Darrin Patrick's "Over-Contextualization" Misses the Point

Today I came across an article by Acts 29 planter Darrin Patrick that seems to talk about contextualization.  I noticed that the article was being kicked around Twitter by a number of aspiring planter-types and thought I'd check it out.  Supposedly, the article speaks about the "dangers of over-contextualization," but a closer look at the article suggests that its author doesn't really understand the issue he is trying to engage.  Let's take a look . . .

If you aren’t familiar with Jackass, I can sum it up for you in a phrase: “Don’t try this at home!” Which is another way of saying, “Many young men are morons and are more than willing to prove it in front of a camera and an audience for not much money.” Known for its objectionable humor and its dangerous homemade stunts,Jackass provided an odd gathering tool for a start-up church. But when young men who embodied my target demographic started showing up and engaging in conversation, I felt like a cutting-edge hipster who happened to be a pastor. This was, in my mind, confirmation of my down-to-earth personality and general awesomeness, and I was convinced that I was the best pastor even without an official church in town. This über-missional event would be the beginning of conquering St. Louis for the gospel by means of shrewd cultural engagement. The night was young and the sky was the limit for ministry victory.
Prior to the official launch of The Journey [Patrick's STL-area church plant], we held Bible studies and missional events to encourage our launch team and to draw in non-Christians interested in learning more about our community. One of the most memorable of these “missional events” was the time when I decided it would be a wise to gather all the men of the church in the basement of my home for a marathon viewing of the Emmy-worthy MTV “variety show,” Jackass. We sent out a general invitation to the community, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Nothing attracts a bunch of dudes to a basement like the opportunity to watch a group of irreverent grown men prolong their adolescence by acting like middle schoolers, all on national television.
And then the wheels came off the church bus...

Patrick goes on to describe the event as having devolved into a chaotic, drunken debacle which did seemingly nothing for the sake of the Kingdom.  It is sad to me that in certain circles (especially hipster, American church-planting circles), such an event is what passes for contextualization these days. Contextualization, from a Biblical and missiological perspective, is related to the incarnation of Jesus Christ and may be understood as the intentional pursuit of incarnational life in a given cultural context.  It has to do with missional "entering in" -- that is, how do I as an outsider to a particular community enter that community as a follower of Christ so as to remove those barriers to the gospel that arise from my foreignness.  Contextualization also has to do with the new disciple's "staying in" -- that is, how does a new Christ-follower in a particular context remain in that context as an insider so as to faithfully live out his/her discipleship among his/her neighbors, friends, and family who are still without Christ.  Contextualization efforts usually fall into one of two overlapping categories.  The first is social-relational contextualization.  That is, what does it mean for disciples of Jesus to live out their commitment to love their neighbors in a particular cultural context so that their loving might be truly understood as loving?  The second category is spiritual-liturgical contextualization which has to do with how followers of Christ can love, worship, serve, and communicate about God and the Bible within their particular context.

The Jackass event, as described, doesn't seem to have had a spiritual-liturgical component at all.  We are given no information about how worship, prayer, Bible study, or other spiritual disciplines were conducted.  There is a suggestion that spiritual conversations may have happened, but we are not told the content.  At best, this seems to have had something to do with the social-relational side of contextualization.  From that perspective, Patrick and company may have had some right ideas.  They considered the community they were seeking to engage and planned an event that would be attractive to them.  While this thinking has something to do with contextualization, it wasn't "over-contextualization" that led to the disaster described.  On the contrary, I would argue that this is an example of "under-contextualization."

For one, it isn't clear to me whether Patrick's group was truly seeking to "enter in" to a new and foreign context.  It seems rather that they were seeking to reach out to a context very similar (if not the same) as their own.  We must remind ourselves that there is no such thing as "Christian culture."  Thus, the simple act of a Christian reaching out to a non-Christian doesn't constitute cross-cultural engagement.  It should be noted, of course, that many Christians have been taught to abandon their cultural context when they come to Christ and have then done so for so long that they feel their original context to be foreign.  Nevertheless, while cross-cultural principles may be helpful in such situations, they really aren't in the same category as say a Filipino missionary serving in Kuwait.

I would thus suggest that what is going on here has to do with the "staying in" side of contextualization.  For Patrick and his fellow Christ-followers, the operative question related to contextualization should be, "How do I live out my faith in Christ within my own cultural context and community?"  I would suggest that the decision to spend several hours watching a television show that they admit to be "objectionable" indicates that they didn't fully examine this question.  Their thinking centered on how to gather a group of non-believing people from their community together.  This isn't true contextualization.  Contextualization would seek to bring those people in contact with Christ and Christ-followers in contextually relevant ways.  So, the corporate viewing of Jackass as a cultural element opposed to Christ and his revelation is antithetical to the pursuit of contextualization because it fails to bring people into contact with Christ.  Writes Patrick:

My failure was classic over-contextualization. Over-contextualization is when you view missional opportunities primarily through a cultural lens instead of a gospel lens. In this instance, I was more concerned with providing a cool, “unchurchy” environment than I was with making sure the environment didn’t reflect poorly on the gospel. The guys I tried to reach needed healthy gospel boundaries around their newly discovered Christian liberty. I failed to provide that for them. I over-contextualized in my approach because I tried to make the gospel submit to the culture rather than letting my pop culture sensibilities submit to the gospel.

I think I basically agree with Patrick's assessment of his experiment with the exception of the phrase "over-contexualization."  As I have been trying to point out, the use of this term indicates that Patrick is missing the point regarding contextualizaiton.  Contextualization, we must understand, always has a context.  There is always the target context and the thing to be contextualized -- i.e. Jesus.  If you forget the latter -- Patrick's real failure -- you are no longer practicing contextualization.

Consider Jesus during his incarnation.  He often opposed certain elements of the 1st century Jewish culture, but he always did so as an insider.  When people got angry with him, the charge was never, "Who is this foreigner coming in here to tell us what to do?"  Rather, the charge was, "Is not he the carpenter?" (cf. Mark 6:1-6).  Pursuing contextualization as an imitation of Christ's incarnation means not simply assimilating with the culture in a purely human sense.  Rather it means entering or remaining in a context as an ambassador of Christ -- bringing Him, his revelation, his prophetic word, his life and love.  Patrick's failure was that he didn't adequately do that.  This is a failure to fully contextualize the revelation of Christ, not some kind of "over-contextualization".

In answer to the oft-repeated question, "How far do we go with contextualization?"  I do not point to fatally flawed contextualization scales.  I point to Christ.  How far did he go?  How human did he become?  How Jewish?  How Galilean?  If we are to imitate His example, we must go all the way.  And going all the way is more than simply skillfully adapting to a particular cultural context.  Going all the way requires bringing Christ and bringing his message to bear in that context -- to give them the opportunity to experience Jesus as the word made flesh for them.


  1. Cody,

    Thanks for taking the time to go over Darren Patrick's article--I really hope he gets the chance to hear your critique. However, I think you fell into the trap of using his erroneous terms when you said that it was an example of "under-contextualization."

    You're shooting yourself in the foot as long as you continue to use measurement words in relation to contextualization. There isn't 'over-contextualization,' or 'under-contextualization'... or as the Lausanne statement on Contextualization used, 'highly contextualized.' These measurement words feed the misunderstanding that you are pushing up against.

    Instead, we should change the conversation to 'well contextualized' or 'badly contextualized.' I think this article even uses the words 'healthy contextualization.' The point is, that for those entering into, or staying within a culture, they are always communicating, and in that communication they are constantly contextualizing--whether they do it well or not is the issue. In the case of this article, the idea emerged from a desire to contextualize well, but their implementation was quite bad. It wasn't a failure of 'over-contextualization' it was a failure of bad cultural analysis, bad judgement, bad communication... it was bad contextualization.

  2. I see your point, Ian. There is a sense in which contextualization to something is always taking place. However, I am speaking of the "pursuit of contextualization" here. This is my favorite phrase on the issue. We are to pursue contextualization as imitation of Christ's incarnation. So, we do have an aim -- the incarnation. So, by under-contextualization, I mean that Patrick really isn't going far enough in imitating the incarnation.

  3. Anonymous9:22 AM

    Cody, have your read Patrick's treatment of contexutalization in his books? He has two chapters on it that might be enlightening
    thanks for your ministry

    Barry B

  4. Hi Barry! Thanks for reading and commenting. No, I haven't read Patrick's books. Of course, I feel that the way he writes about contextualization in this particular post is enough to suggest that he hasn't fully grasped the subject. The use of a term like "over-contextualization" indicates itself that he hasn't adequately allowed the incarnation to inform his missiological reflection at this point.

    Of course, I'd be willing to read those two chapters and respond to them if you or someone else would like to send me the book that you are referring to.


  5. Anonymous1:37 PM

    It seems to me that you should buy the books yourself and study before you infer his theology from a short article. He has two full chapters and the endorsers from his books feature Tim keller who has taught the western church more about this subject than anyone IMO.

    Barry B

  6. Anonymous1:53 PM

    I would also like to chime in.
    Cody, Pretty bold to critique a guy from an article.
    Especially when he as published and has spoken hundreds of times on the issue critiqued (Check his church, Acts 29 and about a dozen big time conferences over the last 8 years).

    Also, pretty bush league to post a tease to your critique all over facebook and twitter to get people to visit your blog. I noticed that you put it on patrick's facebook and posted to his twitter address multiple times.
    Not the way to respectfully engage a brother like patrick or to draw people to your blog.

    Your critique is interesting, but the your trolling methods and but not being informed of patrick's full treatment of the subject critiques hurts your credibility.

    John outland

    ps. I tried to post my url and name but page wouldn't let me

  7. Barry and John, thanks for reading and commenting. I don't think I agree that one must read an author's books before responding to his article. I suspect you haven't read my book or peer-reviewed articles on contextualization prior to commenting here. And I have no problem with that.

    Invoking Tim Keller is kind of odd. I'm not sure what your point is with that.

    Not sure what is "bush league" about inviting dialogue here. Twitter and FB were the only places where dialogue on the Patrick article was taking place since commenting is disabled on the Resurgence blog. This issue is of critical importance and too many people understand contextualization in a deficient way.

    I will admit that I'm not well-versed on Twitter ethics. But my sincere hope was to get a truly educational dialogue going. The sheer use of a term like "over-contextualization" demonstrates that Patrick fundamentally misunderstands this issue. If elsewhere, he has written the opposite of what he wrote here, then fine. But since what he posted was meant for public consumption and digestion, there should be no offense when honest critique is offered. I would have rather offered this in the comment section of the post itself, but that wasn't possible.

    Now, if you find my critique interesting, great. Why not discuss that?

  8. Anonymous2:29 PM

    Post your articles and I would be glad to read them. ALso, I am not criticizing your view, but your critique of another view without doing the research.

    Tim Keller has had more influence on helping church planters in the west than just about anyone. Patrick's has said in print and in person that Keller is his main influence on contexualization. Keller, whose network has planted a few hundred uses the term over-contexualization in similar manner as does D.A. Carson, Bryan Chappell, John Piper, Francis Chan and others. Also, Patrick and Acts 29 have a little influence in the west. (understatement).

    If you really want pastor's to engage this with you, you are going to have to get educated on fuller treatements as this is not only intellectually honest, but biblical. If you don't, your influence will not be what it could be.

    John Outland

  9. John, I appreciate the interaction. I was with Keller in Cape Town last year and heard what he had to say about contextualization, but also heard him say directly that his understanding of cross-cultural mission was essentially nil. The others that you mentioned are not experts on contextualization either. I honestly don't care who uses a term like "over-contextualization", it misses the point every time.

    Ideally, I would love to read more about what these people are saying. I have read countless pages on the topic but usually I read from people who are experts in the field. I turn to Piper for Bible often. Not for missiology. But, I don't have the budget to buy every book that gets put out there. I do think that it is fair to engage Patrick's article as it stands. If he intended for it to be read in the context of his other writings, he should have used footnotes.

    I will say that I feel uncomfortable to be charged with some kind of wrongdoing in this matter. I believe that my research on the topic of contextualization is impeccable and I have earned a lot of credibility among missiologists in my field. I certainly apologize to you if I have given you any cause for offense. I am a church planter at the end of the day. When I speak of contextualization, it isn't abstract in the least to me. It has been very costly. It is sad and even offensive to me to see Patrick compare a Jackass Marathon to the kind of painful incarnational life we are pursing among Bhutanese refugees in Chicago. It drove me a little crazy to see so many Tweeters gulping it down so uncritically. So, the response is important. The dialogue is needed. I hope that relevant points from Patrick's other writings will be shared here by those who feel they should be brought to bear. At the very least, specific references could be given that would provide some counter to my arguments. I would enthusiastically welcome them.

    You can find my informal stuff here and also on the Lausanne Global Conversation where I am a featured contributor. For peer-reviewed stuff on contextualization you need to go to those journals directly. I have compiled some of those articles in a book called Ethnographic Chicago that is available on Amazon.

    Okay, got to do other stuff now. Blessings!

  10. Anonymous4:58 PM

    Impeccable? So, only those engaged in mission to immigrants are credible enough to speak to contexutalization? That appears to be your implication. How many young urban hipsters that eschew traditional churches go to your church plant? May guess is not many, precisely because you aren't called to them or, aren't contexulized for them. They do go to Keller's, Patrick's and other respective churches by the thousands. So, are you telling me that there isn't contexualization happening in North America with not immigrants? How many young men ages 18-28 are you in relationship with? Connecting with them in the cultural narratives they are familiar with is invalid?
    talk to me

    John Outland

  11. Anonymous5:17 PM

    Also, the article was taken directly from the book "For the City."
    To comment on the article without reading the book is uncontexualized

  12. Impeccable in the sense that it has been presented for review by many of the top missiologists in the world. My conclusions are not agreed upon by all, but no one has ever found my research to be deficient.

    I don't believe I said that only those engaged in mission to immigrants are credible. In fact, I don't believe I've questioned anyone's credibility thus far. Conclusions, yes. I have critiqued them openly, supported by points and invited debate. I remain eager to discuss the issue and not all the adiaphora surrounding it.

    I don't follow the other points that your raise about hipsters going to Keller's church, etc. Am I telling you that there isn't contextualization happening in N. America with non immigrants. No, I am not telling you that. How many young men ages 18-28 am I in relationship with? I've honestly never counted, and don't understand the point you are trying to make. Do I think connecting with them in the cultural narratives they are familiar with is invalid? No, not as a matter of principle, but again, I don't know what you are driving at.

    I would invite you to think more reflectively about what I've written. I have not criticized Keller's church or Patrick's. I have not said that the never practice contextualization or know nothing about it. There is a specific point I am making and contending with. A point, by the way, that has nothing to do with Keller as far as I know. The question for you really is (1) Do you understand my critique of Patrick's article and (2) do you have anything to say that is relevant to the actual points I am making?

  13. Re: For the City -- does Patrick say anything else in the book that changes the meaning of what was posted in the article?

  14. Anonymous5:54 PM

    First reply
    My point is that contextualization involves people who are all english in the same country, city and neighborhood.. Ed Stetzer has spoken to this in his blog and speaking, unless he is not a qualified missiologist in your view

    Maybe questioning the credibility is too strong, but being dismissive is not when you say, that patrick "pretend to talk about contextualization." Come on, bro.

    Second reply

    (1) I understand it
    (2) Yes. Read the book "for the city" All though, Patrick actually does a better job interacting with the topic in churchplanter (chapter 15).

    Finally, it was not an academic article, but a blog post. Knowing the context is important here as always. It was meant to encourage people to buy the book which is explicit if you understand the resurgence and look at the bottom of the page

    How can you possibly critique and dismiss the short pull from the book without having read the passage from its context? Is it fair to pull a promotion piece and then critique it when the author has spoken and written on the subject with much amplification in many, many other places. Would you want someone to do that to you?

  15. Anonymous6:56 PM

    Exactly how is using a culturally current movie to gather men who then are then engaged in conversation by believing men who are there for the purpose of relational evangelism not a form of contextualization? I actually heard Darren Patrick talk about this and that is the context of the blog at resurgence. Darren's point was that the relational evangelism was discredited not because of the movie, but because of the licenscious behavior of a few. Several churches do film and theology nights in order to have a safe environment for non-Christians to meet real Christian around cultural conversation.
    Cody, is this not valid contextualization?

    Brian McCoy

  16. "My point is that contextualization involves people who are all english in the same country, city and neighborhood."

    I'm not sure what exactly your are talking about here. I want to assume that you don't mean this sentence literally. If you are trying to say that contextualization can be pursued by those who are reaching out to others of their own culture, well ... I said that already in the article. Note when I discussed "staying in".

    I have had dialogue with Ed and have enjoyed much of what I've read from him on contextualization. The great thing about Ed is that he really does want dialogue and enjoys hearing thoughtful critiques of his perspectives. As do I.

    The "pretend to talk about contextualization" sounds like me but I don't actually recall when I said it about Patrick. Sounds more like something from a different article. I don't see it in the above. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which it is true about Patrick's treatment of contextualization. That is, by using a term like "over-contexualization" Patrick betrays the fact that his definition of the term isn't correct - hence "pretend" to talk. But I've already discussed why I feel his definition is off and won't repeat that here.

    Re: #2 -- If I understand you correctly, you are claiming that other things in Patrick's books actually change the meaning of what he has written in Resurgence post. To the extent that his post cannot possibly understood without having read the book. Further, it is to be understood as nothing more than a promotional tool to sell those books. He doesn't intend for the post to be interacted with itself.

    May I submit that if this is indeed what you are saying about Patrick, you are doing far more damage to his name than I am by simply offering a thoughtful critique of an article that was posted publicly.

    And for the record, I would absolutely want "pulls" from my book(s) or articles to be scrutinized and critiqued in a public forum. If I don't want that, I don't put it out there. Global conversation in the body of Christ is an awesome thing. I love it and hope for it to increase.


    Brian, welcome and thanks for your comment. In response to your first question, I went back to confirm that I address that pretty straight on in the article. So if you are unclear, I invite you to simply reread.

    I also think that Patrick made his own point quite clearly in the article that he posted. I am responding to what he wrote. If he didn't mean it, then I'm at a loss as to why he wrote it.

    Re: Film and Theology Nights -- I'm all for them. We do them monthly in one of the churches I pastor. Got one this Sunday in fact. Not sure what in my article led you to believe that I would be against them.

    To be honest, I really don't believe you've read my post carefully enough - I don't think you are hearing me. I truly hope you will reread and realize that I'm just not saying what you seem to think that I am saying.


  17. By the way, my wife just pointed out the "pretends to talk" in the first sentence. Heh - heh. Anyway, please note that the article pretends to talk about contextualization. I don't mean to say that Patrick always pretends to talk about contextualization in every situation, article, book, and speaking engagement. No, I mean that the post referred to here seems to talk about contextualization at first glance and perhaps even tries to do so. However, upon further analysis, we discover that what is being talked about is not actually contextualization in a missiological sense. As I have said in the article, it definitely has something to do with it -- it is in the same ball park. But, well, I explain all this in the article.

    Anyway, in light of the fact that the sentence can possibly be misunderstood and taken as disrespectful towards Patrick, I am editing it to read "seems to talk" rather than "pretends to talk". I don't actually mean anything different, but perhaps the new wording will come across as more respectful, which is the tone I wish to communicate.