Written by Kris Vos
March 11, 2024

Contextualization and Renewal

As we listen to the stories of our unchurched friends, there are four possible approaches we can take in sharing the gospel with them.

Bret is my friend at our local Barnes and Noble Café. I talk with him most Friday afternoons as I set up shop to work on my message for Sunday. He is a druid who pretty much lives in the bookstore café. I have not run into many druids in my life; in fact, Bret is the first.

  • Druids, in part, worship nature. Every time Bret and I meet, I consider various angles I could take in helping him replace his worship of nature with worship of the Creator who truly deserves his praise.

I have found a concept from Sam Chan’s book, Evangelism in A Skeptical World, helpful. Chan recounts a way of understanding contextualization put together by Warrick Farah and Kyle Meeker. They say that our culture is shaped by the stories it tells.

As we listen to the stories of our unchurched friends, there are four possible approaches we can take in sharing the gospel with them.

Four Possible Approaches to Sharing the gospel
Approach 1:  Oppose the culture’s storyline
  • One approach is to help people see that the stories they are allowing to shape their lives are simply wrong. At times, we must make it clear that, if people want to follow the true God, they must reject their current story.
  • Let me try to illustrate this approach by using a very popular story from the Marvel Universe. Marvel depends on magic (witchcraft), technology, wealth, and mythology. In reality, though, none of these things can rescue us from our plight, and we must depend only on God’s power. If people’s stories resemble this aspect of the Marvel story, we must help them reject their idols and follow God instead.
Approach 2: Undermine the culture’s storyline
  • Another approach is to help our friends see that their storyline is inferior to the Bible’s. Sometimes, we can use people’s current story to point them to a better story.
  • We can see an example of this approach in the Marvel Universe as well. Thor and Star-Lord are both part human and part god. They are likable but deeply flawed. In contrast to this inferior storyline, Jesus lived a flawless life and always served others, even to the point of death. All other storylines appear inferior when you realize Christ is the perfect example of One who is fully God and fully human.
Approach 3: Retain and repurpose the culture’s storyline
  • A third approach is to acknowledge the good in the story but then reveal how Christ can make the story so much better. Sometimes, you can build upon the aspects of a person’s storyline that has some validity.
  • For example, resurrection is one of the central themes of the Marvel storyline. Every time I watch the scene where Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner) hears his wife’s voice over the phone after she has been resurrected, I get a tear in my eye. Similarly, I get a chill down my spine when Captain America says, “Avengers… assemble!” and all those who were dead rise to fight the final battle. Those powerful images can serve as springboards that point our conversations to the work that Christ did on the cross, as he opened the doors to eternal life.
Approach 4: Invite people to follow Jesus within their culture’s storyline
  • There are times when we can acknowledge that the storyline that culture is following is headed in the right direction. However, we must be careful in the work of contextualization. We are not talking about compromising the Gospel message to fit into culture’s storyline. Rather, we are showing how Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of every culture’s greatest needs.
  • Let me give one last example from the world of Marvel. Thanos has a genuine desire to make civilization better, but he does it through his own lust for power and destruction. In contrast, our Marvel heroes make a better civilization through community and self- sacrifice. That is what Jesus does in real life. He sacrificed himself to establish a community that would change the world.

Throughout history, the church has often responded to culture in the first two ways: oppose and undermine. However, all four approaches are valid, and we have often neglected the other two approaches. In a culture that is growing farther and farther removed from the biblical story, we need evangelists who are in tune with the Holy Spirit’s leading about how and when to best respond.

For myself, I find it easy to default into the first two approaches, but I want to use all four approaches well in guiding my personal meetings with people like Bret and in shaping weekly message preparation as well.

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