The Trojan Horse of Leftist Propaganda
I have been in full-time ministry for over twenty years. I spent the first five in collegiate ministry with CRU, which seemed to be on the cutting edge of evangelistic innovation. This is where I first learned about “contextualization,” the art of adapting the gospel message to a specific audience. I spent the next fifteen years planting and pastoring a new church in Cincinnati, OH. During this time, I learned the concept of “incarnational ministry,” where you immerse yourself in your target culture to “become Jesus” to them, learning their stories and speaking their language to communicate the gospel more effectively to them.
I planted my church in 2010, right at the crest of the “missional church planting” movement. Being partnered with the Southern Baptist Convention and Acts 29, I can attest that a whole generation of church planters and pastors were trained this way. And now, twenty years in, enough time has passed to evaluate the movement. As I’ll demonstrate below, my assessment is this. Contextualization, as it is commonly practiced, is a trojan horse for worldly propaganda that threatens the future vitality of the church.
Contextualization has changed the way modern Christians talk. Modern Christians don’t sound like the Bible when they talk. Our worship gatherings resemble evangelistic crusades where unbelievers are the primary audience. We speak in code, like the underground church in China worried that the CCP is waiting in ambush when they hear Christians talking like Christians. When preachers soften the Bible’s words to appeal to non-Christians, their churches follow suit. We use spiritual baby talk. And when baby talk is all you hear, baby talk is all you speak. This is how you contextualize the word of God right out of the church.
The Importance of Words
Words are important because God speaks to us in words. God created the universe with words. The 10 Commandments were revealed with words. Jesus Christ is himself called “The Word.” John’s gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word. And the word was with God, and the word was God” (John 1:1). Salvation is communicated with words. The Bible’s use of the word “word” isn’t incidental. God’s words have power to create reality. Humans think with words. Words are the building blocks of theology. Therefore, manipulating words to distort truth is a serious issue because it’s an attempt to tinker with reality.
Paul spoke about this in 2 Corinthians. It says, “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word. But by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” This verse has a negative statement and a positive statement. Negatively, Paul says he’s “renounced” any tactic of salesmanship, verbal manipulation, or deceit to try to win converts. He refused to “tamper with God’s word” in any way. Positively, Paul’s was simply committed to an “open statement of the truth.” Paul refused to employ spiritually manipulative salesmanship tactics because he was an ambassador for the truth, not a peddler of propaganda.
Propaganda in the Modern World
Propagandists specialize in these underhanded techniques, and no one does it better than the ideologues of the modern left. Their chief weapon is the manipulation of language. Just as God created the universe with words and rules his people by his word, leftists manipulate words to rule people in the reality they create. In other words, they are playing God. Saul Alinsky, a hero of the left, famously said, “he who controls the language controls the masses.” What are they trying to control? Everything. They want to control how we think, what we value, the ethics we live by, and how we are governed. Through the manipulation of language, leftist ideologues are trying to re-create society in their image according to their moral vision.
Scripture says it is evil to redefine ethics by manipulating words. Isaiah 5:20 says, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.” God forbids the use of words to upend moral norms. Doug Wilson says the fight of our day is a battle for the dictionary. In the late 1960s, Jacques Ellul, a French Christian writer, called it “Propaganda.”
The Tactics of Propaganda
In his book, Ellul did an intensive study of the use of propaganda in many countries, notably Germany, the USSR, and the USA during WWII. His insights are still relevant because these tactics are still effectively deployed to deceive people in our day. Here are some of the most common tactics.
Borrow Social Capital
Propagandists attach their message to a positive, agreed-upon social narrative. Ellul wrote, “Propaganda cannot create something out of nothing… It must attach itself to a feeling, an idea, it must build on a foundation already present in the individual.” The Civil Rights movement provides such a narrative for modern propaganda. LGBTQ activists have seized upon Martin Luther King, Jr.’s heroic martyr status and cast themselves in his image as the oppressed “sexual minorities” who are “fighting for justice and equality.” They steal the legitimacy of the civil rights narrative and twist it to support their cause. People fall before it because it feels righteous to support things like “justice” and “equality.” People who no longer believe in a transcendent God to give life meaning will find some semblance of meaning in supporting what they believe to be a righteous cause.
Appeal to Emotions
Rather than focusing on logic, reasoning, and rational thought, propaganda focuses on emotions that can be subtly embedded in one’s unconscious mind. Bible-believing Christians who are committed to objective truth can naively assume that others do too. While we make appeals to texts of scripture, texts of law, rational arguments, and truth claims, the propagandists are telling stories. Stories have the power to shape our values and desires through narrative, symbol, and imagery. Hollywood knows this. They tell our nation’s stories, which is why the moral decline of Hollywood has always been about 20 years ahead of middle America.
Last March, Audrey Hale murdered six people at a Christian school in Nashville, TN. What are the facts of this incident? A woman who identified as a transgender man targeted Christian children for violence and murder. What is the narrative of this incident? When a talented and aspiring artist was victimized by the hatred of her conservative Christian parents who rejected her sexual identity, she became violent. Unfortunately, facts don’t win the day, emotions do. An emotionally moving story can provide a sympathetic “context” to justify any behavior.
About this point, Ellul wrote, “[A] distinction between propaganda and information is often made. Information is addressed to reason and experience. It furnishes facts. Propaganda is addressed to feelings and passions. It is irrational. To be effective, propaganda must constantly short circuit all thought and decision.” Ellul continued, “Propaganda… creates… compliance… thru imperceptible influences. It must operate on the individual at the level of the unconscious. He must not know that he is being shaped by outside forces. This is one of the conditions for the success of propaganda. But some central core in him must be reached in order to release the mechanism in the unconscious which will provide the appropriate action.” And that’s the ultimate goal. Action. Not truth.
Activism Above All
There’s a reason why men like Jordan Peterson call them “Social Justice Warriors.” They really are warriors, fighting a holy war. Their battle is a cultural jihad, animated by religious zeal, waged through political activism. They believe in a Great Commission: “Go ye forth into the world and proclaim the gospel of diversity, equity and inclusion.” They have an eschatology: a humanist utopia governed by their perverted moral vision. They have a playbook: “Win at all costs.” They are not constrained by Western, Christian morality. Christian morality is not the code they live by, it’s the enemy they’re trying to defeat.
About this, Ellul wrote, “The skillful propagandist will seek to obtain action without demanding consistency, without fighting prejudice and images, by taking his stance deliberately on inconsistencies.” As far as public perception goes, consistency is overrated, because truth is not their goal. Leftists are not motivated by consistency, truth, or logical coherence. All that matters is achieving their pragmatic aims.
Through the words they say and the stories they tell, they’re trying to create a rival reality that removes the Christian God and replaces him with a deified state. This is the pool we’re all swimming in. This is the spirit of the age. Every day, we dine at the table of propaganda and we drink the wine of propaganda. Leftist propaganda is in our TV shows, movies, and music. It’s on the news, in our schools, and in our workplaces. It’s in our government, tech industries, big business, and social media. And, I’d argue, it’s in the church.
Much propaganda has been smuggled into the church under the winsome guise of “reaching the lost.” If Christians are to become “all things to all men” to reach the modern world, it is assumed, then we must use their stories, symbols, and words to communicate with them effectively. Pastor Tim Keller is a well-known practitioner of contextualization, and we read about this in a 2001 article entitled, “The Missional Church.” This article has been massively influential for countless pastors and ministry leaders in the last 20 years.
Two parts of his contextualization strategy merit attention here. First, Keller says, we need to “speak in the vernacular” of the target audience, using their words and symbols to communicate the Christian message. Second, we need to “enter and retell the culture’s stories” to show how they are ultimately fulfilled in Christ.
For example, a common theme in our culture is the “American Dream.” To contextualize to Americans, therefore, an evangelist could “enter and retell” that story and point it towards Jesus. He could say, “Everyone wants the American Dream. Since we are created in God’s image, we are eternal beings, which means nothing in this world can truly satisfy us. We are only truly satisfied in a relationship with God.”
That’s a good and true message, as far as it goes. Messaging like this can be quite effective in the hands of a skilled practitioner. But frankly, few people are good at it, and most people are really bad at it. When done poorly, the muddled message can lead to syncretism with the culture. Why? Because many of the words, stories, and symbols of our culture have a hostile, anti-Christian bias built into them, which are then baptized by association with the Christian message. From a desire to relate more effectively to culture, we become more products of culture than ambassadors to it. We study the language, music, art, and stories of culture with more devotion than we study scripture and theology, and we assume our faith is unaffected. The potency of our gospel message gets watered down over time by the constant pressure to be “relevant” to the culture.
The even greater danger is when the tools of contextualization are applied in the pulpit, where the most potent and distinctly Christian message is needed to maintain our distinctiveness and build up the church. When the preaching ministry is contextualized, the people of God lose the ability to recognize and cherish the unique voice of scripture, and find themselves increasingly uncomfortable with the words God wrote to us.
Reverse Contextualization in the Pulpit
Pulpit ministry is a non-negotiable priority in the spiritual formation of a healthy church. When the church gathers for worship, the sheep are fed a spiritual meal through word and sacrament. Though unbelievers may be present, the priority is on feeding the sheep (John 21). If contextualization for unbelievers becomes a driving priority even for the preaching of God’s word, then the original purpose of pulpit ministry is effectively lost. Slowly and imperceptibly, the congregation is conditioned to give too much thought about how the unbeliever hearing the message might feel. If the pastor preached about homosexuality, many of the people may get antsy and nervous because they’re wondering, “What if a gay unbeliever is here and gets offended? He’ll never come back and hear the gospel!” This is a particular temptation in “missional” type churches. The preaching must be engaging, relevant, and winsome to avoid offending unbelievers, because they’re the real target audience. The sheep are starved in order to reach the goats. The church appears to be worshiping God, but it’s just a religious performance designed to accommodate unbelief. If any of them are converted, they, too, must learn to play the game.
A recent example of this came from a video promoting a ministry called “Redeeming Babel,” a resourcing project spearheaded by Russell Moore, David Frend, and Curtis Chang. In the video, Curtis Chang demonstrated a “gospel-centered” way of promoting the COVID vaccine, against the objections of Christians who find them morally objectionable because they were originally developed with the stem cells of an aborted baby. Chang said, “The COVID vaccine is an image of redemption. Yes, the vaccine may have a distant origin story in abortion, but that past has been reworked and redeemed into something that saves life. We can point to the vaccine and say, ‘Jesus’ redemption is kind of like that.’”
This messaging is spiritually manipulative propaganda. This isn’t the story of the gospel, it’s the story of pharmaceutical companies. Jesus isn’t the hero of the story, he merely supplies the heroic narrative for the vaccine. And the redemption being offered is the soothing of one’s conscience for taking an unethically developed vaccine. This is a worldly message contextualized with Christian language. The death and resurrection of Christ was manipulated to strong-arm people into getting the jab.
Many solid, conservative, Bible-believing pastors have unknowingly bought into this method without recognizing the harmful side effects. I should know, because I’m one of them.
Contextualization in My Ministry
I was trained in contextualization during my years on staff with CRU. I went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I took all the classes and read all the books. I planted my church through Acts 29 and learned the methods of their top planters. I was well trained, I trusted my training and built my ministry on these methods because I wanted to reach people for Christ.
Over time, however, I became increasingly unsettled. Contextualization was presented as a way of removing “unnecessary offense” to the gospel. But it became clear that I was expected to use these tools to remove all offense to the gospel. And yet, how can we preach about holiness, sin, judgment, and wrath without giving offense to nonbelievers? You can’t. Therefore, being inoffensive is a prerequisite to keeping unbelievers engaged and keeping your church “on mission.” Your metric of success is the subjective criteria of peoples’ feelings. When inoffensiveness is the goal, offensive-sounding words or concepts need to be “contextualized” or avoided altogether. The gold standard is “winsomeness.” After all, we want to “win” people to Christ, right?
This model creates an unhealthy expectation for pastors to meet the subjective standard of “winsomeness” in their ministries, even in the pulpit. Their desire to “reach the lost” fosters hostility towards faithful preaching of God’s word, because that sort of preaching is an obstacle to evangelism.
Some might raise the objection that contextualization is unavoidable. They’d argue that everyone is a product of his or her own culture. They’d say that no one is unaffected by their own culture, and it is arrogant to think anyone can “transcend” his own culture. To a degree, I’ll concede this point. It is true that no one can transcend his own culture, everyone is shaped by his own culture, and every Christian message is contextualized to that culture. Nevertheless, pressing this point too far leads to cultural relativism.
Take Jonah, for example. His book opens like this: “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’” Nineveh was an extremely wicked culture and God sent Jonah to “call out against it.” There was no contextualization, only a prophetic message of impending judgment. Some cultures are so godless and corrupt that this is the only appropriate message. Sodom was arguably worse. How would you contextualize to a culture like Sodom? How do you “speak in the vernacular” of Sodom? You don’t, because you can’t.
Cultural stories are not just entertainment, they represent the values and morality of the culture. To use their stories as a springboard for the gospel, you have to assume some degree of validity to their story. In modern times, LGBTQ+ is a totalizing narrative that is fundamentally incompatible with the gospel. The ideology is thoroughly corrupt. How do we “enter in and retell the stories” of their worldview without compromising the gospel? You don’t, because you can’t. Any attempt to do so will distort the gospel.
Revoice, for example, is a ministry that legitimizes “gay Christianity” while supposedly upholding traditional marriage. Listen to what Wesley Hill, one of the founders of Revoice, said about being a “gay Christian.”
Being gay colors everything about me, even though I am celibate… Being gay is, for me, as much a sensibility as anything else: a heightened sensitivity to and passion for same-sex beauty that helps determine the kind of conversations I have, which people I’m drawn to spend time with, what novels and poems and films I enjoy, the particular visual art I appreciate, and also, I think, the kind of friendships I pursue and try to strengthen. I don’t imagine I would have invested half as much effort in loving my male friends, and making sacrifices of time, energy, and even money on their behalf, if I weren’t gay. My sexuality, my basic erotic orientation to the world, is inescapably intertwined with how I go about finding and keeping friends.
Hill is telling the world’s narrative to Christians. That’s reverse contextualization. He’s telling the wrong story to the wrong audience, using the language and credibility of Christianity to promote a culture in revolt against God’s design. This has opened the door for more recent examples of supposed Christian ministers saying “drag is holy” and “God is trans” from their pulpits. They’re using the tools of contextualization to blaspheme God in their houses of worship and teaching their congregations that whatever kink or perversion they’re into should be celebrated in church because it honors God.
Many churches choose not to preach against controversial topics like homosexuality or Critical Race Theory because it might offend non-believers. They’d say they’re not “gospel issues” anyway. So, while pastors are choosing not to preach on these topics, guess who is? Everyone else. Hardly a day goes by without some news anchor, politician, or Tik Tok celebrity parroting these leftist talking points. Don’t be surprised when a church that’s been fed for years on a steady diet of gospel-centered, contextualized winsomeness lacks the stomach to hear anything else. They have no tolerance for scripture at barrel strength. The OT prophets are too mean-spirited. John the Baptist isn’t Christlike enough. Jesus’ words seem strange and out of place. They can’t tolerate scripture without some soft-spoken hireling to contextually speak it into their hard-hearted vernacular. When we’re embarrassed of what God’s word says, we’ll “contextualize” our own words in its place.
The Dangers of Reverse Contextualization
In short, reverse contextualization produces cultural relativism, which leads to a number of problems. Here are four of the biggest ones: The first is an overly critical view of their own culture due to constant sympathetic listening to the world’s propaganda about Christians, which tells them that American Christianity has produced a culture built on oppressive, Euro-Western, racism and patriarchy. The second is a diminishing ability to discern evil in the world, due to sympathetic listening to the world’s propaganda about itself and its own virtue. The third is an inability or unwillingness to develop a distinctly Christian vision for their own culture. Since Christianity is given none of the credit for the advances of modern society and takes all the blame for our problems, Christians must be the worst kinds of culture builders. We’re better off in a “pluralistic” society built by and ruled by pagans. Christians are at their best and most pure, we are told, when they have no power, authority, or cultural influence.
Finally, Christians end up telling the wrong story. Rather than telling the Bible’s story in the vernacular of the culture, we end up telling the culture’s story in the vernacular of the Bible. Our biblical heroes are co-opted by the world. The culture enters and retells our Bible stories to their liking, such as David and Jonathan being gay lovers, Deborah being a feminist warrior princess, or Jesus being a Che Gueverra-styled social justice warrior. All of Christianity’s remaining cultural capital gets spent on false narratives, dedicated to God’s enemies, being preached from our pulpits in nearly empty churches. The salt loses its taste. It’s not good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on.
The Antidote: Plain-Spoken Truth
Going back to the scripture at the beginning of this essay, the antidote is right there, out in the open. Paul refused to use disgraceful, underhanded ways, to use cunning, or to tamper with God’s word. “But,” Paul says, “by the open statement of the truth, we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” Christians have the Word of God, the very truth the world needs. A few verses later, Paul goes on to describe why this is his approach: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (v4). Contextualization is a tool of man, but only God alone can open the eyes of the blind. And that’s exactly what he does every time the plainly spoken truth of God’s word converts a sinner’s soul. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
What we need is not a new technique but simple courage. In the Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis wrote that “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Yesterday’s battles had their own heroes, but it’s not courageous to fight yesterday’s battles. We need courage for today’s battles. Greater courage of this sort would solve many problems in modern Christianity. The world will hate us for one thing or another; we might as well be hated for speaking the truth. That’s what is needed in our day. The kind of bold, courageous Christianity that isn’t obsessed with what the world thinks of us so we can land coveted publishing space with secular legacy media companies. There’s power in the plain-spoken truth of scripture.
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