The gospel changes things.
I was reminded of this truth today during a conversation with a friend who also spent some time overseas as a missionary. We were waxing verbose about some ongoing discussion in one of his missions classes at the seminary. It was the familiar question of contextualization and how we must interact with foreign cultures.
Frequently, people seem to misunderstand the whole point of this conversation, as though the purpose of the contextualization is to preserve the foreign culture into which we take the gospel. People get all bent out of shape about the thought of things coming in and changing the host culture, as though we are trying to preserve their unique way of life.
But that is not the point.
If you want to preserve indigenous cultures, work for National Geographic. Contextualization is not as much about preserving the host culture as it is about keeping our Western culture out of the way. So that our particular ways of living out the Christian faith, both good and bad, do not hinder the spread of the gospel because they seem weird or foreign. The very goal of gospel proclamation should, in fact, be to change every culture. Truth be told, the gospel changes things. That is simply what it does.
In Matthew’s gospel, the proclamation of the good news is intrinsically tied to the coming of the kingdom of heaven. In essence, the good news is that a kingdom has come and is coming. It is already here and somehow not yet fully finished. Nevertheless, it is the very center of Christ’s message in this book. It would be fair to say, as far as Matthew was concerned that the the gospel was about this coming kingdom.
In Matthew 13, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven with a series of parables. Whenever I read through these, one particular set of parables sticks with me. They are both very short, but make a tremendous statement. They say,
“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matt. 13:31-33).
Jesus makes two simple points in these two tiny parables. First, the kingdom may start small, but it will take over. It will grow so big that it is bigger than all the other kingdoms. Secondly, it will change the lump of dough. Just like yeast permeates the dough into which it is placed, the kingdom will permeate this world and no culture will be safe from its effect. It is a kingdom that changes everything it touches.
This is not the language or preservation, but the language of renovation. The gospel changes things. Cultures are no exception. In fact, by Jesus’ words, the the good news of the gospel will make its way into cultures and transform them into a great gospel culture in the kingdom of heaven. Thus, our goal should be culture transformation.
Now, here’s the caveat. That is not just true of foreign cultures. Too often, I think we overlook our own culture for that of our neighbor, seeing the problems in his worldview and overlooking the issues in our own. Truly, the gospel should be changing our culture as well.
Does the culture in our churches look like that of the world outside it’s doors? If so, then how can we claim it has been affected by the gospel? Does the culture in our households look like that of our unbelieving neighbors? If so, how can we claim that it has been affected by the gospel?
If the gospel does its work, it will confront our culture and begin to change those things that are fallen. It will root out the sin and darkness in our culture, and it will leave those things that ring true with the kingdom of heaven.
Will it still be “indigenous”? Certainly. Will it maintain it’s unique flavor? Absolutely.
Yet, it will conform to a higher culture. It will be transformed by the power of the good news.
Many years after Christ spoke those parables to his listeners, the apostle Paul comments on the effect of the gospel in his letter to the Colossians. He said,
Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing-as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth (Col. 1:5b-6).
Paul’s words testify to the truth that Christ proclaimed so many years before the church in Colossae was even a thought. As the truth of the gospel spread out across the world from Jerusalem after pentecost, it worked its way into every culture along the way and began to change things. Through the power of the spirit, people began to look like Christ, and churches began to look like the kingdom.
May this be true of our life and church today. Let the gospel do its work and change your life.