Many pastors on the front lines of ministry wrestle with how to preach the Gospel in a post-Christian, biblically-illiterate culture. How do we preach in ways that are faithful to scripture and fitting to culture? How can we preachers listen attentively to the voice of God through scripture and to the hopes of humanity in culture without ignoring either? Preachers can learn from the failures and successes of missionaries. Here are three possible postures when it comes to relating Christ to culture.
Colonialism: Early American missionaries often took on a posture of colonialism. When they went into a new culture to share the Gospel, they imposed their particular cultural norms and values on the culture they were trying to reach and, often subconsciously, considered it “gospel.” They sought to bring the truth of God into pagan cultures without much consideration of how to share Christ in ways that related to the particular culture they were trying to reach. When preachers develop and deliver sermons that are biblically substantive but culturally irrelevant, we are guilty of colonialism. Think about your sermon preparation process. Surely you devote many hours to exegeting a biblical text, but how much time do you expend exegeting the culture of people to whom you will preach? Do you devote space in your homiletic process for listening to listeners, inviting them to offer questions, observations, input, and evaluation concerning your preaching? If not, you may be a Colonialist Preacher.
Compromise: A more recent trend among missionaries is to run so far from the sin of colonialism that they run smack-dab into the sin of compromise. This approach to missions involves a syncretizing of the Gospel with the norms and values of a culture, even those norms and values that are clearly contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel becomes so enculturated that it loses its counter-cultural power and simply endorses everything about the culture. This has happened in America. Sometimes we have a hard time distinguishing between what is Christian and what is cultural. Some of our ecclesial practices are more in alignment with American conceptions than Biblical convictions. When preachers develop and deliver sermons that are culturally relevant but biblically shallow, we compromise the Gospel. If our only goal in preaching is to come across as relevant, hip, and cool, in order to connect with and entertain culture, we compromise. If our preaching is always an endorsement of culture with no prophetic word from the Lord that confronts culture from time to time, chances are we are compromising. If we stand up to preach with a clever opening story and humorous conclusion but no substantive word from the Lord, we become shallow compromisers.
Contextualization: There is, thankfully, a third way. When missionary movements are at their best, they avoid colonialism and compromise in order to contextualize the Gospel. Missionaries who are committed to contextualization, live among and listen to the culture they are trying to reach. They spend time reflecting on the beliefs and behaviors of a culture. Then, they consider how to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that both commend and confront that culture. When preachers develop and deliver sermons that are biblically substantive and culturally relevant, we hit the bull’s eye of contextualization and avoid the mistakes of colonialism and compromise. This starts with the sermon preparation process. Devoting time to listen for the will and way of God through scripture AND to listen for the hopes and hurts of people in the preaching context is the prerequisite for contextual preaching. Then it’s time to put words together that bring these two lost lovers, God and humanity, together through the sermon. The preacher is a prophet who must faithfully proclaim a holy God to humanity (substance). But the preacher is also a priest who must fittingly proclaim the hopes and hurts of humanity to a holy God (relevance). When the contextual preacher preaches those who listen sense “this preacher knows God and this preacher gets me.”
Questions to Consider:
-Would the people who listen to your preaching consider you a colonialist, compromiser, or contextualist?
-When it comes to your sermon preparation process, are you most tempted to ignore the dynamics of the cultural context in which you preach (irrelevant colonialist) or the literary, historical, and theological contexts of the biblical text (shallow compromiser)? I’ve been guilty of both.
-What practices can you employ in your process of developing and delivering sermons that will enable you to preach in ways that are contextual, that are both biblically substantive AND culturally relevant?