Objections to the Practice of Contextualization

Thus far I’ve defined contextualization and offered some reasons why it matters before showing two extremes of contextualization (self-centered unconscious contextualization which results in failure to communicate at all and culture-centered over-contextualization which results in failure to communicate the right message). Now that we’ve staked out the territory and what we mean, we can start addressing some specific concerns.

In this article, I’m going to begin pushing back against some of the specific anti-contextualization arguments that I began to mention at the beginning of a previous article. Each argument will be generally stated and I’ll attempt a short rejoinder. I’ll begin with the objections to the practice of contextualization and will deal with the objections to the results of contextualization in another article.

Contextualization is an exchange of Gospel power for human wisdom.

Conservative advocates for contextualization would find assumptions such as this to be hastily drawn and evidence of a failure to understand the aims and efforts of contextualization. The implication of a claim like this is that those who contextualize are intending their efforts to take the place of the Holy Spirit in winning lost people to the Gospel of Christianity. But to make this claim is flatly absurd for a number of reasons.

First, it fails to take into account the clear statements of proponents of contextualization. For example:

“Missionaries should resist any human pressure to produce results. They should humbly endeavor before God to faithfully communicate Christ and beseech men to accept Him! When Christ has been truly communicated, they are successful as witnesses” (Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 111).

“You can do this ministry with God’s help — so give it all you’ve got. You can’t do this ministry without God’s help — so be at peace.” (Keller, Center Church, 383).

Second, it ignores the universality of contextualization. As I’ve suggested before, you either consciously contextualize or you unconsciously contextualize. There’s no real alternative to it. As Keller writes:

“As soon as you choose words, you are contextualizing, and you become more accessible to some people and less so to others” (Center Church, 94).

So if contextualization neuters the Gospel via human ingenuity, then we’re all guilty. This leads me to another point as an extension of this one.

Third, contextualization involves culturally-oriented communication with the intent to persuade. This focus on making the Gospel persuasive can often be misunderstood as a reliance on our own human persuasiveness or charisma in order to affect conversions. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Apostles engaged in similar Holy Spirit-cooperative persuasion (see the use of the Greek verb peitho in Acts 26.28; 2 Cor. 5.11). Our goal is to persuade men in cooperation with the power of the Holy Spirit. But the power of the Spirit does not negate the need for careful argumentation no more that the Spirit negates the need for careful sermon preparation or careful living.

Finally, if this argument is allowed to stand, it eliminates the possibility of using any means in the spread of the Gospel. Whether you use a bullhorn, a tract, a testimony, a good deed, the Romans Road, a cute illustration, a church-wide event, or the building of a relationship in order to communicate the Gospel, you’re using some sort of human means in order to communicate the Gospel message. Contextualization examines which of these means is most likely to communicate to our given audience. Those who deride contextualization only undercut the use or evaluation of any means in the evangelization of the lost. The only logical result is that Christians should stand by and let lost people be brought to Jesus only through the Holy Spirit and the (untranslated and uncollated manuscripts of the) Bible; the Christian should make no effort to communicate that message whatsoever (because communication necessitates contextualization). On this basis, I think I can make the following extreme claim: a Gospel message without allowance for means to communicate that message is no Gospel at all.

Contextualization is merely an attempt to make the Gospel attractive to unbelievers or to impress them.

The goal of biblical contextualization is plain and simple: understandable and actionable communication of the Gospel message in accordance with the Scriptures. This results, positively, in the pursuit of the best communication tools for reaching a given culture. Negatively, it means that we want to study what unnecessary cultural trappings that we’ve added to the Gospel which impede its effectiveness in our target culture. We want people to take offence at the cross. That means that we need to communicate the cross clearly and eliminate other offences that distract from it. Hesselgrave again remarks:

“By demonstrating some understanding of [what the culture believes], the missionary gains integrity and credibility before his audience. His purpose is not to impress or entertain the people. Instead, he seeks to demonstrate that he has considered indigenous alternatives to God’s revelation in Christ and that he is not a religious huckster who is simply hawking God’s Word (cf. 2 Cor. 2:17 LB). On the contrary, he is someone who can be trusted, someone who understands.”

Contextualization is tantamount to changing the Gospel message or nature of the church in order to fit the culture.

The Gospel message can be seen as constructed of 4 elements. First, the Gospel message includes a theological ramp. People need to understand the meaning of God, sin, righteousness, and so on. Many of these elements need careful explanation in pre-Christian or post-Christian cultures. Sometimes this explanation is what is referred to as pre-evangelism. Because some people have a short ramp and others have a longer ramp, this stage in sharing the Gospel message will always look different. For a biblical example, the ramp for the Apostle Paul in Athens meant that he had to go all the way back to Creation; the ramp for Jewish audiences was much shorter because they shared the same worldview.

Second, the Gospel message contains the facts of the Gospel: Jesus Christ (a) died for sin, (b) was buried and rose from the dead on the third day, and (c) did all of this as ordained in Scripture (1 Cor. 15.3-4). These never change.

Third, the Gospel message demands a point of tension. There has to be a point of contact. For Nicodemus, it was the need for new birth in contrast to his uncircumcised heart. For the woman at the well, it was her need for living water instead of the unsatisfying life of sin. For the Rich Young Ruler, it was his need for brokenness by the Law instead of self-justification. Everyone has a different point of contact that must be made, and this will flex depending on who you’re engaging with.

Finally, the Gospel message contains a call to action. People must be called to place their faith in the Gospel. Although we make that same call in every culture, the way we approach that call may be a little different in some settings. In a previous post, we noted how Paul gradually allowed the Berean Jews to wrestle and engage with the Scriptures in their progress toward faith. But in other context, Paul preached singular messages with instant response. Missional Christians must give a call to repentance that will be felt by people in the target culture, and which will not be misunderstood and allows for progress toward faith to be made. So there is some degree of flex in this final element. So to review:

  • Part 1 – Pre-evangelism: Lengthens and shortens.
  • Part 2 – Gospel facts: Always the same.
  • Part 3 – Point of tension: Large bandwidth of possibilities.
  • Part 4 – Call to action: Slightly flexes.

The church does not exist supra-culture. It is not an alien culture that functions in a hermetically sealed environment apart from the culture that surrounds it. It is an organism filled with people that come from the surrounding culture. It critiques elements of the surrounding culture that have crystallized in rebellion against God (this is determined by the clear teachings of God’s Word), and it adopts elements of the culture in the life of the church which are either neutral or shared due to their reflection of natural law (Rom. 2.15). Let’s face it, the Hebrew culture in the early church morphed in order to minister in Greco-Roman contexts. That’s the whole point of the Jerusalem Council and the letter to the Galatians. All along the way, Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures were being confronted in the lives of the believers.

“Some mistakenly believe that contextualization means making Christianity look just like the culture. However, contextualization is simply the process of making the gospel understood” (David Sills).

So to respond to this objection I would reply: proponents of contextualization aren’t changing the facts of the Gospel or the nature of the Church; we’re discussing the frame around the Gospel facts and the way that the Church expresses that Gospel.

Contextualization moves beyond legitimate gospel clarity and too far in the direction of cultural adaptation.

Let’s begin with an example; the long-held spectrum for Muslim missions has been a scale from C-1 to C-5 or C-6 (see Parshall, “Going too Far?” and Travis “The C-Spectrum” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 663-667). This scale indicates the level to which Christian missionaries contextualize. C-1 is a very confrontational approach, where Islam is always treated negatively and Western style clothing, worship, preaching methods, and customs prevail. C-5 or C-6 (depending on one’s structure) almost approaches a syncretistic approach. Here, Muslims are encouraged to continue attending the mosque and following sharia and celebrating Muslim feasts. The C-5 or C-6 approach, then, will minister almost covertly. Both ends of the spectrum view participation in Muslim culture very differently. C-1’s see everything, even clothing and feasts, as inherently religious and avoid them. C-5’s and C-6’s see these things as merely cultural expressions and acceptable (and even desirable) for Christians to maintain.

As we look at a spectrum such as this (sometimes looking at a distant culture helps us think more clearly), I think we can begin to form an answer to the original objection to contextualization. My response would be that there are certainly attempts at contextualization that go too far, and result in obfuscation of the Gospel (e.g., C-5’s and C-6’s). But there are also Christians who fail to contextualize at all (C-1’s). Failure to consciously contextualize is a failure to communicate. So I would see the C-1 approach to be equally flawed. Somewhere in the middle of these extremes, there are healthy ways to engage our culture (C-2 to C-4). I would certainly object to extremes of contextualization in our culture, but this doesn’t mean that we should abandon the practice. This is why I, along with mainstream evangelicals, advocate a “biblical” contextualization model which focuses on communicating Christianity into culture even when the Christian message will confront that culture along the way.

“This misunderstanding of contextualization [namely, that it is equivalent to compromise] has led these people to argue that cultural reflection and contextualization are at best distractions, at worst sinful. They admonish us to abandon these things and focus simply on the Bible. While this sounds virtuous, it ends up being foolish for two reasons. First, as we’ve already seen, the Bible itself exhorts us to understand our times so that we can reach our changing world with God’s eternal truth. To not contextualize, therefore, is a sin. And second, we all live inescapably within a particular cultural framework that shapes the way we think about everything. So if we don’t work hard to understand our context, we’ll not only fail in our task to effectively communicate the gospel but we’ll also find it impossible to avoid being negatively shaped by a world we don’t understand” (Tullian Tchividjian, “Contextualization Without Compromise”).

Contextualization provides “philanthropy, urban renewal, artistic expression and social justice” as “an alternative methodology for presenting the message of the cross.”

I think my brothers entirely miss the point when proponents of contextualization talk about philanthropy and the arts and so on. Let me offer a few explanations of why we talk about the importance of these actions. First, we believe that faith without works is dead (James 2.14-26). Living out the message of the cross demands that we do good in our cultural context. Second, we don’t see these actions as an alternative to the Gospel message. We don’t even see them as opening the door so we can give the Gospel message. We believe that the truth of the Gospel message is truth which the world not only hears from our lips, but sees in our lives. Words without actions or actions without words are only half a Gospel. The greatest damage to the Gospel message in a culture comes from half-Gospel Christians.  Finally, we recognize that the same actions that, coupled with the words we speak, form the full-orbed Gospel message may not be the same for some Christians. Some blue collar communities have little use for the arts, but can see the Gospel contextualized via a bi-vocational pastor or through opportunities to use their talents for the church and the community. Just because language of urban contextualization causes you to bristle, doesn’t mean that there aren’t suburban or rural ways of doing the same thing!

“We conclude, then, that if it is true that we communicate to whole men, not simply to souls with ears, it is just as true that whole men communicate–not just souls with mouths or souls with hands. That is good theology, for we are told, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col. 3:17). That is also good communication theory because the silent language is now seen as a most integral part of the communication process. And that is good philosophy, for it simply makes good sense to refuse to separate a man from his deeds, or a man from his words, or a man’s words from a man’s deeds” (Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 91-92).

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