Have you ever tried to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language? It can be frustrating if you are the one trying to communicate, and yet find yourself unable to get your point across. But it can be humorous, and even borderline hysterical, to watch somebody else struggle with the same challenge.
Consider the example of an American trying to communicate directions to a foreign visitor who can understand very little English. The well-intentioned American is frustrated, wanting to assist the visitor, but unable to get the visitor to understand the directions. Invariably, the American intuitively thinks the visitor will be able to understand better if he increases the volume of the communication, so he says “Ma’am, the GROCERY STORE IS THREE BLOCKS DOWN, THEN TWO BLOCKS TO THE LEFT!!!” In the midst of our perfervid attempt to communicate, we lose sight of the fact that the other person heard us just fine the first time. The problem isn’t volume but comprehension.
I use this example because communication is a significant part of a topic I examine in my new ebook, A Pocket Guide to Christianity and Culture—contextualization. Each of us must properly contextualize the gospel; we must situate the gospel appropriately in a particular cultural context. And a large part of contextualization is communication. In order for us to faithfully carry a message from person to person, we must overcome every cultural barrier, language being one among many. Not only that, we must receive the message from another culture, the original context of the gospel, and comprehend it in our own cultural context.
So now, let’s examine together how we can proclaim and embody the gospel in the midst of human cultures. This process, often referred to as “contextualization,” is one of the most hotly debated in the theological world. As Hiebert points out,
On the one hand, the gospel belongs to no culture. It is God’s revelation of himself and his acts to all people. On the other hand, it must always be understood and expressed within human cultural forms.
In this brief article, we will discover that Scripture provides us examples of contextualization, that contextualization is inevitable, and that in order to contextualize well, we must proclaim and embody the gospel in ways that are faithful, meaningful and dialogical.
Contextualization and the Gospel
The New Testament provides abundant examples of theology conceptualized and communicated contextually. The four Gospel writers shaped their material for engaging particular communities of readers. In addition, Paul shaped his sermons and speeches according to each particular context. An examination of his sermons in Acts 13 (to a Jewish Diaspora), Acts 14 (to a crowd of rural animists), Acts 17 (to the cultural elite of the Areopagus), and his testimonies in Acts 22 (to a mob of Jewish patriots) and Acts 26 (to the elite of Syria-Palestine) reveals Paul’s deft ability to communicate the gospel faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically in a variety of settings.
In Acts 17, for example, Paul preaches to the cultural elite on Mars Hill. In so doing, he was first and foremost faithful to God’s revelation. He spoke of God’s creation of the world, God’s sovereignty and providence over his world and finally God’s judgment through Christ Jesus who was resurrected from the dead. The core of his message remained unchanged.
Second, Paul spoke in a manner that was meaningful to his audience’s socio-cultural and situational context. He referenced the altar to the unknown god, quoted the pagan intellectuals Aratus and Epimenides the Cretan (v.28) and referenced multiple Stoic and Epicurean convictions. As Eckhard Schnabel has pointed out, Paul established meaningful “points of contact” to share his message — including his description of God (vv.22-23, 24-28), critique of man-made temples (v.24), critique of sacrifices (v.25), humanity’s search for God (vv.27-28) and critique of idol images (v.29).
But finally, Paul also communicated in a dialogical manner. Although he began with points of contact, he did not end there. Over and again, Paul corrected pagan idolatry by showing how the Scriptures subvert and overthrow pagan idolatry as manifested in their literature, philosophy, and theology. Schnabel references nine clear points at which Paul contradicted the pagans in his Mars Hill Sermon. Although Paul began by using some categories familiar to the Athenians and answering some questions they likely would have raised, he followed through by also introducing them to biblical categories and answering questions that they had not raised.
The call to contextualize the gospel is not limited to dramatic scenarios such as the one portrayed in Acts 17. Just as the four Gospel writers shaped their books for engaging particular communities of readers, and just as Paul fashioned each of his sermons and speeches according to a particular context, so we communicate the gospel contextually.
The gospel is always expressed in cultural forms and cannot be otherwise.
Vanhoozer puts it this way: “Disciples do not follow the gospel in a vacuum but wend their Christian way through particular times and places, each with its own problems and possibilities.” In other words, contextualization is not just for missionaries. We all do it.
Indeed, one Central Asian mission leader explains,
American Christians have a tendency to think of contextualization as something missionaries and overseas Christians do ‘over there,’ and many serious Christians in the Western world worry about how far non-Western churches go in their contextualization efforts. However, in reality, every Christian alive today is actively involved in contextualization. Every American Christian worships in a contextualized church.
Christianity is and always has been believed and practiced contextually.
The question is not whether we will contextualize; the question is whether we do it appropriately or not.Click to tweet
Indeed, every church contextualizes by the type of building and décor it chooses and the style of music it plays. Every preacher contextualizes by choosing, for example, a form of rhetoric, a way of relating to others, and a manner of clothing. The mission leader continues,
The question is not whether or not we are going to do it. The question facing every believer and every church is whether or not they will contextualize well. Anyone who fails to realize that they are doing it, and who fails to think it through carefully and Biblically, simply guarantees that they will probably contextualize poorly. Syncretism can happen as easily in Indiana or Iowa as it can in Indonesia!
The question is not whether we will contextualize; the question is whether we do it appropriately or not. In order to proclaim the gospel and plant churches in an appropriately contextual manner, we must follow Paul’s example by proclaiming and planting in three ways: faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically.
This post is a modified excerpt from the new FREE ebook, A Pocket Guide to Christianity and Culture. Get it for free by signing up below.
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 The word “contextualization” first appeared in 1972 in Ministry in Context, a publication of the Theological Education Fund. Dean Gilliland points out that their concern was that “both the approach and content of theological reflection tend to move within the framework of Western questions and cultural presuppositions, failing to vigorously address the gospel of Jesus Christ to the particular situation.” This text described contextualization as “the capacity to respond meaningfully to the gospel within the framework of one’s own situation. Dean Gilliland, “Contextualization,” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, ed. A. Scott Moreau (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 225.
 Hiebert, Anthropological Insights, 30.
 F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 242.
 Eckhard Schnabel, Paul the Missionary (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), 171.
 Ibid., 174-183.
 Vanhoozer, “What is Everyday Theology?,”16.
 Central Asia mission leader, “Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt. 1),” http://betweenthetimes.com/2008/08/28/guest-blog-by-central-asia-rl-biblical-foundations-and-guidelines-for-contextualization-pt-1/.