Why We Must Speak the Language of Our Cities

In order for the gospel to have any effect it must be contextualized in every place it is spoken.

Excerpted from
Among Wolves
By Dhati Lewis


Luke writes in Acts 17:26–27: “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.”

Since God has determined allotted periods and boundaries for our lives—my story, our story and our city’s story are platforms for God to accomplish his work. To be aware of God’s vision for our lives, we need to understand our context. When I talk about the story of your city, it can be as large as your whole city or as specific as your block.

A good friend of mine would say, “We need to seek to understand others before seeking to be understood.” As evangelical Christians, we are often answering questions that people in our neighborhoods are not asking. We must get to know our cities. If we don’t know our city, if we don’t know our context, we cannot provide holistic answers for the questions our neighbors are struggling to answer. Once we understand the problems and questions, we can answer appropriately. In general, the problems are either unbelief in Christ or idolatry of things that replace Christ as Lord in the hearts of the people. This can manifest itself in a city context in a variety of ways. But, we must seek to understand before being understood. Once we understand, we can then show them why Christ is better.

Earlier we identified Colossians 1:15–19 as a central passage in regards to understanding why we need our story. Verse 20 states “Christ’s blood has made peace in ALL things” (emphasis added). Therefore, as we seek redemption that produces reconciliation we must seek it in all things. We must ask ourselves these questions. How do we see God wanting to redefine our city’s story? How does he want to create his own story among your neighbors? How has he uniquely prepared you, in the “my story” part of the process, to step into the rhythms, problems, etc. of your city’s story to bring the peace of Christ’s blood into all things?

As we begin to understand our context more fully, we must wrestle through the process of contextualization. First, let me define what I mean when I call practitioners to contextualize the church in the city:

Contextualizing the church in the city is the process of contextualizing the gospel through establishing biblical family in a particular neighborhood or city.

Some of us fear the term contextualization because we see the polarities it has brought in Christian circles. The word contextualization has been used in theological discourse to mean many different things—some ways are useful, some ways that are not—to many different people.

On one side, someone might talk about contextualization from the vantage point of becoming more like the world. We have some who feel like the church needs to be like the world in order to attract the world.

On the flip side, contextualization might mean being completely distinct from the world—don’t look anything like the world. This posture is separatist in its approach. We might feel like if we make Christianity as boring as possible, as free from the world’s look, feel, wisdom and values, then we will have a clear understanding of when the Spirit is at work.

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On one side we over-contextualize, but on the other side we under-contextualize. Neither extreme is very effective. We neither need to become like the world, nor neglectful of the world.

Contextualization is simply communicating in a way that the receiver can understand the message in his/her heart language, while maintaining the integrity of the content.

When considering contextualization, we need to maintain four values. First, the gospel must be contextualized. An un-contextualized gospel is not possible. As soon as I open my mouth and speak English to communicate the gospel to an American audience, I am engaged in contextualization. If you fly me out to China, I would either pray for the gift of tongues (Chinese, to be exact), or ask for an interpreter to communicate so the people can understand the message in their heart’s language. The very language we choose to use is part of contextualization.

Obviously, this is not the only means of contextualization—there are countless examples. We must recognize that we will contextualize the gospel and the aim should be to do this both effectively and faithfully.

The second thing to consider is that even though the gospel must be contextualized, we do not put our confidence in our ability to contextualize. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:19, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” He goes on to write:

“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” —1 Cor. 9:20–22 (emphasis added).

Paul is saying that, even if we perfectly contextualize the gospel, only some will be saved. Paul knows that some plant, some water but only God brings the increase (1 Cor. 3:6–7). Even though we must contextualize the gospel, we do not put our confidence in our ability to contextualize. We put our confidence in the power of God to draw all men to himself.

Third, we must contextualize with a sense of urgency. A Christian hip-hop group called The Cross Movement released an album called Human Emergency several years back. I asked my friend, Duce, to explain what the “Human Emergency” is, and he told me a story about a bomb.

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He asked me to imagine, “What if a bomb was ticking in your house, but no one knew where it was? You could hear the ticking noise in the kitchen, so you search all the cabinets and cupboards and finally look under the sink and find the bomb sitting there, ticking away. But, there’s a catch. There’s no timer. If there’s no timer on the bomb, but you’re sure it’s a bomb, would you just casually go tell your family, ‘Hey there’s a bomb in my kitchen so maybe we should leave.’ No! You would have a sense of urgency to get people out as soon as possible because you don’t know when it might explode.”

Our urgency should be equal to this, and this urgency should drive us toward a healthy contextualization of the gospel in our cities. Do you really believe that Christ is coming back? Does your church really believe that Jesus could come back at any moment? We don’t have a timer to give us a countdown; we don’t know the hour or the day. So we must operate with a desperate sense of urgency—the clock is ticking.

Finally, we have to understand that the goal of contextualization is reconciliation. We have already established this as a critical part of understanding God’s story, but the emphasis goes beyond that. If we take a quick survey of the ministry of Paul, we see this truth expressed as part of his goal. In 1 Timothy 1:5 he writes, “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” We see it again in the ministry of Christ when he says in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Paul states that God is reconciling the world to himself and has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18–20).

Just imagine, what if, as born-again believers, everything we did was done with that goal in mind. What if we truly sought to be God’s conduits of grace to bring about his redemptive reconciliation? When we truly understand the context of the city in which we are ministering, leverage God’s people who are co-laboring with us, recognize God’s providence and work in our own stories and view all of these things through the lens of God’s story, something beautiful emerges. When we understand these four stories (God, my, our, city), we begin to develop vision from burden.

Remember, if we want to avoid a copy-and-paste Christianity, we must first do the work of taking ownership of our unique burden—unearthing what God has done and is doing by intentionally learning these four primary stories.

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Excerpted with permission from Among Wolves by Dhati Lewis. Copyright 2017, B&H Publishing Group. BHPublishingGroup.com