Contextualization Comes Home

Most missionaries are familiar with the concept of contextualization, choosing appropriate expressions of Christianity in fallen human culture. While missions studies focus heavily upon contextualization, the concept is frequently overlooked in pastoral studies. Even in missions studies, there often seems to be an underlying assumption that contextualization is (at least relatively) unneeded in the West. For example, the Incarnational Ministry model compares adapting the gospel to a new cultural setting to Christ’s adoption of first-century Palestinian culture. Some presentations tacitly give the impression that the missionaries’ native Western cultures share the perfection of Christ’s native heavenly culture.

In the June 2012 edition of Christianity Today, Thomas E. Bergler wrote and article titled When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity. Bergler challenges the assumption that American Christians can give their culture a pass. Bergler writes,

Beginning in the 1930s and ’40s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life that led to what can properly called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents became accepted as appropriate for adults. It began with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young, which in fact revitalized American Christianity. But it has sometimes ended with both the youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith (19).

Bergler traces how American culture has shifted in recent decades towards an adolescent mentality and how the church has mirrored that shift. He notes, “not surprisingly, in the process of adapting to the new immature adulthood, churches started looking a lot like youth groups” (23). These changes resulted in unintended theological consequences. Bergler argues that “Juvenilization tends to create a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith” (23). One researcher “labeled this pattern of religious beliefs Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (24). Christianity becomes primarily about being good, helping people, and acknowledging a God sitting on the sidelines of everyday life.

Bergler calls for Christian leaders to combat this problem by returning to doctrine and critiquing their surrounding cultures. He writes,

We need to ditch the false belief that cultural forms are neutral. Every enculturation of Christianity highlights some elements of the faith and obscures others. We must be vigilant and creatively compensate for what gets lost in translation when we use the language of youth culture. For example, if we sing songs that highlight the emotional consolations of the faith, what can we do to help young people also embrace the sufferings that come with following Jesus?

Later in the June 2012 edition of Christianity Today, John Ortberg observes, “In many ways, I think the discussion of juvenilization is more like the missiological discussion of contextualization than anything else. Because we increasingly live in a post-Christian culture, any church leader must seek to discover how to contextualize the gospel to our culture. And our culture is a youth-worshiping, Justin Bieberized, Twilight-Hunger Games-Kardashian culture” (27). American Christians must not underestimate the depravity of their culture if they hope to live in the world while not becoming of the world.


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