Category Archives: Contextualization

Contextualization: The Gospel and Your Neighbor

Have you ever thought that you’d like to discuss your Christian faith with someone, but you haven’t the slightest clue where to start? Have you ever hesitated to talk about your faith because you expect to already be pigeonholed as a bigot before anyone ever takes the time to understand where you’re coming from? Have you ever tried firing through the Romans Road or repeating a evangelistic plea that you’ve heard in church, only to get shut down right out of the gate? If you feel inadequate, ashamed, or frustrated in your attempts at talking about the faith that not only means the world to you, but also is the source for your entire understanding of how the world works, there is hope.

In this article, I’d like to share with you a method of discussing your faith that is simple to learn, built on developing mutual understanding, and non-combative. While this method confronts people with truth, it does so at their own pace and in an elicited manner rather than in a forced manner. In an increasingly post-Christian United States, where whipping out a tract or bringing up the Gospel in the workplace can get you fired, believers in Christ who see the Great Commission as binding on their lives must approach this responsibility with wisdom and tact. Our post-Christian culture also has created a vacuum of shared Christian pre-understandings. In other words, definitions of sin and grace and even stories in the Bible lack the clarity in our culture that they had in the middle to end of the last century. In light of these challenges, we need to improve our methods of sharing the Gospel. I’m not saying that we need to improve the Gospel. I’m saying that just as the Apostle Paul rarely used the same method twice in order to present the Gospel but, rather, adapted his presentation based on his audience, so should we.

I learned this method of sharing my faith while in seminary from Dr. Cashin, whom I’ve since interviewed on the topic of contextualization. With his permission, I’m presenting his method of engaging in Gospel conversations here on my blog with some adaptation. It is my hope that this simple approach will be helpful to those of you who, like me, struggle to discuss your faith with confidence.

This method seeks to build mutual understanding as a means to sharing your faith. Understanding our neighbors involves understanding their worldview. There are three legs of the stool of a person’s worldview: being, knowing, and doing. Ethnologists call these legs: ontology, epistemology, and axiology. Investigating these zones of your friend’s worldview requires that you ask questions–7 to be specific. And I know this doesn’t come easy. Most of the time, we’re so quick to share our answers, answers which others aren’t ready for or interested in hearing. Christians often struggle with asking questions when it comes to discussing our faith. We’re off the blocks too soon and our friends are still back at the starting line when we begin pushing for a decision. So slow down. Ask questions. Interview them. Write down their answers. I guarantee you that when you’re done, they will crave your input.

Galaxy

Being (Ontology):

First, it may be great to start with some questions on their views of human origin and destiny, and true power or success. If this isn’t a natural jumping-off point, feel free to start elsewhere, but these questions are often extremely thought-provoking. There are also a large number of questions in this category. Let’s begin:

Where do we come from?

In asking this question, it’s easy to get sidetracked into a discussion on the mechanics of where humans came from (apes, atom, age of rocks, etc.), but that isn’t the purpose of the question. Another way to ask this question may be, “If you pressed rewind on all of history and got all the way to the beginning of the recording, what would you find?” We want to discover whether our colleagues see everything that exists as the result of pre-existing matter/anti-matter or as the result of some sort of supernatural intervention. Usually people will self-sort as supernaturalist or naturalist based on their answer to this question. They will either view the stuff that they can see and touch and examine under a microscope as all that exists, or they will see the reality or possibility of someone/thing else standing aside or above all things and causing the stuff we see (ourselves included) to exist.

Where are we going?

The origin of humanity gives us answers to the direction of the race. This zoom-out question is designed to get at more than just our individual purpose, but in the end goal for all of humanity. The naturalist has no end-game. Someday, the earth will burn up or the stars will burn down and humanity will die out. Perhaps we escape for awhile, but in the end humanity is just a blip on the radar of a cold and dying universe. Or is there more to life? Is there something better to look forward to? Is there something terrible to dread? Is there something more deserving that awaits the Adolf Hitlers of this world who slip off into death in unpunished sleep? What is the end of humanity?

What is our ultimate meaning and purpose in life?

Here we take some time to understand our friend’s hopes and dreams. Do they want to leave money for the next generation? Do they hope to contribute to academia or sports so that they’re remembered beyond their lives? Do they feel that all that’s worth living for is another high, another one-night stand? What makes you tick and why? Getting to the bottom of this question helps us clarify the weight or value of what people see as the most important stuff in life.

What is the nature of our problem and how do we solve it?

Now, technically, this question assumes something, that there is a human problem. But I think it exposes a truism that underlies every human’s thinking. We all assume that something, somewhere got screwed up along the way. I mean, come on, if there wasn’t a problem with humanity you wouldn’t have Republicans and Democrats, right? And have you seen the way some people drive? Seriously! But to get real, we see some serious darkness in our world today: corporate greed, abortion, sex trafficking, injustice, and war, to name a few. Turn on the news and you’ll see that humanity has gone batty. But how it can be solved–that’s a question! Is there hope for broken humanity, and where do we find it?

How can we be successful in life and where does real power come from?

Success and power are intertwined. If success looks like achieving a certain level of wealth, then power=money. Understanding your friend’s view of power or success will help you understand what drives them. Materialism pushes us to see success in monetary terms. Naturalism forces people to define power or success in bettering others, gaining approval, or survival of the fittest. What about views of success that emphasize efforts such as philanthropy or social justice? What worldview do they fit with?

human brain on white background

Knowing (epistemology):

The next category which is helpful to discuss is the category of thinking that deals with how we use logic and sorting to come up with truth. Different cultures and generations have different methods for determining what is true.

How do you know what is true from what is untrue?

As you ask this question, you’re trying to probe the source of truth for this person. The typical postmodern will shrug this off with a neither/nor kind of response, but there are three follow-up questions that you can use to unpack this one:

  • How do you determine what is authoritative? The answer will be either subjective (“I think/feel”) or objective (“whatever science/authorities/a holy book says”). An alternative answer could assume the truth of a particular paradigm (e.g., “As a New England Republican I believe…”).
  • How do you determine what is unimportant? Spam, telemarketers, junk mail, pop-up, and so on, we all run into things in life that just have no appeal to us.
  • How do you rely on logic? Or, what arguments do you find persuasive? Some may rely more on linear logic (good for understanding math equations, IQ) while others may look to more analogical forms of reasoning (good for understanding more complex human problems, EQ). In other words, if you tend to start with “just the facts” in your reasoning, you’re probably a linear thinker. If you tend to start with relationships in your reasoning, you’re probably an analogical thinker.

ethics

Doing (axiology):

Asking questions about ethics is always going to elicit some kind of response. We all have strong views how people should behave. It’s one thing to claim that there’s no ontological self-existing standard of right and wrong, but it’s another thing to say that you don’t mind if someone robs you or rapes your wife. We all believe in right and wrong, but why and how do we determine it?

How do you know right from wrong?

Here are two followup questions that I use to probe this topic:

  • Do you feel that what’s right and wrong changes based on a person’s culture or their own value judgements, or is it more absolute and fixed?
  • What is your view on universal human rights? What about rights for women and the LGBTQ community? What about activities such as rape, sex trafficking, or bullying? In other words, are there universal human rights that protect individuals, or do cultures or individuals get to make up what’s right or wrong in these cases?

Offering dialogue…

Be respectful and let your friend answer the questions. Don’t immediately start telling them that they’re wrong or that they’ve contradicted themselves. Expect a few contradictions along the way. Many of us haven’t spent much time thinking through complex questions and answers such as these. When they’re done answering each main question and any followup questions, feel free to ask about what seems inconsistent to you. Your friend may have an explanation that makes sense to them. But if they don’t have an explanation, you’re allowing them to discover that the house doesn’t have a roof rather than trying to break the news to them yourself.

Answering these questions yourself…

At some point in this dialogue, you’ll probably be asked how you would answer these questions. I would recommend asking to wait until you’re done. You want to understand them first in order to show them respect. Tell your friend that you’d be happy to share your answers to the questions, but you’d prefer not to influence their thinking or responses.

As a Christian, I’ve formed opinions on these questions too, and when the time is right, it’s worth sharing your views on these. Here are my answers to the questions above:

  • Where do we come from? All material and immaterial things find their source in God. Rewind the clock of time and you’ll find God at the beginning–God and nothing else. As a Christian, I state with certainty that there is something beyond what I can see and taste and feel and hear and smell that miraculously created all there is.
  • Where are we going? Everything that moves is going somewhere, and the same is true with humanity. God created people in order to build a true community of worshippers among whom his love and presence will abide forever. The whole of human history and the future of our race is the story of that plan’s seeming failure and ultimate success.
  • What is our ultimate meaning and purpose in life?  The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Nothing else will satisfy. Nothing else is truly permanent.
  • What is the nature of our problem and how do we solve it? Our problem is the problem of sin. Humankind has rebelled against God and has destroyed the peace he created in this world. Because of this brokenness, we all lean on a “crutch” in order to make our way through life. But is our crutch, our solution, to the problem of humanity truly reliable? For the Christian, the solution lies in God’s restorative work whereby he sent his own Son to take the penalty for our rebellion in order that people and nature might be made right again.
  • How can we be successful in life and where does real power come from? Success and power are counterintuitive for a Christian. Success comes when we give up what we have, deny ourselves, and follow Jesus (Matthew 16.24-26). God is the source of all power. We achieve power, not by making Herculean efforts to make ourselves like God, but by humbling ourselves like Jesus (Luke 22.25-26).
  • How do you know what is true from what is untrue? All truth is God’s truth. A Christian goes out into nature expecting to find normative laws, because there is something fixed that holds the universe together from the outside. We expect to find that truth is objective. And God’s truth is both factual and relational. He demands faith, but points us in the right direction through what is true in our experience.
  • How do you know right from wrong? I know that murder or rape or bullying is wrong because God gave me (1) a conscience, (2) human government, and (3) divine revelation. Conscience and culture’s definitions of right and wrong are subservient to Scripture. As a Christian, I always have a timeless and culturally-transcendent objective moral standard which explains the inherent assumption of morality that we’re born with.

Contextualization: Perspective from an Ethnologist

[Dr. David Cashin is an indologist and Professor of Intercultural Studies in the Seminary and School of Ministry at Columbia International University. For nine years he and his wife Margareta served in Bangladesh as missionaries, church planters, educators and development workers with SIM International. He has published numerous articles and is a sought after speaker on the topics related to the Islam and missions.]

Throughout your ministry, is there a particular occasion when you had to consciously engage in contextualization in order to get the message across? If so, when?

My evangelistic approach is question based.  I seek to contextualize my witness every time by understanding where my person is at through these questions and then adapting the message to their assumptions (whether by way of critique or agreement).  This also takes place in the church environment when I do speaking.  The background of the Church may influence my approach.  Also when ministering in Sweden or Bangladesh I preach in the local languages which is a kind of contextualization.

What are some of the greatest challenges that the missionary faces in doing contextualization?

First, to avoid syncretism and being unfaithful to the text or to the ultimate identity of the new believers.  Second, dealing with his/her own assumptions about reality that may distort the message to the hearers.

What would you say to a missionary who claimed that they didn’t need to contextualize in order to communicate to the target culture?  

This attitude would be both absurd and unbiblical.  God contextualized to us in Jesus who became fully man.  If we imitate Jesus we contextualize, period.  I call it absurd because you can’t be in the vicinity of a person to minister without being in “his context” to some degree.  The issue is, what principles do you bring to the unavoidable process of contextualization?  How do you do it well, rather than badly?

How should contextualization shape the ministries of American churches and Christians in their cultural contexts?

I think [American] Christians need to be aware of the assumptions that our culture brings to the table:

  1. Relativistic
  2. Self-focused in terms of authority
  3. Evolutionary with some key contradictions and inconsistencies.
  4. The very system that they follow leads to the selfishness which they generally identify as humanity’s biggest problem.

Contextualization: Perspective from a Church Planter

[Micah Colbert has served as a church planter in two continents. He’s worked as a missionary in Ghana for 4 years. He currently serves as Lead Pastor of Gospel Life Church, a multi-ethnic, Gospel-centered church plant in Buffalo, NY.]

Throughout your ministry, is there a particular occasion when you had to consciously engage in contextualization in order to get the message across? If so, when?

A conscientious minister of the gospel is always involved in the practice of contextualization in order to communicate his message. Why? Because context determines meaning. If I am not aware of my context, then the message I am seeking to communicate and the hearer’s interpretation of what I am saying may be two dramatically different things.

What are some of the greatest challenges that the missionary faces in doing contextualization?

One of the greatest challenges missionaries face in practicing contextualization is taking the time to thoroughly immerse themselves in the “life context” of the people. This requires a tremendous amount of humility (becoming a learner before taking on the role of a teacher), patience, and a willingness to break out of one’s comfort zone.

What would you say to a missionary who claimed that they didn’t need to contextualize in order to communicate to the target culture?

I would say, “DON’T GO… for the glory of God, the cause of truth, and the good of the people, DON’T GO!!!!”

How should contextualization shape the ministries of American churches and Christians in their cultural contexts?

Being aware of our cultural context enables us to communicate truth in a way that “hits home” for our listeners. People of all generations want to see how God’s eternal truths relate to the daily grind of work, relationships, etc. Ministries that are “out of touch” simply cannot make disciples who penetrate their spheres of influence with the gospel.

Objections to the Results of Contextualization

The first half of the objections we’ve overviewed centered on perceived errors in the methodology of contextualization. In this article, I’d like to address the perceived errors in the results or aims of contextualization.

Contextualization produces personality cults

I guess the snarky side of me would reply that if contextualization results in personality cults, Paul and Apollos must have contextualized par excellence (1 Cor. 3.4).  But in all honesty, I’ve seen plenty of churches that don’t consciously contextualize to the culture around them and still form into personality cults. I tend to think that personality cults either result from pride in the leadership (which can enter when one contextualizes well or when one bucks contextualization) or from idolatry in the congregation (as in Corinth). I don’t think we can make a 1:1 correlation between contextualization and personality cults.

Contextualization will never attract the world

There are so many errors in this claim, but let’s deal with the obvious ones. First, attracting the world isn’t the aim of contextualization. Our goal is communication to those in our culture. Second, with this objection, we’re back to this sort of angst over the use of means in order to communicate the Gospel. No one ever said that because we’re doing what the Apostles did that we’re going to get apostolic results. Our goal is obedience to the Great Commission and faithfulness to the presentation of the Gospel as shown in the Scriptures. The results are God’s. Lastly, although I hesitate to argue to the contrary (in order that someone were to assume that I’ve proven a result orientation), I think it should be noted that contextualized ministries tend to see great organic growth rather than the transfer growth of ministries that don’t consciously contextualize. I’ve mentioned Tim Keller’s church before, and I think that the way in which Redeemer Presbyterian is able to communicate and connect the Gospel with men and women who should have hit all sorts of roadblocks in terms of worldview in other ministries is nothing short of impressive. This shocking effectiveness of contextualization as a God-ordained means to communicate the Gospel makes me wonder if lack of intentional contextualization is partly to blame for so many churches’ abject failure to fulfill the Great Commission.

Contextualization changes the shape of the church every generation and excludes generational outsiders

Several observations: First, the shape of the church has always changed with the culture around it. Even the Anabaptists (Mennonites) changed with culture until the 19th century. Our churches are inherently culturally-bound expressions of Christianity in community. We can, Amish-like, revere and contextualize to a holier era of the past or we can missionally speak truth into our own era. God didn’t drop down a heavenly cookie cutter in order to make a series of identical churches from the first century until now. He gave us the organic makeup of the Church in Christ and the structure of the Word upon which it flourishes. And that’s why a church in Jerusalem didn’t look like a church in Colossae. And a church in Greer, SC doesn’t look like a church in Cape Town or Berlin or Hong Kong.

Contextualization has resulted in shallowness and sin among young evangelicals

Real contextualization is a focus on the clarity of the communication of the Gospel message into the sitz im leben of the culture around us. I honestly struggle to see how clarity of the Gospel results in shallowness and sin! I think I have an idea of what these generic fears are reflective of. They are fears of the big box church down the street that holds concerts for teens and college students. You and I see tons of people filter through these churches and then practice sin in their daily lives. I would argue that (a) the practices of individuals do not always align with the teachings of their churches, (b) the percentage of non-practicing but professing Christians in these churches is probably roughly the same as in smaller traditional churches, but the number is higher, and (c) there’s a great likelihood that the feel good churches aren’t really practicing biblical contextualization, because biblical contextualization communicates even the truths that people don’t want to hear in language and forms toward which they can respond understandingly. When contextualization is practiced (not simply accommodation or syncretism), Christians and non-Christians are confronted with the life-changing message of the Gospel.

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).

Contextualization: Perspective from a House Church Leader from China

[This house church leader is preparing to return to China following his seminary training in the United States. He asked that his name not be used for privacy/security reasons upon returning to China.]

Throughout your ministry, is there a particular occasion when you had to consciously engage in contextualization in order to get the message across?

That’s for sure. I don’t think I ever compromised the message, but the methodology has to be contextualized and consciously designed to get the message across.

And in China the house church has to survive under modest persecution. So the worship form is contextualized. We don’t do public baptism and Lord’s Supper, and I sit when I preach (if I stand, I am preaching, but if I sit, then it’s just teaching. So it will be difficult to identify as a church).

As to evangelism, we use narrative explanations more often than abstract reasoning. We don’t use ‘4 spiritual laws’ kind of things.
There isn’t attractive model of service to draw people to the church, so we have to depend on relationships.

What are some of the greatest challenges that the you faced in doing contextualization?

You’ll need years of practice in order to conquer the culture and language barriers. Sometimes it’s a shock to see that some of the evangelistic methods that have been effective and used for a long time lose its power. I often attempted to train people to use my methods of evangelism but they cannot use them effectively.

In my experience, the young generations of Chinese who have higher education tend to accept western culture and adapt their thought and behavior very well. A “foreign religion” like Christianity is attractive to them. But, still, the message needs contextualization to proclaim well.

What would you say to a missionary who claimed that they didn’t need to contextualize in order to communicate to the target culture?

If I met someone in the field who claimed that statement, I would like to see their fruits of their ministry. Maybe we have a different definition of contextualization, but I probably would say to them that they are wasting their time and resources to walk in a hard road.

How should contextualization shape the ministries of American churches and Christians in their cultural contexts?

I am involved in an international ministry here in the US, and understanding the target culture and contextualizing the message is crucial for the ministry here as well. The church should train their people in a contextualization mindset, and think of creative ways to reach out people in their cultural contexts.

[To see the other articles on contextualization, click here.]

Dangerous Contextualization

As we continue our examination of this topic, it’s important to consider the risks as well as the rewards. In my last article, I noted that, on the one hand, there is a danger of unconsciously contextualizing to ourselves and not really communicating the Gospel message to our hearers. On the other hand, there is the risk of syncretism, which I’ll address in this article.

What is Syncretism?

“Syncretism is the mixing of Christian assumptions with those worldview assumptions that are incompatible with Christianity so that the result is not biblical Christianity” (Kraft, “Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 405).

“Syncretism…[is] the loss of critical and basic elements of the gospel in the process of contextualization and their replacement with religious elements from the receiving culture” (Larkin, Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics, 153, summarizing the conclusions of the Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization in 1973).

“[Syncretism is] the replacement of core or important truths of the gospel with non-Christian elements” (Moreau, “Syncretism,” in The Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions).

Why the Concern?

Contextualization begins with the burden to communicate the Gospel and to make it understandable and actionable in a particular culture. Those who engage in this process have already parted ways with those who are only concerned to communicate the Gospel to a churched subculture or to win converts to a particular culture rather than to Christ by clearly communicating his Gospel. But as we engage in this process, we could end up in the self-defeating result of failing to communicate the true Gospel again.

But not only does syncretism make us fall prey to the same problem that we set out to avoid, it also puts us in the position of adding to Christ alone. In fact, that’s really the problem with both extremes. The unconscious contextualizer refuses to bend his cultural assumptions in order to humbly minister to others; ultimately, they force people to accept Jesus+a subculture. The syncretist bends the Gospel to a target subculture in a noble effort to minister to others, but they only end up adding Jesus+an incompatible worldview.

Colossians 2 warns us against taking such an approach. By adapting Christianity to the elemental spirits and religious practices of the surrounding culture, the Colossian church was in danger of abandoning Christ. Although their efforts, no doubt, came with the best of intentions, they had surrendered the true value of the Gospel in their syncretism. So what is the difference between Paul’s contextualization at Mars Hill and elsewhere and the syncretism that we see in Colossians? In other words, how does the necessary work of contextualization turn into syncretism?

When does Contextualization Turn into Syncretism?

When, whether intentionally or unintentionally, we cause Christian practices to take on non-Christian meanings. For example, erroneous teachings regarding prayer can easily take hold in particular cultures. Do people end up understanding prayer as a means to good luck or to force God’s hand to give us success? These misunderstandings are the result of syncretism either in the understanding of the recipients or in the explanation of the teachers. Understanding the proclivities of various cultures to misunderstand essential Christian activities like prayer, baptism, worship, or communion will help us avoid syncretism.

When cultural accommodations violate the clear commands of Scripture. In an American context, attempts to muddy the Bible’s teaching on objective morality (e.g., homosexual practices) have resulted in sub-Christian teaching. Although this could be argued as a form of contextualization, it would seem clear that the explicit violation of moral precepts rules this as a case of syncretism. We do need to exercise caution with this critique. There are many legitimate exercises of contextualization (i.e., local dress, emotional expressions, or musical styles) that have been addressed under this head; however, in lieu of an explicit biblical command or form, we need to avoid prescribing cultural confines on Christian practice in the ever-changing cultures around us.

When the uniqueness of the Christian Gospel is traded for closer relationships with other world religions or secularism. One example of this approach is the avoidance of the description of Jesus as “the Son of God” in Muslim contexts. The sensitivity of some missionaries to Muslim misunderstandings of the Trinity have led to avoidance of this construction; however, by avoiding this designation, the resultant teaching is sub-Christian. In the secular culture of America, it is easy for Christians to soft-pedal or discount the supernatural acts in Scripture. Cultural accommodation of modernism in the church led to the splintering of mainline liberal denominations and evangelicals in the early 20th century.

Principles for Avoiding Syncretism:

  •  Remember that the goal of effective contextualization is cross-cultural communication in an understandable and actionable manner, not communication that gains the most results or the greatest popularity. Although good contextualization may result in an honest rapport where the messenger and message are respected in the end, this shouldn’t be our aim. While we  certainly believe that God has called us to present his Gospel to the nations and that we aren’t excused from shoddy attempts to do so, we’re under no delusion that the best efforts will present quantifiable results.
  • Remember the non-negotiable truths. Although Christians in your culture may have piled up a number of cultural and negotiable applications, you need to be able to cut through these and hold a firm grasp on what must remain unmovable. Ultimately, if it comes down to flexing the core of the Gospel message and fighting the culture, the culture must be confronted every time.
  • Root yourself in historical and missional theology. By reminding yourself of the historical vein of orthodox theology and the varying approaches to missions within that paradigm throughout church history, you’ll gain a clearer perspective on how to approach your target culture. I know that it’s a little cliche to say that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but I think the lesson is paramount. For an insightful period of history, I’d recommend reading about the German church during the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler.
  • Understand your target culture from two angles. We’ll get into this more in later articles, but you must approach the culture asking: (1) What in this culture is the result of the law of God written on their hearts? And (2) what in this culture is the result of the fall? In asking both of these questions, you’ll begin to see that particular elements in the culture will lend themselves to effective Gospel communication, and other elements must be confronted by a clear and contextualized Gospel message. Missionaries who omit either of these perspectives either end up solely attacking the surrounding culture or solely adopting that culture.
  • Deepen your grasp of the traditions and practices in your culture. Missionaries often tell me that one of the most difficult struggles they have is understanding which practices pose a threat to the Gospel and which don’t. For example, in some eastern cultures, a dead person is positioned facing the door when in a home for a funeral. The ancient purpose for this practice apparently was out of fear that an evil spirit would enter the corpse and that the zombie wouldn’t be able to exit (*gasp*). When people insisted on facing the corpse toward the door in the church, what was the missionary to do? Was it syncretism in order to accommodate the local custom? Although the missionary had done a deep dive into the history of his target culture, he paused to question the people that he ministered to. As he began asking questions, he discovered that the people had no clue about the underlying fears of zombie corpses. They had just always done it that way! Because the missionary wasn’t content to just understand his culture from the European history books but through the lens of his people, instead, he was able to accommodate the local customs without the danger of syncretism. This little vignette is reminiscent of the attempts in American churches to tie modern musical forms to animistic practices in Africa. If the cultural practices do not carry a meaning to the people that violates Scripture, it is not the missionary’s job to try to construct such a meaning. On the other hand, if the practices do carry such a problematic meaning, it is our job to confront the culture.
  • Commit yourself to the centrality and exclusivity of the Gospel in your ministry. With Christ, you and the people you love have everything; without Jesus, you and the people you minister to have nothing. If your practice of contextualization misleads or muddies the clarity or the potency of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, you must repent and turn back to the Gospel. Hope doesn’t come through mass conversions to a fuzzy gospel or through poverty relief that just ends at that. Hope comes through Jesus.

Conclusion:

As we continue our overview of this topic, I’ll be discussing contextualization with the assumption that syncretism, as we’ve defined it, isn’t present. I think this is essential for the purposes of implementation and discussion. I’ll leave you with this thought-provoking statement:

“Though the risk of syncretism is always present when Christians attempt to inculturate Christianity, it is a risk that needs to be taken in order that people experience New Testament Christianity” (Kraft, “Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 405).

[To see the previous three articles on contextualization, click here.]