One common objection to intentional contextualization centers around the perceived loss of distinctiveness to following Christ. The argument goes that since people who don’t follow Christ do XYZ, people who do follow Christ should not do XYZ. Often, XYZ-ing is seen as inherently sinful. Other times, XYZ-ing is seen as so prevalent among people who don’t follow Christ that, it is argued, people who follow Christ must avoid XYZ-ing in order to demonstrate that they in fact are different.
On the other hand, someone who pursues contextualization looks at a person who doesn’t follow Christ doing XYZ and asks, “Is there some way XYZ can be done to worship Christ?” Sometimes the answer is no because XYZ-ing is clearly prohibited in Scripture (for instance, you cannot hate your brother in Christ as an act of worship to Jesus). But what about the other times?
Even the most ardent opponent to intentional contextualization must agree that sometimes doing XYZ can please God. After all, people who don’t follow Christ eat, sleep, and breathe, but no one is suggesting that people who follow Christ stop eating, sleeping, and breathing. People who don’t follow Christ pray, give thanks, and sing in worship, but no one would ever tell the Church to stop praying, giving thanks or singing. On the contrary, the Church is exhorted in Scripture to pray to the Lord, give thanks to the Lord, and sing to the Lord. It is important for opponents to the pursuit of contextualization to realize that they recognize on some level that similarity alone is not enough to condemn a specific action.
I recently read 1 Kings 18 and I think the account of Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel is one Biblical example that demonstrates what distinctiveness is necessary. Elijah and the crowd of Baal priests each prepared one bull and arranged some wood. They did so at the same location and on the same day. They both called out to the one they worshipped. Note that the Israelites who observed all this and the prophets of Baal were not at all confused as to whether Elijah was worshipping Baal or worshipping the Lord. Unlike the 450 prophets, Elijah did not cry out to Baal but to the Lord. The fire of the Lord consumed Elijah’s offering as an answer to the prayer “that the people may know that you, O Lord, are God.” What grieved the Lord about the prophets of Baal’s sacrifice was not the bull, the wood, the location, or the day – which were the same as Elijah’s -- but the fact that those people failed to worship Him. The two sacrifices offered were deliberately similar outwardly but the spiritual attitudes of those offering the sacrifices were completely different.
Some of those concerned with specific Christ-centered contextualized practices being too similar to the practices of people who do not follow Christ seem to emphasize outward actions at the expense of inner attitudes. In order for the global Church to cooperate and grow to maturity, those who are concerned with the pursuit of contextualization need to accept that the “that’s what the prophets of Baal do” argument is insufficient. Yes, intentionally contextualized practices should be carefully examined in the light of Scripture – as all of our practices should be, if we desire to be living sacrifices to our Lord. Let us be careful, though, to avoid dismissing or belittling the unseen turning of hearts toward the Triune God.