Bad to the Bone

Bad to the Bone

There is a fine membrane of separation between contextualizing and pandering, between engaging the culture and selling out to it. The membrane seems to be in constant movement and discerning its location is an endless struggle.

Especially for the preacher.

We don’t all agree where the line is. For some, use of projector technology in a sanctuary is pandering, while for others it is contextualizing.

For some, providing coffee and rolls in the sanctuary is pandering, for others it is contextualizing.

For some, basing a sermon on the latest round of e-mail jokes is pandering, for others it is contextualizing.

I certainly have my opinions on the above issues, but rather than just spout opinions, I’m looking for a general rule of thumb that might be of help in all situations.

My hypothesis is this: anything that breaks into the culture and makes the Gospel come alive in ways it otherwise would not is contextualizing. Anything that adapts the Gospel for the sake of approval or popularity is pandering.

Granted, it sounds like there is a lot of wiggle room in those definitions, and we can probably massage them so that they include everything we like and exclude everything we don’t. But at least the hypothesis forces us to ask the question and struggle with the answer.

It’s an especially important issue for me because I confess that I often push the envelope on contextualizing. During sermons this year I have played “Bad to the Bone” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” on guitar. I have made reference to Kobe Bryant, based a sermon on golf course mulligans, and my last sermon was “The Bob Uecker Parable.”

I do this because I am convinced that what passes for Christianity is often nostalgia for a barely remembered and probably illusory past. The Christian faith is often presented in the wrappings of sixteenth century Europe, or the Norman Rockwell 1950s. I’m not denying these were good eras with a lot to offer. But they are not our era, and a message wrapped in such packages simply has no chance of speaking to those who live in the present.

On the other hand, I am well aware of how foolish I would look if I were to adapt the mannerisms and lingo of the younger generation (my own children live in horror of such a possibility.) I wonder if the Christian church in America hasn’t shot itself in the foot by making our services more entertainment than worship, thus turning worship into a consumer product that overshadows or even obliterates what worship is about.

My best guide for determining if I am contextualizing or pandering is simply the fit. Whatever I borrow from the culture has to fit the message so snugly that it’s obvious why I used it. The listener must be able to say, “I understand what you’re saying better because of the context.” If the fit is loose, it begins to look as though connection and acceptance, not the message, is the primary goal.

A joke with a peripheral connection to the point appears to be designed to entertain than to inform.

A message that appears shaped to fit a pop or sports reference is probably not the message we are called to deliver.

A creative effort that has the congregation marveling at our creativity rather than driving home the message is self-promotion.

A church or pastor whose goal is to appear “cool” or “with it” in the deliverance of the gospel is chasing after the wind.

If “Bad to the Bone” nailed the message of the Bible that day for my congregation, then I successfully contextualized. If it turned that message into a sideshow, I need to go back to the drawing board.

God bless you in your contextualizing.