Tag Archives: 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.]

Unconscious Contextualization

I’ve read a great many writers and bloggers complaining about the ills of contextualization. Their critique is often leveled at fellow-conservatives such as Tim Keller, whose approach to contextualization heavily shapes his powerful Manhattan ministry. These critiques often assume that contextualization is merely a code-word for shallow “emergent” seeker-sensitivity or watering down or changing the Gospel message itself. They assume that contextualization pushes out the sovereignty of God through human means of evangelism, and often try to argue for some sort of excluded middle where appeals can be made toward just following the Bible or adhering to a set of doctrinal confessions. These sorts of criticisms may, in some cases, be rightly responding to abuses of contextualization where cultural syncretism has occurred, but the well-meaning response seems to assume that Christians don’t need to give contextualization or effective cultural communication a second thought.

I don’t have time to address all of these concerns in this article (I do intend to address syncretism shortly). But I want to take a few paragraphs to write about the danger of the “Unconscious Contextualizer.” What I mean when I describe persons/ministries like this is that contextualization always happens. Some of us contextualize intentionally and others do it unconsciously (Keller uses the idea of active versus passive contextualization in his book Center Church). The basic fact is that we’re all beholden to a set of norms that stem from our culture that shape our message in one way shape or form. Let’s evaluate these two approaches, examine two test cases, and draw a conclusion.

The Contrast: The Conscious Contextualizer

A Conscious Contextualizer examines the worldview, cognitive processes, linguistic forms, behavioral patterns, social structures, media influence, and motivational resources of his surrounding culture and engages them missionally (Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 120). He or she asks: “How can I take the teachings of God’s Word and explain them in a way that is understandable and actionable for someone who perceives, thinks, expresses, acts, interacts, communicates, and decides in these ways?” This is intentional contextualization.

“Every American Christian worships in a contextualized church. As much as we like to think of our churches as “New Testament churches,” there actually are no New Testament churches in existence today. Our cultural context is dramatically different from the world of the New Testament, and as a result, any modern church would look bizarre and alien to a first-century Christian” (“Putting Contextualization in its Place” in IX Marks e-Journal, Jul-Aug 2009).

The Challenge: The Unconscious Contextualizer

An Unconscious Contextualizer is conditioned from their background toward a particular way of thinking, expressing, acting, interacting, communicating, and deciding. Sometimes this particular set of cultural elements coalesces with those of the community with which the believer is called to minister to. Take, for example, many farming communities in the Midwest of the USA. In many of these communities, cultural shifts have been minimal and substantial homogeneity exists between the generations that still remain on their farms and work the land. Those who shift to new ways of thinking and acting, for example, are usually in the process of moving outward to other areas of employment or are drawn towards city centers that have shaped their new ways of thinking and acting. Thus, the older or younger pastor of a rural church in this area may never have to consciously contextualize in order to communicate the Gospel to this congregation and still be understood and responded to.

The Unconscious Contextualizer shapes the Gospel to appeal to his worldview, to seem logical to his cognitive processes, to communicate in his language, to apply to his actions (or to make his actions normative for others), to interact with his context, to use his preferred mediums of communication, and to be decided on his terms. Let’s unpack this last one.

A Challenge for the Unconscious Contextualizer: How a Culture Decides

Some of us came to Christ through a single confrontation with the Gospel message at which point we simply accepted that truth by faith. Many modern evangelists see their experience with the truth-claims of the Gospel as normative for others. They press people for a decision, claiming that failure to do so at that instant is tantamount to rejection of the message. This sort of modernist appeal holds strength with a sort of binary approach (i.e., either accept or reject). While I don’t doubt that accepting or rejecting the faith is the ultimate outcome of someone’s confrontation with the Gospel, we may be driving people to polarizing positions rather than being willing to see God work through immediate means. In other words, when we tell people that the only possible response to the message is acceptance or rejection, a more deliberative thinker will be tempted to either make (1) a meaningless outward response to your plea or (2) to strongly reject the message, which may alienate them towards further Gospel appeals.

When Paul preached to cultures that valued deliberation, he kept presenting them with the Gospel message and allowing them time and ability to deliberate over the truth of Scripture. Christians often laud the Berean Jews who searched the Scriptures every day in order to determine whether the Gospel that Paul brought was accurate (Acts 17.11). But would we appreciate this sort of thoughtful interaction if we were in a similar situation? The Berean Jews came to the ultimate decision of faith after the immediate response of deliberation. You or I may not have had such an experience in our response to the Gospel. So an Unconscious Contextualizer may overlook this possibility when they present the Gospel message, simply driving an unnecessary wedge between their hearers and the truths of Scripture by perceiving the culture’s deliberative postponement of the decision as procrastination or outright rejection. A Conscious Contextualizer will work to understand how people around him make important decisions and will make appeals that will allow people to respond to the Gospel in a way that they would make other major life decisions.

Another Challenge for the Unconscious Contextualizer: The Culture’s Worldview

I remember witnessing to an Asian woman. I was 12 and I was doing the best I could to explain Jesus and the Gospel message to her. Surprisingly, she exclaimed, “I want to trust Jesus right now!” I was thrilled with this opportunity to lead her in prayer. Before she prayed, she asked if she should remove her shoes, because that’s how she prayed to her gods. “Sure,” I replied before leading her in a sinners prayer. In the end, I walked away thrilled to have a Gospel impact, and she walked away never to darken the doors of a church that I knew of. Her polytheistic worldview allowed her to adopt Jesus as just another god in her system. As a 12-year-old who was telling her about the Gospel, I had grown up in a Christian home that taught and assumed monotheism and the resulting implications of this belief. So I simply couldn’t imagine that this Vietnamese woman would simply add Jesus to the list of gods and move on with her life. I had, though with the best of intentions, unconsciously contextualized the Gospel to my worldview and failed to missionally contextualize to her own.

Think with me about some key Gospel assumptions, where we may be using language that our audience doesn’t grasp:

  • Sin: violation of God’s law
    • Eastern Religions: an abstract or an illusion
    • Western Secularist: a social construct
  • God: Three-persons in one essence, eternal, and infinite.
    • Eastern Religions: often one of many, limited in power and scope.
    • Western Secularist: a product of evolutionary conditioning, either non-existent or highly improbable (and, if probable, silently deistic).
  • Christian: a follower of Jesus Christ
    • Easterners: perhaps seen in light of colonial abuses, crusades, or modern American cultural ills or national invasions.
    • Westerners: someone who holds an inferior ethic that abuses women and homosexuals.
  • Resurrection: Jesus was identified as the Son of God by coming to life from the dead.
    • Easterners: attributed to magic, spirits, spells, witchcraft, or the gods. Not improbable and not necessarily considered to be unique (e.g., a Buddhist has lived and died numerous times before now).
    • Westerners: impossible and ruled out by scientific assumptions.

I’ve only used two extremely broad worldviews to illustrate the problem here. You may feel that you have explained the Gospel very clearly so that someone from your background will understand it, but your audience may walk away with some very different conclusions. In a case such as this, have you really communicated the Christian Gospel?

Conclusion:

Most of us don’t have an option when it comes to contextualization. Culture is shifting all around us and few of us live in isolated locales that allow us to simply preach the Gospel with our standard lenses. Hesselgrave writes:

“Contextualization, then, is not simply nice. It is necessary. Without it, God’s truth would never have broken out of the Hebrew community and into the larger world. Indeed, without it, God’s truth would have remained locked up in His heaven — never communicated to, and never inscripturated for, even His chosen people.” (Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 85)

As God incarnated into our world, and as Jewish missionaries contextualized into the Greco-Roman world, we must stop catering to ourselves through unconscious contextualization and begin the humbling work of consciously contextualizing the Scriptures to the shifting cultures around us (Phil. 2.5-8). If the church adopts a thoroughgoing approach of unconscious contextualization, our churches will turn insular — full of transfer growth from other churches and employing insider-speak that confuses outsiders. If the church adopts a conscious contextualization model, we’ll begin seeing churches that thoughtfully interact with the cultures around them in order to uniquely communicate the Gospel in an understandable and actionable manner. But this means putting down our own glasses and beginning to learn what the world looks like through their own lenses.

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

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.

Evangelism

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.

Discipleship

“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

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).

Belief in the Gospel of John

The topic of belief in the Gospel of John is broad-ranging and difficult to construct a comprehensive approach to.  What seems to be the best approach is to begin lexically, by defining the words that John uses to describe belief.  After addressing the meaning of the words and their general Johannine usage, an attempt will be made to categorize the usage of the word and to explain the significance of these categories.  Finally, a brief application regarding the application of the concept to the life of the modern Christian will be offered.

Lexical

John uses three words for belief in his Gospel.  The primary word that John uses it the word πιστεύω.  This word is a verb and denotes the action of “consider[ing] something to be true and therefore worthy of one’s trust.”[1]  The word has a deep Hellenistic background and is used rather extensively in the LXX.  This usage was very precise and reliable, according to Kittel, who notes that “as the OT understands it, faith is always man’s reaction to God’s primary action.”[2]  And the Evangelist connects deeply with this Jewish background as he uses this word.  John pictures God as acting in the person of Jesus, and the required secondary action as that of belief.  The fact that John sees belief as action more than mere intellectual assent, shows up in his overwhelming use of the verbal form of the word to the utter neglect of the noun form.[3]

John does still us the adjectival and alpha privative adjectival forms of the word as well.  The words ἄπιστος and ἄπιστος only occur once each, and both of these occurrences appear within the same verse, 20.27.  This particular passage contains some interpretational challenges,[4] but serves to highlight Jesus’ call to His disciples to take their faith to the final level prior to His departure.  Throughout the Gospel, Jesus has been taking His disciples up a ramp of belief,[5] and in this final moment with Thomas, Jesus is perhaps calling on him, in this unique language, to persevere and cross the threshold of faith for himself.[6]

Contextual

Three particular factors should be noted in terms of the contextual usage of belief in John’s Gospel.  First, the word carries with it both positive and negative uses in various contexts.  While most of the negative contexts inherently include negative adverbs, some do not.  Of the 92 occurrences of the word, approximately 30% are in negative contexts, where individuals are refusing to respond in faith to the action of God through Jesus.  The other 70% are in positive contexts.

Second, the subject of the verb as used by John is worth considering.  There are six basic categories that the subjects of belief fall within.  First, there is Jesus himself in the anomaly of 2.24.  His trust in people is significant in His ministry approach.  Second, there is the first-person personal response of belief (I, we).  Third, there is the predominant second-person address either in indicative or imperative uses of the verb (you).  Fourth, there are universal subjects called to believe (all, the world, many, whoever, everyone).  This category is the second largest outside the second-person usage.  Fifth, there are large but defined groups (town, those who, they, the Jews).  Sixth, there are smaller defined groups or individuals (disciples, some, he, woman, the man, brothers, Pharisees, authorities).

Finally, the object or complement of the verb bears some consideration.  While a substantial percentage of the occurrences do not include an object or complement (23x or 25%), the remainder fall basically within six categories.  First, belief is to be placed in the person of Jesus with assent to who He is (him, in him, in the light, in Jesus, in his name, in the name, in me, in the Son, you, me, the one whom he has sent, that you sent me, that I am he, that you are the Christ, that Jesus is the Christ).  Second, belief is to be placed in the message of Jesus and the Scriptures (what he heard from us, the Scripture, the word, Moses, his [Moses’] writings, my words, this).  Third, belief must be placed in the signs of Jesus (the works, that the blind man had received sight).  Fourth, belief must be placed in the relationship between Jesus and the Father (in God, him who sent me, that you [the Father] sent me [Jesus], that I am in the Father, that the Father is in me, that I came from God, that you [Jesus] came from God).  Fifth, belief is caused or prevented by a number of realities (because you have seen me, because you are not my sheep, because we heard, because of his word, through him [John the Baptist]).  Sixth, belief of Jesus in the people shaped His earthly ministry (2.24 – them).

Practical

In conclusion, it is worth considering how this theme of belief impacts the Christian today.  Three main conclusions can be drawn when looking at this theme in John’s Gospel.  First, belief is important.  This is seen both in the repetition of the idea and the positive as well as negative contexts of the word.  Jesus is not merely suggesting that people should believe in him, but warns about condemnation if they do not (3.18).  Second, belief is a process.  Many are said to have faith who then later do not believe throughout the Gospel.  John is emphasizing the value of faith that endures.[7]  Third, belief is objective.  As seen in the objects of belief, above, belief involves trusting in some very specific things.  It is more than recognizing Christ as a good teacher, but it involves belief in His relationship with the Father, His message, signs, and character.


 

[1] Walter Bauer, Frederick William Danker, and William Arndt, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2001), 816.

[2] Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 182.

[3] Merrill C Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 304–305.

[4] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 657.  The basic issue is whether the phase should understand the adjectives adjectivally (“do not be faithless, but believing”) or substantivally (“do not be an unbeliever, but a believer”).

[5] Andreas J. Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters: The Word, the Christ, the Son of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 292.

[6] Andreas J. Köstenberger, John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 579.

[7] Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters, 292.