19 February 2010

Jingoistic "Contextualization"

by John MacArthur

The excerpt below is from John MacArthur's preface to his recently-released third edition of Ashamed of the Gospel. Pastors who attend the Shepherds' Conference this year will receive a free copy of the book. People already on the Grace to You mailing list will be offered a free copy by mail. Everyone else should buy the book. It's a profound critique of market-driven church leadership and the decline of the evangelical movement.

y the early '90s American evangelicalism was shamelessly imitating virtually every worldly fad. Church leaders and church-growth strategists openly described the gospel as a commodity to be sold at market, and the predictable result was a frantic attempt to make the gospel into the kind of product most buyers wanted. The conventional wisdom was that sophisticated marketing strategies were far more effective than gospel proclamation for reaching the "unchurched" multitudes. No one, it seemed, wanted to challenge that notion, which was buttressed with countless opinion polls. And who could argue with the obvious "success" of several entertainment-oriented megachurches?

Western evangelicals had been gradually losing interest in biblical preaching and doctrinal instruction for decades. The church in America had become weak, worldly, and man-centered. Evangelical ears were itching for something more hip and entertaining than biblical preaching (cf. 2 Tim. 4:3), and business-savvy evangelical pundits declareed that it was foolish not to give people what they demanded. Without pragmatic methodologies numerical growth would be virtually impossible, they insisted—even though such pragmatism was manifestly detrimental to spiritual growth.

Churches were starving spiritually while overdosing on entertainment. A few prosperous megachurches masked the tragedy with incredibly large attendance figures, but anyone who took time to examine the trajectory could see that Western evangelicalism was in serious trouble.

By contrast, the beleagured Iron-Curtain churches were hungry for biblical teaching, steadily gaining spiritual strength, and growing numerically on the strength of bold gospel ministry. After years of communist oppression, they were finally free to preach Christ openly, and that is precisely what they did. They were flourishing as a result.

Most Russian pastors had no formal training, so they sought help from the West in the areas of hermeneutics and doctrine. (That's how I got involved with them.) The most mature and discerning leaders in the Iron-Curtain churches were wary of influences from the West. Frankly, I shared their concern and appreciated their caution. I was convinced that even the weakest of their churches could teach evangelicals in America a lot about the biblical approach to church growth. They understood that no legitimate church-growth strategy should ever fail to recognize the truth of John 15:19-20: "If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also."

When the Iron Curtain fell, however, "missionaries" from the West flooded the former Soviet Union, not so much with gospel-oriented resources and Bible-study tools, but with highly questionable evangelistic strategies—and with the same poisonous philosophy of church growth that had made Western evangelicalism so superficial and worldly. Russian church leaders were appalled that so many tawdry trends came into their culture from the West under the pretense of evangelism. I was offended, too—and embarrassed.

I remember watching glitzy American televangelists with comically big hair peddling their health-and-wealth message and other false gospels on Russian television during my earliest trips to Moscow. They probably had little effect on healthy Russian churches, but they injected a seriously false gospel into the public perception, totally confusing millions. Soviet people had been indoctrinated with atheism and shielded from the truth of Scripture. They therefore had no means of distinguishing truth from falsehood in religion. So much false Christianity on television no doubt innoculated multitudes against the real gospel.

I also remember seeing a parade of "student missionaries" from America putting on a variety show in a public square in Kiev, using every circus trick from jugglers to clowns, and every wordless type of entertainment from mimes to interpretive dance, all claiming to communicate "the gospel"—or something spiritual-sounding—across the language barrier. I frankly could not be certain what the actual message was supposed to be. I have a fairly good grasp of the gospel as Scripture presents it, and that was not the message being pantomimed in Independence Square. Again, I was embarrassed for the church in the West.

Back in America, these performances were being reported as serious evangelistic work. Judging from the numbers of supposed converts claimed, we might have expected churches in the Iron-Curtain countries to be doubling and quadrupling on a monthly basis.

Russian and Ukranian Churches were indeed growing, but the evangelistic buskers and street artists from the West had nothing to do with that. Those churches grew because Russian Christians, now free to proclaim the gospel openly, preached repentance from sin and faith in Christ to their neighbors. The response was remarkable. I sat in many Russian worship services for hours at a time, hearing convert after convert publicly repent—renouncing former sins and declaring faith in Christ to the gathered church, always in standing-room-only crowds. It was the polar opposite of what American church-growth gurus insisted was absolutely necessary. But it was just like watching the book of Acts unfold in real life.

As a matter of fact, most of the Westerners who rushed to the former Soviet Union when communism collapsed missed the real signs of church growth in those years because they completely ignored the churches that were already there. They started parachurch organizations, opted for pure media ministry, sponsored Punch-and-Judy shows in the public square, or tried to start new churches modeled on Western worldly styles. Most of the visible results of that sort of "evangelistic" and church-planting activity proved to be blessedly short-lived.

What did last was by no means all good. Americans injected into that culture a style of worldly evangelicalism that is now gaining traction and causing confusion within the Russian-speaking churches. Those churches that had weathered decades of government harassment and public ridicule now have to contend with something much subtler but a thousand times worse: trendy methods from American evangelicals—gimmicks and novelties that diminish practically everything truly important in favor of things that appeal to people's baser instincts.

By far the most subtle and dangerous Western influences came in through church-growth experts, missiologists, and professional pollsters. Unlike the televangelists and street performers, these academicians managed to gain a platform within Russian-speaking churches. They were trusted because they were writers, career missionaries, seminary professors with credentials, and even pastors. They brought loads of books and ideas, virtually all of them advocating a highly pragmatic approach to ministry that was foreign in every sense to a church that had lived under communist persecution for the better part of a century.

One struggles to imagine anything more grossly inappropriate than the fad-chasing pragmatism that was deliberately injected into Russian and eastern European churches by Westerners tinkering with theories about contextualization. But the influx of shallow evangelicalism into Russia in the early '90s was barely the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to various means of instant, inexpensive mass communications, the stultifying influence of dysfunctional American religion soon inundated the entire world. The Internet in particular suddenly opened the floodgates so that it became impossible to contain and control such nonsense. Within just a few years, evangelical gimmickery became the most visible and influential expression of Western "spirituality" worldwide.

The poison of religious pragmatism is now an enormous global problem.

I've often marveled at how much American evangelicals talk about the importance of "contextualization" compared to how little care they take when real cross-cultural communication is necessary. Head scarves (babushkas) and modest clothing were emblems of submission for Christian women in the persecuted church (as was the case in Corinthian culture—cf. 1 Cor. 11:5-6). Blitzing post-communist Russia with western pop culture and televangelist hairdos was probably the most culturally-insensitive thing Western Christians could have done to their poor and oppressed brethren just emerging from behind the Iron Curtain.

John MacArthur's signature


Solameanie said...

Tremendous post, and exactly what we have seen in our ministry at Slavic Gospel Association.

Thanks for putting this up.

Bob said...

thanks so much for posting this. I have preached the gospel for 30 years. On the streets of New York City and St. Louis. In churches. This has bothered me for years. You have said what needs to be said, over and over and over again.

lawrence said...


Christopher said...

All we can do is preach and pray: Preach the Gospel and Pray for things to change. Books will help, but the truth of the matter is that those who will read "Ashamed of the Gospel" will have already been acquainted with preaching from MacArthur, Washer, Piper, Sproul and others of their spiritual kin.

I certainly doubt that anyone who puts much stock in Paggit (sp?) and Jones and Bell will go flocking looking for the book. All we can do is pray for those who are in the Wilderness of Unbiblical Churches and preach to those who are in our own churches.

Citizen Grim said...

The Western church has swallowed Pelagianism so completely that they think the only way the gospel will spread is through contextualization and clever gimmicks. "We don't need the Holy Spirit! We have marketing degrees!"

Logan Paschke said...

I agree that the marketing of the church has to stop. However, I think we should be extremely careful not to lump in the "missional" concept with the "church growth" concept.

The two are very different. The first is a recovery of the biblical doctrine of the "every christian is a missionary to their own culture" concept and the other is an obsessive-compulsive, reaction-based method to growing the church and it works only when judged by numbers.

It does not go well with it comes to spiritual growth as proven by Hybels himself.


RealityCheck said...

Great post! Thanks.

donsands said...

Good words. Bill Bright had a more soul-saving centeredness than Christ-centeredness in reaching the nations with the Gospel, and yet the Lord used this man, I thought.

And some of the missionaries like YWAM (Keith Green founder, I think), and others surely were more man-centered, and yet preached the Gospel.

Contexualization is something we need to do, but need to be Christ-cenetered and sold out for the glory of Christ, not so much for the people. Although to have a great love for the lost souls is essential for any missionary.

John MacArthur is one of our finest teachers, and he preaches and teaches the truth in a powerful way. He wants the Word to be powerful, and a sharp sword that cuts the soul deeply, and convicts the heart, so that people will say, "So what shall we do?" Acts 2:37

"Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

truth mission said...

Thanks for the post .John Mc. always seems to nail it.God's methods; preach/teach His word and pray for His power and love deeply are so simple ,but we humans seen to delight in complicating things.

Jerry said...

I serve as a missionary in the Russian-speaking world. I agree with Dr. MacArthur's analysis as far as it goes. There are indeed unhealthy influences here from the West. But the problems are not only from without--but from within. Man-centered theology permeates the church here too with its strong Anabaptist roots. And the top-down style of leadership inherited from the Soviet era does not always lead to an appeal to Scripture as the final authority when matters of faith and life are in question. But my biggest concern is how these two weaknesses converge to weaken the message of the Gospel of Grace. While justification by faith is taught as necessary for salvation, it is not expounded in terms of its relationship to everyday life and as the basis and motivation for the pursuit of holiness. Without that, the church can never grow as it ought. The best antidote to confusing or even dangerous theology is leaders and congregations who are Gospel-driven and Cross-centered. The next generation will not be easily distracted by hype or lured away by the empty promises of a pragmatized Christianity when they are being amazed and transformed by the Gospel as a way of life. Please keep the church in this part of the world in your prayers. Pray that leaders (and missionaries) would guard the Gospel in our lives as well as our lips.

TAR said...

Excellent ..

philness said...

What do we expect. We didn't see this coming? I think the problem started with the plethora of seminaries. The more seminaries the more want-to-be preachers. The more preachers being cranked out the more liberal means to solicit members. Then a large building gets financed which prompts more liberal soliciting. And the next thing you know you have a building full of paying customers craving a steady diet of Rick Warrenism.

All of this taken place while we evangelicals are fighting amongst ourselves over baptism, covenants, eschatology(s), and who is reform who isn't. Not to mention flying all over the planet attending the latest apologetic conference while leaving the local sheep to fend for themselves the sanctification process of being transformed to the image of Christ. Relying on the beat down of performance and behaviorism without teaching where this power comes from as left a many unfruitful saint to wander.

Jon said...

Philness: Do we Christians fight about our doctrines with other Christians? Yep, but hopefully within good balance and within a godly reverence for each other. You're not saying we should abandon such talk?

philness said...


lol, of course not. But it does seem to have caused quite the inclusiveness at the expense of transforming discipleship.

Gilbert said...

Wow. The fifth Pyromaniac (don't we wish) starts off not with a bang, but with a spiritual bomb dropped on the planet. What a great post!

I didn't realize things were this bad until I heard of people from Africa coming over to the U.S. to evangelize US some time ago. This makes me want to preach the Gospel to others even more! Thank you, John, for your post of a very stern word of warning to the world. And to the clowns who preach anything but the true, soul-saving Gospel.

Anonymous said...

One ought not profit from spreading the "good news": redeemed for *potential* salvation. Hope, be not afraid. Eat His flesh and drink His blood to have life in Him everlasting.

John 6:28-69

Was Jesus' instruction to TAKE NOTHING from town to town unclear? No.

CR said...

Does John MacArthur know how Pentecostalism in Eastern Europe got started?

Is that due to the help Eastern Europe sought from America for hermeneutics and doctrine or was that due to a misunderstanding and reading of the Book of Acts by the former Soviet Bloc countries. My understanding is that Pentecostalism is growing in Eastern Europe and other places like Africa and other places where the gospel has been closed and sometimes newly exposed communities read Acts and think all of the events described in Acts are prescriptive rather than some events being descriptive.

CR said...

Gilbert: I didn't realize things were this bad until I heard of people from Africa coming over to the U.S. to evangelize US some time ago.

South Koreans are also sending missionaries to the United States to minister the gospel. Pretty sad.

Solameanie said...

Logan, I think it depends on how you define the term "missional." Some of the Emergent guys like that term a lot, and they (at least from what I understand) apply it like the liberal 1960s social gospel.

Gregg said...

Absolutely right on! Can't wait to get a copy and read it. So hard to keep a group of people focused and encouraged when the "circus" down the road grows faster in 6 months than their church has in 20 years. Gimmicks, gimmicks, gimmicks, my kingdom for a gimmick - rigt!

PuritanReformed said...

Excellent! American "Evangelicalism" has indeed permeated the globe, with disastrous consequences. Oh well, at least they are not alone. The Liberal nonsense have infected the worldwide churches a century earlier, and are still devouring souls today.

Lisa Nunley said...

very embarrassing.
This really is happening all over... in some of the poorest countries of the world.

Here is how those who promote contextualization define it: Contextualization means, quite simply, communicating the gospel in understandable terms appropriate to the audience. All Christian communication should be contextualized... There is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ presentation of the gospel. Whoever the target audience, we should contextualize the message for them, as Jesus did.

My biggest pet peave is when they take Revelation 3:20 out of context and make Jesus out to be a beggar, pleading with the unbeliever as He just wishes the sad soul would only open his/her life to Him to find peace and joy. Poor Jesus. How could you reject Him. He's begging.

Rob Bailey said...

"South Koreans are also sending missionaries to the United States to minister the gospel. Pretty sad."

Really am thankful they are sending. I do not think it is sad, I think it is glorious. The sad part is we are not faithful enough.

CR said...

Oh, Rob, no, obviously, I think it is glorious in one sense, what I meant was, here we were a nation that experienced a great revival in the first Great Awakening and we've lost our way so much that other nations are sending their missionaries to us. So, yes, I agree the sad part is we are not faithful enough.

Sir Brass said...

Lisa, one of my elders calls that notion (the one that is stip-mined out of context from Rev 3:2) as "Jesus knocking on the knobless door."

I agree with what contextualization really means. Now look at how modern "evangelicalism" and how the EC clowns "contextualize" and see how they don't do so in the least. Those yahoos change the message, while contextualizing means to change the packaging or the trim (ie, changing the language it is communicated in, giving examples and illustrations that make sense to people, explaining the parables by using what people know already as a reference back to what Jesus was talking about, etc.). IE, the TRUTH stays the same, what is communicated stays the same, but you don't preach the same sermon you would in New York City to a group of unchurched people in a poor village in a former Soviet satellite.

SamWise said...

A study in contrasts:

The Episcopal Church is declining at an accelerated rate (liberal, souless, worldly, suing to keep afloat) while the African Anglicans quadruple (poor, confessional, Bible loving, true missional) and reinvigorate the conservative American remnants!

John is right. We export absurdity in face paint...they send back hope in Biblical truth!

I had to leave a church that couldn't wait to pack the building with Willow Creek church growth. Now they have a full building of goats, a few beaten down sheep, and no Shepherds who will lay down their lives for the sheep.

Lisa Nunley said...

SB- I appreciate your clarification. The original definition of contextualization actually even falls short, though it mostly sounds good. It's the part that says there is no one-size-fits-all gospel... when essentially there is because there is only one Gospel period. Jesus never "contextualized" the Gospel itself.
It is the message surrounding the true Gospel that is understandably not one-size-fits-all.
And I can't wrap my mind around why those clowns would think their utterly embarrassing, health-and-wealth big-haired, 'missional' western pop-culture blindly-saturated-in-wordly-foolishness pragmatic message from hell would add anything but idiocy and make the West look like a bunch of stupid sheep led by a false shepherd. No wonder Korea is sending missionaries to America.

Sir Brass said...

Lisa, no you were right in saying what you did. There is indeed NO one-size-fits-all gospel PRESENTATION. That's b/c there's only one true gospel but countless numbers of different sinners in need of Christ who hear and see things in different ways in different contexts. :)

Anonymous said...

There's no doubt that during the last couple of decades, in certain parts of the Evangelical world, the pendulum swung too far in one particular direction. Right now, that pendulum is swinging back toward the center.

The funny thing about a pendulum is: It's usually necessary to keep some other mechanism going. As long as we have The Church, we're going to have people doing puppet shows and calling it evangelism, but the "whosoever" of the Gospel takes in all kinds of people, doing all kinds of crazy things, with all kinds of weird motives.

The thing I like about the puppet story is that God was adding to the Church anyway. Maybe not because of, but in spite of.

I hope the "evangelists" put a good spin on things when they got home. I'd love to have seen that church service on YouTube.

Jesse Wisnewski said...

For those of us that have an older copy, would it be beneficial to purchase this latest version?