Tuesday, April 10, 2007

First Century Christianity vs. Contextualization

I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently regarding the desire to be biblical. I have frequently heard people say that they want to reproduce New Testament Christianity in their churches or have a church like that of the first century churches. While I understand the gist of what's being said here, I'm not sure that's exactly what we should be aiming at. What most people mean by such an assertion, I assume, is that they want to be faithful to the Scriptures and faithful to Jesus -- to be biblical.

The issue I'm raising is that sometimes being biblical may not look too much like a first century church. Contextualization is what's at stake here: seeking to incarnate the Gospel in our culture, not trying to reproduce the culture of the past. Paul couldn't employ podcasts, Peter never pondered a combustion engine, John never dreamed of the internet (despite how some dispensationalists may interpret Revelation). However, it's easier to try and study and reproduce a previous culture than it is to engage one's own; easier to memorize lines than to improvise. Sadly, many parts of the church have failed exactly here: whether it's perpetuating the high church culture of the 19th century or the nostalgic americana church atmosphere of the '50's - we've neglected to exert the effort it takes to read our contemporary culture and engage it with the Gospel. Ultimately, it's not First Century Christianity we should aspire for, but rather Twenty-First Century Christianity.


MOsborne20 said...

I thnk a great text to support what you are saying (with both contextualization and modeling of the 1st century church) is Philippians 4:8-9, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. "

Paul is not telling them how to meditate. The command to "think" is a command of contextualization (see Fee's commentary for defense). The Philippians were to find anything of value in their culture and "account" for it. Then they were to follow Paul's example in how he lived a crucified life.

I am with you on this. I just wish I lived it out more powerfully and faithfully.

Joshua L. Smith said...

So many churches (smaller rural ones seem to be more prone toward this) strive for a 1800's or 1930's church. We fail to realize that our culture is unable to relate to previous generations. Paul, Peter, & Christ related the Gospel and Spirituality in ways that the roman era individual could understand. It is a tragedy that we as believers are often not doing the same.

G said...

I am in agreement with you, Mihelis. I do have one point to add in contrast. Most of us are familiar with our background that clings to the "past", i.e. the past two or three centuries, and we understand the failures to contextualize. On the other hand, the churches I've been familiar with have also failed to bring this generation into significant contact with our past, i.e. more than just the past two or three centuries.

A couple of examples of progress in this area:
1) The Modern hymns movement - Gifted people are taking the rich texts of songs from our past and renewing them musically and textually in forms we can identify with today. This is a great effort that I am appreciating more and more.

2) A return to older forms of worship - The Resurgence is currently posting a weekly podcast of the sections of the Heidelberg Catechism read by various leaders, pastors, writers, and teachers throughout evangelicalism. I've also been appreciating some personal devotion time using resources based on the Common Book of Prayer.

I think much of my background, though in a sense clinging to the past, was ignoring much of the richness of the past and failing to bring it in today's terms. I'm looking for more ways to express solidarity with the church of history while communicating its message in the various cultural languages of today.

Nate Mihelis said...

Good thoughts...and I share the sense frustration at my own attempts. It's more risky or perhaps scary trying to contextualize, but it's so necessary.


I appreciate your addition; Mike Bird is actually working on a "devotional book" with daily readings aimed at helping to rectify such deficiencies.