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Ministry Leaders Must Contextualize

Recently, I wrote that an effective ministry entrepreneur needs to acquire specific knowledge, cultivate certain values and develop competent skills to be effective in ministry. Two of these skills are being able to read or discern the culture in which one ministers and then to use that culture to influence belief.

Perhaps these are just two parts of the skill of contextualization. The purpose of acquiring such skills is not to accommodate the central message of the gospel to the culture, but to be able to present the message in such a way that it will be understood and received by hearers steeped in the culture.

There is no doubt that first-century apostles used the dominant Greek culture to organize thoughts and teachings about the Messiah and to interpret this message to their hearers. The very choice of the New Testament writers to use Koine Greek rather than Aramaic or Latin in their writings speaks to a desire to communicate in a medium that would be comprehensible to the largest number of readers.

Certainly there is the danger of pursuing fads and the ephemeral in utilizing these skills, but effective discernment can be learned. A skillful practitioner will learn from his or her mistakes and build on successes.

Another part of this skill is using the cultural trappings to influence people to change their thoughts and their actions. I don’t want to belittle the tremendous political sense of our president-elect, but would he have been as successful if we had not seen portrayals of African-American presidents in the media?

Such depictions go as far back as 1972 when James Earl Jones portrayed Douglass Dilman in The Man, a motion picture based on a novel by Irving Wallace. Dilman, the president pro tempore of the Senate, unexpectedly becomes president when the sitting president and vice-president are killed. Other portrayals of African-Americans as president include Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact and Dennis Haysbert in 24. Seeing African-Americans in the role of president, even in fictional portrayals, conditioned the public to accept it as a possibility.

Perhaps one of the most creative people to use culture as a way to communicate the gospel is Bishop T. D. Jakes. Not only through his TV ministry, but through his writing and film production, Jakes is using the culture to present the Christian message. His novels Woman Thou Art Loosed and Not Easily Broken have not only been best-sellers, but both have been made into films with general distribution. Jakes uses these cultural expressions to present stories of people whose lives have been changed by their faith.

If this sounds something like Jesus’ use of parables ”simple everyday stories that embody deep meaning ”is this a coincidence? I don’t think so. These stories used cultural realities to present spiritual truth. Is there any better example of the skill of contextualization?

Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column appeared previously on his blog.