My kids are at that point in their lives when they have to buy uniforms—lots and lots of uniforms. Inevitably, a handful of these uniforms are “one size fits all.” I’m not sure who came up with this concept, because it is manifestly absurd. The children who need these uniforms are very different dimensions, and my peanut-sized children often swim ridiculously in clothes that fit other children quite nicely. I am not a fan of the one-size-fits-all approach—neither for children’s uniforms nor for gospel ministry.
The gospel contains truths about the triune God—his character, his work, his purposes—that are fixed, timeless, and supracultural. With an unchanging message, one would suspect the method of communicating the message would be similarly fixed. We could adopt a one-size-fits-all approach here, even if it doesn’t work for children’s soccer teams. Unfortunately, such is not the case, for a simple reason: truths that are constant regardless of time or place or people must nevertheless be shared with a particular people at a particular time in a particular place. This requires contextualization.
Contextualization is, in Keller’s fine definition, “giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may or may not want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.” Let me make two quick points on contextualization before returning to the issue at hand.
- Contextualization is inevitable. As soon as gospel ambassadors choose a language in which to speak, they have contextualized the gospel, reaching a certain group (who speak the same language) while excluding others (who cannot speak the language). When we make decisions about our ministry practices—length of service, preacher’s clothes and preaching style, building and grounds, worship music style—we are contextualizing the gospel for our community. The fact that many of us do so unwittingly, and regard our ministry practices as fixed and supracultural like the gospel, may explain why the overwhelming majority of churches in the United States are in a state of decline.
- Contextualization is biblical. The book of Acts provides many examples of gospel ambassadors—notably Paul—contextualizing the gospel for the audience. Compare Paul’s speeches to God-fearers in Antioch (Acts 13:13-43), rural pagans in Lystra (Acts 14:6-16) and the philosophical intelligentsia in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), and you will see how he contextualizes unchanging truths in a changing culture. In fact, in his letter to Corinth, Paul outlines his approach to and reason for contextualization explicitly: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).
Now we see why a one-size-fits-all approach to gospel ministry is foolhardy: by assuming a consistent culture (or neglecting to think of culture at all), it adopts a consistent ministry. A quick glance at demographics across the country—never mind the globe—exposes the fatal weakness in this tactic. I’ve lived in three different suburbs in Chicago, and no one of the three bears more than a slight resemblance to the others demographically. And that was just within the suburbs of one city! Imagine how different the culture and sub-cultures would be moving from a suburban to an urban or a rural environment, or from Chicago to New York or L.A. or Portland or a city in the Bible belt, or from the United States to Colombia or Sri Lanka or Uganda.
All of this presents a very practical challenge for those of us who seek to minister the unchanging gospel compellingly to a particular people at a particular time in a particular place. Have we unconsciously adopted a one-size-fits-all mindset? Have we brought our ministry practices with us wherever we go—the preacher has to wear a tie (or has to wear jeans and flip-flops), the music should be lively (or reverent) and traditional (or contemporary), adult education should meet at this time and cover this material, small groups should follow this model, and don’t forget AWANA on Wednesday nights!—even though we might have gone to some very different places?
This lesson has come home to me recently. In the past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my ministry practices. In my first ministry position, I served as a chaplain in a small Christian school in Bogotá, Colombia. After seven years, I left to become the discipleship pastor at a medium-sized church in suburban Chicago. Although I made some adjustments to my ministry practice owing to the switch from school to church, I thought very little about the difference between Bogotanos and Napervillans, and my ministry suffered accordingly. Little by little I made tiny alterations until the “uniform” fit, so to speak—or at least fit better.
What about you? Are you doing what you’ve done everywhere you’ve gone? When you arrive somewhere new, do you immediately implement the same basic practices and procedures, even before you’ve done the hard work of learning your new community and contextualizing the gospel within it? By the grace of God, for the sake of the gospel, I hope we will all strive to become all things to all people—and to become this thing for this people—so that by all possible means we might save some.
In other words, one size does not fit all. It never does.
 Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012): 89 (emphasis his). For much more on contextualization which I couldn’t say here, see pp. 89-134.
 Interestingly, especially in light of the common charge that contextualization ineluctably distorts the gospel, Paul says he contextualizes “for the sake of the gospel” (v 23). Contextualization is in service of—not in opposition to—the gospel.