that to say, if the world is against the religious elite, that does not mean that the world is therefore a friend of Jesus. A tax-collector that rejects Jesus is just as much of an opponent of Jesus as a Pharisee who rejects him.
Beware of Cool-Shaming
So, what am I getting at with all of this? Simply put: stop hiding behind the guise of contextualization. If successful contextualization is defined by “non-offense,” we will never actually end up communicating the gospel. The irony is that in our apparent desire to contextualize the gospel, we end up obscuring it. The tragedy here is that we’re cool-shamed into a corner and we don’t even realize it.
Oh, this offends you? Let me contextualize that real quick. Oh, this offends you, too? Let me just make that a little bit more relevant. Oh, this puts you off? Let me missionalize that. Okay. Now I’m relevant? Now I’m in touch? Now that I’m not naming sin and calling you to repent from it? Now that I don’t have a uniquely Christian gospel anymore? Okay, cool.
Beware of cool-shaming, Christian.
Your tattoos won’t make you relevant. Your refined taste in microbrews won’t make you relevant. Your disdain for Christian music won’t make you relevant. Your appreciation for Wes Anderson films won’t make you relevant.
Your message is fundamentally offensive and/or foolish. You will be received with some degree of anger or mockery by the world, or you will be received with full-on acceptance by those who are being saved out of world.
If there’s anything in between, you’re probably doing it wrong.