Tag Archives: evangelism

Why Should I Care About Contextualization?

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).

The Gospel

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).

What is Contextualization?

Over the past two years, I’ve become convinced that one of the great issues that Christians need to wrestle with and understand often goes unmentioned in our churches, conferences, and seminaries. Most of the literature on this issue is thirty to forty years old, and the average seminarian will only take a course or two that touch on this topic. Fortunately, I was blessed to attend such a course at my seminary.

This single most memorable course of my seminary training was co-taught by indologist David Cashin and the late biblical theologian William Larkin. Throughout these lectures, Dr. Cashin would introduce aspects of ethnology to the class and Dr. Larkin would explain how the Bible informed our contextualization to each of these facets of culture. Given the unique approach to the course, it was little surprise to me when I heard that this specific course at my seminary had been recognized for its superior academic quality by a national board. I left the course with a practical understanding of how to do contextualization and a passion to understand the practice better.

So my goal is to produce a series of articles that will help to explain my passion for the subject in order that my readers might also gain a similar appreciation for the effort. I believe that this seemingly dry and academic term needs to be understood and appreciated not just by missionaries or pastors but also by church members who want to live their faith in their culture. Contextualization functions as the foundation for preparing Christians to live missionally in their cultures. So to that end, I invite you to join with me in this study.

So let’s begin with an initial question: What is Contextualization?

In order to answer this question, we need to consider the history and applications of the term, some definitions, and the operating assumptions that we’ll be using in the forthcoming articles.

Modern History

The term “contextualization” as we’ll be using it originated in the post-WWII missions boom. In the scramble to engage the world with the Gospel, men and women became concerned with what their message and efforts would include. So in this cultural milieu evangelicals and liberals ended up locking horns over this challenging term. Liberals saw contextualization as entering a culture, looking for ongoing “redemption” (usually defined in terms of socio-cultural changes through politics or revolution), and adapting the Gospel message to support these changes. On the other hand, evangelicals saw contextualization as a means for connecting the entire Gospel message, as spoken and lived by missionaries, with a culture, regardless of cultural confrontation or reception. In this sense, liberal contextualization was markedly existential, lacking absolutes and biblical authority, and evangelical contextualization is definitionally dogmatic, resting on the absolute authority of the Word of God. While liberal contextualization focuses on finding truth in syncretism and dialogue with other cultures, evangelical contextualization focuses on the Apostolic work of communicating truth into other cultures. For further discussion of these paradigms, see Hesselgrave and Rommen, Contextualization, 144-157 and Engle, “Contextualization in Missions: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal”, GTJ 4.1, 85-91.

Suggested Explanations and Definitions

Hesselgrave: “Contextualization…is needed to make the message meaningful, relevant, persuasive, and effective within the respondent culture” (Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 86).

Hesselgrave & Rommen: “[Contextualization is] the attempt to communicate the message of the person, works, Word, and will of God in a way that is faithful to God’s revelation…in the teachings of Scripture, and that is meaningful to respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts.” (Contextualization, 200)

Hiebert: “Contextualization seeks to formulate and communicate universal truth (cognitive dimension), love (affective dimension), and holiness (moral dimension) revealed in Scripture in particular human contexts that are diverse and ever changing” (in Hesselgrave and Stetzer, Missionshift, 96)

Keller: “[Contextualization is] giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.” (Center Church, 89)

Kraft: “Biblically, the contextualization of Christianity is not simply to be the passing on of a product that has been developed once for all in Europe or America. It is, rather, the imitating of the process that the early apostles went through….Christianity is not supposed to be like a tree that was nourished and grew in one society and then was transplanted to a new cultural environment, with leaves,  branches and fruit that mark it indelibly as a product of the sending society. The gospel is to be planted as a seed that will sprout within and be nourished be the rain and nutrients in the cultural soil of the receiving peoples. What sprouts from the true gospel seed may look like quite different above ground from the way it looked in the sending society, but beneath the ground at the worldview level, the the roots are to be the same and the life comes from the same source” (“Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 404).

Moreau: “Contextualization is the process whereby Christians adapt the forms, content and praxis of the Christian faith so as to communicate it to the minds and hearts of people with other cultural backgrounds” (Missiology, 325)

Peters: “Contextualization properly applied means to discover the legitimate implications of the gospel in a given situation. It goes deeper than application. Application I can make or need not make without doing injustice to the text. Implication is demanded by a proper exegesis of the text” (“Issues Confronting Evangelical Missions” in Evangelical Missions Tomorrow, 169).

SIM Position Paper: “[Contextualization is] meaningful and appropriate cross-cultural transmission of Biblical truth, which is faithful to its original intent and sensitive to the culture.”

Assumptions Moving Forward

When I use the term in the forthcoming articles, I’ll be dealing with dogmatic contextualization as defined and implemented by evangelicals based on the Apostolic example. As we’ll see, there is still a great deal of discussion on the application of contextualization amongst evangelicals (we’ll get to various models of contextualization at some point). A simple definition of the term for the following articles will be: cross-cultural communication of God’s truth in an understandable and actionable manner.

In Memory of Dr. William Larkin

Does the Bible Belt Need the Gospel?

Wailing Wall in Jerusalem
Wailing Wall in Jerusalem

I have deep roots in the south. Although I was born in Baltimore, my family is all over the south. I graduated from high school, college, and seminary in the south. I know the south for better and for worse. And right now there’s all kinds of pressure for ministry-minded folks to move anywhere else besides the Bible Belt in order to do “real” ministry. While I’m not saying that I’ll never leave the south (or the USA), I’d like to take a moment to give a shout-out to fellow-ministers of the Gospel in the Bible Belt. Here are some reasons why I think ministering in my state of South Carolina is important, and why other southerners shouldn’t feel like less of Christians for advancing the kingdom in this spiritual “Jerusalem.”

The Bible Belt is largely a cultural phenomenon

The Bible Belt has a culture of tradition-based church attendance without strong accountability or appreciation for what the Church really is. Much of Christianity in the southern states of America is really a self-centered consumer social activity. If a church steps on toes or doesn’t fit someone’s preferences, they’ll move on in a skinny minute. Huge crowds that pack out the massive auditoriums across the south are often seen as indicators of a lack of need in this region, but the truth is that many churches are packed with good people who need the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Many of these people remain blinded to their need of Jesus because of their good lives, church attendance, Republican votes, etc. It’s a mission field of a different variety from other regions of the United States, but a mission field nonetheless.

The Bible Belt has a culture of biblical literacy without strong application of Scripture. It’s a culture of Sunday School teenagers who will walk away from the faith when they leave home.  It’s a society of “God bless you” friendships who need little reason stab their friends in the back and tear them down to others. It’s a culture of Bible verses and fish symbols on business signs, but where the shoddy ethics of Christians in business is often worse than their secular counterparts. There’s plenty of Jesus on the outside, but very little Jesus on the inside.

The Bible Belt is a culture where politics and Christianity are one and the same. Many southerners believe that the hope for culture can be found in politicians, laws, and court decisions. They’ve placed their faith in quasi-Christian political parties, in guns, in precious metals, and not so much in Jesus. While our politics sound so biblical, the fact is that our southern politics have become something of an idol instead.

The Bible Belt is rapidly changing and desperately needs Jesus

The southern states have been inundated over the past decade with manufacturing, distribution, and call centers. Cheap skilled labor has drawn thousands of global companies and employees from all over the planet. People from other nations and regions of the United States are traveling to the Bible Belt for jobs and for quality of life.

Immigration challenges on the southern border of the US have brought an influx of low-wage workers from the global south. Many counties in the Bible Belt speak more Spanish than English. Unfortunately, this has led to xenophobic politics rather than welcome and mission in the churches of the Bible Belt. The spiritual and social needs of the Hispanic communities is a high calling for the churches of the south.

Legal immigrants and national refugees have settled in large pockets due to low cost of living and strong job market. While we often think of New York City as the gathering-place of the nations, the truth is that tens of thousands of immigrants have settled in your southern state. The end result is that the second largest religion in most of the Bible Belt states is either Islam or Buddhism. What are we doing to develop relationships with these communities?

The overriding reason why we should take other people’s cultures seriously is because God has taken ours seriously. – John R.W. Stott

Local attitudes are shifting away from the strongly-held traditions. About 7 out of 10 kids raised in church are abandoning Christianity or church. There are plenty of reasons for this kind of departure, but it is primarily happening among a major Bible Belt demographic – white teens. Postmodernism is taking root rapidly. The assumption that southern culture and Christianity are permanently one and the same should never be a given. I’m not saying that we should fear these shifts, but I’m saying that we need to realize that the secularization of American culture has come to the south. Who will equip the church to understand and reach the secular postmodern millennials?

The Bible Belt Christians need to be called to kingdom work

Millions of Christians don’t have the option of moving out of the Bible Belt. At a time where jobs are hard to come by, we can’t simply live under the delusion that all the Christians in the south must just pick up and move to more needy areas in order to do Great Commission work.

The Christians in the Bible Belt need to be equipped for mission in their communities. As we’ve already seen, the Bible Belt communities are changing and cannot be seen as havens of the heavenly, but as neighborhoods of the needy (in many senses of the term). Bible Belt churches have a great opportunity to equip Christians to serve their changing culture. Churches in the Bible Belt are in dire need of evangelistic accountability and fervor in order to carry out mission. Reticence in the pew and bureaucracy from the pulpit has led to the Great Commission becoming the Great Omission in southern culture. It’s time to think about how to step out of the way and empower and urge all Christians to engage their communities.

Expect great things from God.  Attempt great things for God. – William Carey

Millions of Christians in the Bible Belt need to be equipped for mission around the globe. Think of the untapped resource for global impact which is bottled up in the communities of southern USA. And I’m talking about more than doing week-long mission trips or swiping your Visa to send others as traditional missionaries; I’m talking about preparation for and actualization in meaningful worldwide impact in innovative and direct ways.

The Bible Belt was important to the Apostles

The Apostles stayed in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). In spite of a call to evangelize outside of Jerusalem and in spite of an urgent need to do so, for some reason, the Apostles remained. A church of perhaps thousands of non-Hellenized believers needed to be discipled and equipped. While there was a need and a command given by Jesus to go on at some point, the Apostles saw the importance of working in the heavily reached and overwhelmingly religious city of Jerusalem first.

Paul stayed in Ephesus (Acts 19:8-10). Ephesus and the local environs rapidly became the Bible Belt of the first century, and Paul didn’t appear to see this as a negative thing. He spent over two years in the city, training and equipping this missional church to spread the Gospel to the neighboring cities. He would later send his colleagues to minister there, and John the Apostle also spent much time in ministry in this city. Instead of viewing the city as an “already reached” location and moving on, the leaders of the first century church viewed the city as an evangelistic hub for ministry and mission. At the same time, this didn’t keep these leaders from being realistic about the growing challenges of religiosity and traditionalism in the church there either (Revelation 2).

Concluding Explanation:

I’m not writing to the millions of believers who live outside the Bible Belt. I’ve seen many families move to the Bible Belt hoping that the Christian schools and good churches and godly society will rub off on their kids. But that’s the exception and not the rule around here. Don’t be enamored with this region of the country. As I’ve said, we’ve got a ton of problems down here. It’s no utopia.

I’m also not writing to those who have been called by God to minister elsewhere. Some of my good friends have had doors for ministry or vocation open outside the Bible Belt and have moved on to minister there. They’re doing some awesome kingdom work in these locations. I’ve always adopted a posture of “looking to leave, but willing to stay.” And if God’s will moves you to leave to other areas of the globe, you need to see this as an opportunity for a different sort of mission.

I am writing to the millions of Christians in the Bible Belt of the US. As long as God has you and me here, we shouldn’t feel discouraged about the sort of ministry that God has given us here. We shouldn’t see it as a utopia. We shouldn’t stop doing mission because we think our work here is done. We shouldn’t ignore the mission in our backyard, assuming that real mission only happens elsewhere. The Bible Belt needs the Gospel. And you and I must take the time that God has given us here to make a difference.