As a former missionary and trainer of missionaries, I am familiar with the concept of contextualizing the gospel to fit the culture of a particular people group. In this way, we leave out aspects of the “conventional” gospel not found in Scripture—and which can be an impediment to people in other cultures coming to Jesus Christ. In the past missionaries have along with the gospel brought western Christian customs such as Christmas trees, Santa Claus, church buildings, and church steeples adorned with crosses. These are not essential to the preaching of the gospel and have little if anything to do with salvation through Jesus Christ. But such things can and have become a symbol of “Christianity”— known to non-Christian people groups especially in the Third World as a religion imported from the West by their former colonial masters centuries ago.
As a brief example, toward Muslims we do not necessarily mention “Christianity”, “converting to Christianity”, becoming “a Christian”, or “going to church.” Jesus did not mention such terms or their significance to eternal life when he was on earth. Muslims all too well remember the “Crusades” of centuries past instigated against them by the Christian West.
Likewise, the Church in America has become quite adept at contextualizing the gospel for those who have made America their home: After we bring you to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, we will teach you how to realize fully the American Dream on earth and to enjoy God’s earthly blessings until you go home to glory.
Some (but not all) churches have mastered this skill and not surprisingly have grown to become huge megachurches. (The only megachurch found in Acts was the one in Jerusalem which was later dispersed and scattered following the persecution in connection with Stephen’s martyrdom.)
One wonders if such contextualization of the gospel violates the central message of the New Testament of denying oneself and following Jesus as his disciple. It certainly “works” in that it draws the crowds and looks great from the outside, but are such people genuine disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ who are expected to bear much fruit for Him?
John 15:5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”