"So he caught a body?"
I understood that the teenager across the table had just compared Cain and Abel to a murder on the streets, but I had no clue how to respond.
"Sure.” I laughed nervously. “That's one way of thinking about it."
Our church's Bible study at the local gym had only been meeting for a few weeks, but I went home and told my wife, "I've feeling we're not in Mississippi anymore." My gospel was the same. It was still the power to save anyone anywhere (Rom. 1:16), but my setting was completely different.
I was learning Greek on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but I could not speak New Orleans yet. I felt like an alien who just landed on another planet. How in the world could I communicate the gospel to my new neighbors and friends?
Each and every Christian must contextualize the gospel. We all find ourselves in a certain place, at a certain time, and with a certain people. When we contextualize, we are merely presenting the gospel in a way that our surrounding culture can clearly understand. We are presenting a timeless message in a timely fashion. Like Paul, we attempt to "become all things to all people" that by all means we might save some (1 Cor. 9:22). However, contextualization is easier said than done.
If you desire to share the good news with insight and clarity, then you need to contextualize the gospel. Here are three steps to do that.
Paul had little trouble identifying the idols in Athens—they were everywhere (Acts 17:16). Although we do not have the luxury of walking down the street and spotting our neighborhood's idols, we can carefully observe others and take notice of what consumes their affections.
In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller defines an idol as "anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give... An idol is whatever you look at and say, 'If I have that, then I'll feel my life has meaning, then I'll know I have value, then I'll feel significant and secure'."[i]
What seeks to absorb, consume, and dominate the hearts and minds of your neighbors? Where do they spend their time, money, and energy?
Each and every culture is different, but general trends can be spotted for a generation. For example, the prevalence of the internet, smart phones, and social media unveils the idol of constant-entertainment. In every moment of downtime, we are reaching for our phones. And if we who have a glorious Savior and heavenly future are so tempted by lesser glories, how much more so does a dying world desperately long for distraction?
Specifically, too, each neighborhood has a golden calf lying around somewhere. In my community, the abundance of broken homes feeds a desire to belong. This longing for true fellowship with other human beings is good and God-given, but all too often, I see people trying to satisfy God-given desires with idols that do not measure up.
Young men are attracted to gangs, Nation of Islam, or Hebrew Black Israelites because of the affirmation and security they provide. Others are drawn to the close-knit LGBTQ communities. In both cases, people are simply saying, "These people feel like home."
But shared circumstances and sexuality are far too weak to bear the weight of true community.
As we begin to spot these idols, our spirits should be "provoked" (Acts 17:16). It should trouble our souls and bring tears to our eyes that people are giving themselves to things that will never satisfy, but we cannot stop at identification.
I’ve learned, people do not like their idols being poked.
Nevertheless, faithful contextualization requires us to pull the curtain back and expose idols as lifeless and unsatisfying. We must show people how these idols bleed us dry and harm our souls.
In this process, we must learn to separate God-given desires from the idols warring for their hearts. When Paul spoke before the leaders of Athens, he acknowledged their worshipping instinct (Acts 17:22-23). In fact, Romans 1 became a practical apologetic for the apostle. Although the Athenians knew God, they traded his glory for created things (Rom. 1:21-23). The things of earth are good, but not ultimate, and worshipping them comes at a great cost to the worshipper.
In many western contexts, the idol of achievement reigns supreme.
As a youth minister in Mississippi, I repeatedly told students, "God is not impressed with your GPA or your athletic accolades, and neither one of those will get you into the kingdom." The cultural expectation to achieve was crushing some teens and running the others ragged, yet most students could not see the price of their idolatry.
At an adult level, I saw the same idol at work. We make busyness and overworking ourselves a badge of honor—even at the price of our own families and spiritual condition.
It strikes me as odd: for a people who claimed to be saved by faith, we are certainly throwing immense effort into justifying ourselves.
Contextual gospel proclamation forces us to lift the cover of these self-dug wells and expose their inability to hold water (Jer. 2:13).
Jesus was a master of spotting idols and laying them bare, but he never stopped there. He always offered something better—himself.
When a rich man came to Jesus seeking eternal life, Jesus quickly identified his love of money and said, "You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Mk. 10:21). The rich man walked away sorrowful, unwilling to exchange his idol for God in the flesh, but the attractiveness of money was not the problem.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”[ii]
As we seek to contextualize the gospel, we cannot get tangled in the weeds and miss the point of our proclamation—that Jesus is better than any idol the world has to offer!
Idols demand our blood as payment, but Jesus bled in order to ransom sinners. Idolatry showcases our depravity, bringing forth the worst in our fallen human nature, but beholding Jesus conforms us to his perfect image (2 Cor. 3:18).
Brothers and sisters, we cannot stop after identifying and exposing idols.
The gospel is good news because of Jesus, and if we get too busy describing the nature of mud pies, we will miss the bus to the beach!
As a people, we are far too easily pleased, but the clear statement of the gospel is the only thing with the power to remove the blinders from our eyes (2 Cor. 3:16-4:2). Our culture is glory-starved, obsessing over entertainment and distraction, but we offer a Jesus who is eternally captivating. The weary overachievers and underperformers need to hear the good news of justification by faith; they need Jesus to give them rest (Matt. 11:28-30).
Wherever we are, it is our job to show how Jesus is better.
"So he caught a body?"
If I could go back to that night at the gym, I would leap at the chance to glorify Jesus. I would say to that teenager:
"You understand the wrongness of violence better than I do.
“You know that human life is valuable, and in your heart of hearts, you know that the murder in our city is high-handed rebellion against God.
“At the same time, are you not supporting this culture of violence? When you instigate every conflict, video every fight, and get even for every slight? You tell me that you are the king of your own life, and anyone who crosses you has to pay. What if your idolatry of your own self is part of the larger problem?"
But I would not stop there though.
I would say, "The blood of Abel cried out to God for justice, but the blood of Jesus cried out for the forgiveness of sinners (Gen. 4:10; Lk. 23:34).
“Jesus' body was broken for those who spent their whole lives catching bodies so that they might be saved…
“And this is good news."
While I might not analyze the culture perfectly, and while I might not have the most eloquent words, I want to make sure I’m doing my best to show how Jesus is better.
Andrew Hanna is an NOBTS alum and is a pastoral intern at Immanual Community Church in New Orleans.
[i] Keller, Tim, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters, xvii- xviii.
[ii] Lewis, C.S., The Weight of Glory, 1.