There are plenty of academic topics that honestly aren’t worth much of your time. They aren’t valuable because they don’t affect your daily life; they won’t really impact your understanding of the core doctrines of the faith. So most of us can get by without thinking about these abstractions. But this issue of contextualization isn’t one of those issues. It’s central to a number of practical Christian life issues as well as your understanding of certain Christian doctrines. I’ll survey several of these areas below.
If you’re like me, evangelism is something that you want to grow in. You want to build more relationships with people who need Jesus; you want to share the impact that your Christian faith has had on your life. But you may not know how to explain that faith to someone else. Contextualization is a study in how to communicate with others that you may struggle to relate with. In contemporary American culture, although adoption rates of technology and adaptation rates for new trends are narrowing, the overall stratification of subcultures makes contextualization necessary for evangelism. Making the Gospel meaningful to other subcultures means that we need to humble ourselves and ask some preliminary questions that will help us communicate better with people in these cultures. In the upcoming articles, I’ll be sharing some essential contextualization questions that Christians can ask in order to understand the culture of the person they’re speaking with.
Contextualization says that we can reject the extremes of syncretistic assimilation, that the community never recognizes as truth, and non-communicative withdrawal, whereby the community never comes in contact with the truth. Ultimately salt isn’t salt if it doesn’t function as salt (losing its taste), and it doesn’t function as salt if it doesn’t end up placed on something else (in the world). Both proximity and potency are essential. Some of the most potent applications of contextualization come to bear on the way we enter into evangelistic dialogue with people in our community.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28.19a)
Contextualization doesn’t stop once a person believes the Gospel. If you’re involved in Gospel proclamation or one-on-one discipleship, you’re tasked with the privilege of diving deep into the lives of others and getting to know how they think and what cultural roadblocks they have in their experience that keep them from applying the Gospel to their Christian lives. Every Christian is a part of a culture and sub-culture that shapes us in incalculable ways. So as we engage in the process of discipling others, we’ll need to continue this process of asking questions in order to understand where they’re coming from, and continuing to communicate the message in an understandable and actionable way.
“For disciple-making to be effective, it must be grounded in the appropriate context in which people live. It is the context that allows us to understand the needs and issues of the new believers. Only after these needs and issues are properly identified and understood, can we then begin to design a curriculum that will help people to follow Jesus faithfully in their context. In short, borrowing discipleship materials or approaches used in another context ought to be resisted. Instead, national leadership must be encouraged and empowered to design their own curricula and approaches to disciple the new believers.” (Minho Song, “Contextualization and Discipleship: Closing the Gap between Theory and Practice”, 5)
Ultimately, contextualized discipleship steers away from the clone-model of discipleship, but focuses, instead, on understanding what discipleship looks like in ones’ present context. It means that we have to invest the time in understanding the challenges and aids to discipleship in your target culture, and don’t be surprised if those challenges and aids are vastly different than your own.
Worship has two focuses. It faces upward “to God” and also faces outward toward “one another” (Col. 3.16). Contextualization influences how we worship in this latter facet. Contextualization in our worship means that we the “teaching” and “admonishing” that occurs in the context of worship must be contextualized in order to communicate. And this contextualization moves beyond ensuring that the worship just communicates to the Christians in the congregation; we also contextualize when we take into account unbelievers that may observe the worship of the church (1 Cor. 14.23). We want to be cognizant that our worship doesn’t obscure the Gospel, but, rather, clearly points to the entrusted message.
Christians who resist the idea of contextualization in worship tend to focus exclusively on the doxological aspect of worship while leaving out the ecclesiological dimension of worship. As we take both of those dimensions into account, we’ll see that contextualization doesn’t mean simply keeping up with the “cool church” culture or simply trying to make people “comfortable” in the worship service of the church. It means that we need to make our worship understandable and meaningful for those who express it, rather than trying to replicate traditional or contemporary models that we’re familiar with.
“As is too often the case in missions, church planting resembles church franchising” (Keesee, Dispatches from the Front, 19)
Sometimes by considering what contextualization looks like in other nations and cultures, we can look more objectively (with less controversy) at its results and then draw applications to our own culture more effectively. It reminds us that the Gospel doesn’t just get contextualized when it enters the boundaries of a foreign country, but it is contextual when it enters our neighbor’s front yard. Even missiologists from staunchly conservative groups recognize this reality. So one example we could use to give us this international perspective on our own culture comes from believers in Japan. They’ve spent time writing a statement on worship in order to help them contextualize worship appropriately. And others have followed up by suggesting a number of Japanese characteristics that churches should integrate in order to contextualize to their culture. If you get a moment to read how the Japanese churches are contextualizing, I would recommend that you take a few minutes to consider: (1) Are there biblical issues with the sorts of cultural elements that they are drawing into their corporate worship? (2) What would it look like if my church in my city took a similar approach to our worship and the culture that surrounds it?
Interpretation of Scripture
The text of Scripture must be interpreted and applied if it is to be handled properly. Simply having the true message doesn’t help if we don’t connect that message to life. The work of interpretation is essentially an effort to understand the author’s meaning; this process often requires the work of decontextualization, where the interpreter strives to arrive at the overarching transcendent principles of the text. Then, in the process of application, the text is contextualized and connected to the ever-changing culture that surrounds us. Ultimately, the contextualized meaning must align with a faithful reading of the text.
“The adequacy of an attempted contextualisation must be measured by the degree to which it faithfully reflects the meaning of the biblical text” (Hesselgrave & Rommen, Contextualization, 201).
“The biblical teaching on culture and hermeneutics provides the basic elements for an approach to contextualization. Applying biblically mandated behavior in a new context involves interpretation and application…. Contextualization of biblical thought involves three major concerns…avoidance of syncretism…constructive engagement with the cultural world-view…calling for personal change” (Larkin, Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics, 319-321).
For a deep but accessible foray into this issue see articles 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 of “Where is Theological Continuity Found? Text or Context?”
Translation of Scripture
Translation is a process that requires more than just taking one word in the original language and matching it with the corresponding word in the target language. Sometimes translators opt for a strict formal equivalency, where the exact structure is maintained along denotative lines. But, at times, formal equivalency can undermine the connotative meaning of Scripture (whether in its context or in ours). Some interpreters use a more dynamic approach that connects thought-for-thought. In a sense, every translation is culturally and linguistically dynamic, but the degree to which the translation flexes toward meaning over form differentiates some versions from others. Contextualization touches on this issue by reminding us that, while form is important, we can’t ignore meaning. Translations that clearly and effectively communicate the meaning of the original text to the target audience in a way that those readers can understand and apply can be said to be contextualized translations. Some cultures demand a heavier hand of contextualization than others (e.g., cultures that don’t have sheep, but only pigs, or peoples who have never seen snow). But every translation is, in essence, a contextual document because it takes the language of particular cultures (Biblical Hebrew/Aramaic and Koine Greek) and transmits it with some degree of meaning into another culture’s language (e.g., modern English).
Ultimately, this whole issue of contextualization is, at its core, a Gospel issue. The Gospel is the “good news.” It is, at its heart, a message — communication. The Gospel is God’s speaking into the world. It started at creation, continued with the Patriarchs, expanded with the people of Israel, and culminated in the coming of Jesus. I love how John the Evangelist puts it; Jesus is “the Word of God.” Jesus is the message of the Father. And what did that message look like? Was Jesus look like an angel, an alien, a blinding light, or an American? No! Jesus took upon himself the form of a servant. He came as a Jew in a Jewish culture. He was born like a normal baby and developed like a an average human being. There was no special beauty or look that he had that drew attention to him. He spoke as one of their people to their people, but with great authority.
And this is the job of the contextual Christian. Sometimes, in a pursuit of speaking to people on their level, we syncretize and lose the authority of the Gospel. Other times, we avoid speaking to people on their level at all, and fail to communicate the Gospel in the manner in which we’ve received it. Jesus communicated and communicated with authority. Biblical contextualization seeks to maintain this Gospel tension of incarnational communication along with authoritative proclamation.
“Mission, in fact, begins with identification and communication with God made possible because He has identified and communicated with us. Apart from this vertical relationship resulting from His Incarnation and Self-disclosure, and the proper response of repentance and faith on our part, there can be no mission. Apart from that we may become philosophers and rhetoricians, but missionaries we are not. Missionary communication begins with a knowledge of God in Christ or it does not begin at all” (Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 90).