How to Reach Your Context (with Liam Thatcher)

Liam Thatcher is one of the leaders of Christ Church London, and runs a blog called Leaven on Earth. In this Broadcast, Liam unpacks Biblical principles of how to contextualise your church plant for the community you are trying to reach.


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We All Contextualise

  • All of us contextualise the Christian message whether we realise it or not - because none of us are First Century Jews!
  • The way we embody the gospel in our world is very different to how the early Christians did it, because our world is very different to theirs.
  • It can be more helpful to think of reaching contexts and cultures
  • Contextualisation is about more than just the message - it also involves how we dress, the architecture, how we greet each other, our use of technology, the priorities that we communicate.
  • Some questions: How long are your services? Why that length? How do you apportion the time in your services? What is shaping those decisions? How frequently do you do communion? How similar is the way you do it to the early church? Do you use wine or grape juice? Leavened or unleavened bread? Does it matter? What is the name of your church? Why does your church even have a name? What is the dress code in your church?  Do you think it is prescribed in scripture? Or are you reacting against something else? What instruments do you use in worship? What would you never use in worship? What job titles do you use? What serving teams do you have? Who gets to serve or lead in them? What kind of building do you meet in? What is the shape of it? Does that even matter? Do you have a car parking team? Why is your church so far away from people that they need to travel by car? 
  • The answers to these questions show that we have all chosen to embody Christianity in a way that looks different to the First Century and so we need to ask why.
  • We need to also ask whether we have contextualised well or unthinkingly.
  • Whilst the core truths about Jesus are unchangeable, the way in which we embody them may need to change,
“Good contextualisation is embodying the gospel faithfully in an ever-changing world.” (Liam Thatcher)

Embodying the Gospel

  • Contextualisation is about sharing and embodying the Gospel.
  • The most powerful Biblical example of contextualisation is the Incarnation - the embodiment of God.
  • John 1 shows us that Jesus pre-dates all things.  He is transcendent and does not depend on culture. 
  • Yet verse 14 tells us that this Eternal Son took on flesh and makes his dwelling among us. 
  • The word didn't only become flesh in general but within a particular culture. God took on the body of a Middle-Eastern, male, First Century Jew. He took a particular cultural form. 
  • The fact Jesus came into this culture doesn't suggest that this is how he is in his eternal nature - rather,  he came in a form that was appropriate for the culture he was coming into.
  • Though no-one had seen God, Jesus made him known - This is contextualisation.
  • This literal embodying becomes a pattern for us as we look to faithfully embody the truths of the gospel in a changing world in various different contexts.

Acts 17

  • In Acts 17, Paul shares the Gospel in several cities, including Athens.
  • The first city he visits is Thessalonica - he goes into the synagogue to reason with them, as was his custom. This was his planned approach that he did everywhere. It was an approach that in many places worked for him, but it didn't really work here.
  • Paul then went to Berea and did exactly the same thing. The difference on this occasion was that the people responded differently. 
  • In general, Paul's pattern was to go to the synagogue and preach from the Scripture to the people who already understood something of the Scripture. This sometimes works well and sometimes not so well.
  • When Paul got to Athens he was in a very different cultural context. Again, he starts by going to the synagogue and reasoning, but he also went to the marketplace to reason.
  • As Paul looked around the city and saw how full of idols it was, something in him was provoked and he began to do things a bit differently - even though he started in the same way that he usually did, he quickly realised that he needed to adapt for his setting.
  • Athens was one of the most influential cities of the day. In the 4th and 5th Centuries B.C. the art and literature of Athens was unparalleled. The people of Athens were known for being religious/superstitious. There were temples and images of gods everywhere. They were so superstitious that they even had altars inscribed 'to an unknown god'.
  • Athens was also known as a centre for reason and the Athenians were known for their curiousity. People would come there for intellectual tourism. The archetypal Athenian philosopher was Socrates, and he would spend time in the marketplace with people discussing ideas. These were dangerous ideas, and it was because of some of these ideas that he had been killed.
  • Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all had groups of disciples who branched out and you had a number of competing schools of philosophy. Two of the most significant of these were the Epicureans and the Stoics. 
  • The Epicureans lived a simple life. They lived for pleasure, but shunned things with the potential of pain - e.g. marriage, sex, children. They were deists and believed in the gods but thought of them as transcendent and distant being who don't give us anything or require anything from us. Because of this, the Epicureans were quite critical of the temple system. They thought of the world as a chaotic, dispassionate place and they saw the great evil to be fear, because the two big causes for fear - religion and death - are irrelevant as the gods don't care and there is no afterlife.
  • The Stoics were pantheists who believed that god is in all and that all is god. They saw god as 'the soul of the world'. They thought of god as immanent and close to the world, albeit impersonal. They spoke of the world as a cosmos that is ordered and endowed with reason (Greek word logos). The world is inherently divine. The goal is to live in hamrony with this principle of logos. Life doesn't end at death but we get absorbed into everything and get to be part of this eternal cosmic being. 
  • When Paul preached in Athens, he did so in such a way as to faithfully embody the gospel into this Athenian culture having engaged with both Epicurean and Stoic ideas.
  • Whereas in Thessalonica he was able to engage simply in the synagogue, here in Athens he needed to start from scratch. He didn't change the message but he did present it in a different way. 
  • The connection points, the language he used and the approach he took needed to be adapted to this context. He went to marketplace, where Socrates had been, and where the Stoics often went, and he reasoned with the passers-by. He saw that there was a culture of talking about 'new things' and so he tapped into that. 
  • Both Stoics and Epicureans engaged with his teaching and he was charged with advocating foreign gods (which was actually the very charge that had been levelled at Socrates). He was taking to the Areopagus and asked to explain his new teaching.
  • As he explained the teaching he managed in a few short sentences to engage both the superstitious and sceptic - the Epicurean and the Stoic. 
  • He showed how the very thing they all long for is found in the Eternal Son of God. 
  • He was able to demonstrate that they were all searching for the gods (there is even a shrine to an unknown god). He then spoke to the key point of the Epicureans - you are right that God is transcendent and you are right to be suspicious of the temple system, but he is actually closer than you think. He then speaks to the key points of the Stoics - you are right that God is immanent and that he is involved in the world, but it's a mistake to think that he is the cosmos because he is the Lord of the cosmos who gives us life and breath and everything. Then he addresses both groups and tells them that God is more personal than they ever imagined, and he shared quotes from their poets. He is appealing to the logic of their own art.  
  • The logos is a person. The fear of death does have an answer, but it's not that we cease to exist (as the Epicureans would say) or that we become some impersonal part of the cosmos (as the Stoics would say) but through the divine logos that conquered death; the transcendent God who became immanent; the unknown God who became known. 
  • The core of this message is no different to what Paul first heard and what he taught in Thessalonica and Berea, but it is packaged very differently for the context he is in.

Three Keys to Paul's Approach

  • Humility - He didn't assume that he was bringing God to Athens. He looked for where God was already at work there and pointed people in that direction. He didn't say that everything they currently believe was wrong. He affirmed some things and corrected others. Our cultures are neither entirely good nor entirely bad. 
  • Understanding - It is inconceivable that Paul preached this message without first understanding the culture. This would be in part through learning that he grew up with but also in part through observation. Often when we don't take time to understand people we can end up trying to answer questions that they are not asking.
  • Creativity - He cites two Greek poets. This goes deeper than just having a contemporary illustration -  he realises that the arts are a really powerful way of understanding what's going on in the culture 
“Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws .” (Damon of Athens)

Q&A

1. How do you assess your context? What methods do you use?
  • It is often a case of trying to reach your contexts as there will usually be multiple different context around you.
  • Ask whether you have faith for reaching multiple contexts or just reaching one (if you go for one it is easier).
  • Having an flexibility to adapt words, dress, etc. for different contexts is very important.
  • The best way to learn it is to be a part of it. This involves lots of things - reading, understanding demographics, genuinely being a citizen who is engaged, observing how people interact, asking questions and taking time to think. Think about the music people listen to, the films they watch, the kind of shops that thrive.
  • You will learn much more through personal involvement than you can through a book. 
2. Is it possible to over-contextualise? How do we strike a balance between relevance and authenticity?
  • Yes, it is possible - in various different ways. 
  • Missiologists tend to talk about four levels of contextualisation: no contextualisation, minimal contextualisation, uncritical contextualisation and critical contextualisation. 
  • What is often meant by uncritical contextualisation is downplaying the eternal nature of the message in order to be relevant. Sometimes this involves ditching parts of the Christian message - which would be over-contextualisation.
  • We can create a kind of Christianity-plus (which is actually Christianity-minus).
  • Sometimes, in an effort to be relevant we can end up being inauthentic to who we are and people see through that. 
  • We need to be full of integrity and authenticity as we engage. 
  • Knowing the culture and being able to shape and correct from within is so much more powerful than from without.
3. What does contextualisation look like if you are trying to build a church that is fundamentally multi-cultural? 
  • Multi-cultural churches are a good thing to go for, as long as your context is multi-cultural!
  • This needs to be a very intentional thing. You need to preach into it and reflect it in your leadership team.
  • Sometimes we can do this in an unhelpful way where we love the value but don't have the understanding to do it well. 
  • It goes back to the authenticity thing - we can only make a difference if we are actually a part of a culture and trying to learn about it and engage it.
  • Have dialogue with people rather than about them. 
4. What are some of the biggest areas where you think the church is dropping the ball when it comes to contextualising in the UK?
  • Not many churches are good with the arts - we aren't creating culture but are often playing catch-up. 
  • The church doesn't often mak artists feel valued beyond what they can bring to the service. We need to be better at helping people engage with their context.
  • In a lot of our apologetics we are answering questions that may not be the first order questions that people are asking any more. 
5. Paul knew about the Epicureans and the Stoics. What should we be doing to understand our culture?
  • Learn what we can through reading and have conversations with people on the ground. 
  • Read people like Keller, but not just to see his answers but also his process.
  • Read novels that people are reading. Listen to music (particularly the musicians who speak truth to power) and try to understand why it is so popular.
  • Go to places like comedy clubs and music venues - these are the secular preachers of our day. 
6. How do you make sure the Gospel informs your contextualisation rather than your context changing the Gospel?
  • Syncretism is a big problem.
  • For some people it is fear of standing up for certain aspects of the Gospel - know what your own tendency is.
  • Integrity is vital. in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul talks about being adaptable and changing your approach to win people, but in the very next chapter he warns against idolatry.
  • Come back to prayer and Scripture.
  • Be clear what the central things are - what are methodological things and what are Eternal. What are the things that you are not moving on?
  • Community is a key thing.
7. What are the different sites of CCL doing differently to contextualise for the different communities of London?
  • They are in the early days. 
  • For the first year they focussed on keeping things together and are now starting to do things more differently. 
  • The worship style is different in the different venues. 
  • The orders of service are slightly different.
  • Some of them are more geared to families than others.
  • Social action projects are associated with some of the sites. 
  • If a lot of people of a certain nationality came to one site then would look at doing translation.
  • Running Alpha in different types of location. 
8. To what extent should we contextualise our meetings for 'seekers'?
  • We should - but people do it to different degrees.
  • We want everybody present to be able to take steps on their journey with God, whether they are believers or not.
  • Don't eradicate theological jargon - this would make it hard for people to engage with the Bible on their own - but it is very helpful to explain the jargon.
  • We want a place where people can engage with the Spirit, even before they know the Spirit exists. 
  • When certain things are happening (e.g. communion) give people who don't believe something to do or think about as it is happening. 

Recommended Resources

In this hangout, Liam recommended the following books: 

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