What is Contextualization? Presenting the Gospel in Culturally Relevant Ways
The topic of contextualization arises frequently in contemporary discussions on missiology and ecclesiology. Although it is sometimes controversial, contextualization remains a critical component of effective Gospel communication. The New Testament models the importance of healthy contextualization, and the history of Christian missions displays the need for contextualization.
In this research brief, I will discuss the process of contextualization. I will explain the nature of human culture, the definition of contextualization, contextualization’s final goal, and cautions that we should consider before we start contextualization.
Contextualization involves an attempt to present the Gospel in a culturally relevant way. For this reason, discussions about contextualization are connected to discussions about the nature of human culture; we cannot separate the two.
When describing culture, I like the definition offered by Harvie M. Conn in The Evangelical Dictionary of Missions. Conn writes,
We use the term ‘culture’ to refer to the common ideas, feelings, and values that guide community and personal behavior, that organize and regulate what the group thinks, feels, and does about God, the world, and humanity. It explains why the Sawi people of Irian Jaya regard betrayal as a virtue, while the American sees it as a vice. It undergirds the Korean horror at the idea of Westerners' placing their elderly parents in retirement homes, and Western horror at the idea of the Korean veneration of their ancestors. It is the climate of opinion that encourages an Eskimo to share his wife with a guest and hides the wife of an Iranian fundamentalist Muslim in a body-length veil. The closest New Testament approximation for culture is kosmos (world), but only when it refers to language-bound, organized human life (1 Cor. 14:10) or the sin-contaminated system of values, traditions, and social structures of which we are a part (John 17:11).
In light of this definition, I have written, “What this means is that ‘culture’ itself is not evil, but a composite of good and evil (as understood biblically) values and vocations, customs and creations, beliefs and behaviors that characterize a particular people in a particular place.”
Unfortunately, not all evangelicals understand culture in this manner. Some evangelicals mistakenly believe that Scripture’s warnings against the world, the kosmos, are warnings against culture itself. However, this is not the case. All people are fashioned in the image of God and are recipients of common grace. This means that we should expect to find some positive features present in every culture, even non-Christian cultures. At the same time, every person has sinned, and we should expect to find some negative features present in every culture. Instead of shunning culture completely, we should instead engage culture with care and discernment.
The Importance of Understanding Culture
Discussions about culture are unavoidable; all people live in a culture of some sort. There is no neutral position, one that might allow a person to stand in a cultural vacuum and make objective pronouncements on the cultures of others. All people, whether they realize it or not, are shaped by the culture in which they live.
Culture even shapes a person’s reception of the Christian faith. Andrew Walls has written well on this issue:
No one ever meets universal Christianity in itself: we only ever meet Christianity in a local form and that means a historically, culturally conditioned form. We need not fear this; when God became man he became historically, cultural conditioned man in a particular time and place. What he became, we need not fear to be. There is nothing wrong in having local forms of Christianity--provided that we remember that they are local.
With this statement, Walls does suggest that the Christian Gospel is merely the product of a particular culture (or that it is only “true” in particular cultures). The teachings of Christianity remain objectively true in all times and in all places. Walls merely argues that we receive the truths of Christianity wrapped in the baggage of a particular cultural context. As I have put it, “Contextualization matters because we are not eternal, timeless, and a-cultural. Some of the ways we worship, how we present eternal truths, and how we live in and relate to society all must be considered. We live in a culture. How we see things, understand them, and present them to others must take culture into account.”
A failure to understand this point can actually lead to a form of cultural imperialism. A person might begin to believe that his culture’s way of practicing Christianity is the only way to practice Christianity. Should such a person begin to minister in a different culture, he will inadvertently share not only the Gospel but also his cultural traditions. This action would be unhelpful; it would try to force a distant culture onto potential converts.
Definition and Biblical Defense
The process of contextualization takes these facts about culture into account. It involves “presenting the unchanging truths of the gospel within the unique and changing contexts of cultures and worldviews.” Dan Gilliland offers a full definition of contextualization. He defines contextualization as a tool “to enable, insofar as it is humanly possible, an understanding of what it means that Jesus Christ, the Word, is authentically experienced in each and every human situation." Such a tool is necessary because “while the human condition and the gospel remain the same, people have different worldviews which in turn impact how they interpret themselves, the world and the things you say.”
Scripture offers much support for this concept of contextualization; it is on display in the ministries of both Jesus and Paul. For his part, Jesus lived his earthly life in Palestine as a first-century Jew. He entered the culture of his day and “was so thoroughly a part of His culture that, when being betrayed by Judas, He had to be identified by a kiss.” Jesus’ ministry therefore displays a strong incarnational model; he not only took on human flesh, he also accepted a specific cultural context.
Paul’s ministry also reveals the need for contextualization, perhaps most notably in his sermons recorded in Acts. Paul intentionally addressed his Jewish listeners one way but addressed pagan philosophers differently. When he addressed Jews, Paul began with Scripture. When he addressed Gentiles, he began with general revelation. The focus of Paul’s sermons remained the same—the Gospel. However, Paul shifted his presentation of the Gospel to fit the worldviews of his listeners.
Contextualization, then, is simply about sharing the Gospel well. Those who deliberately practice the process of contextualization desire to have an element of intentionality in their Gospel sharing; they desire to share the Gospel in way that is most relevant to the culture they are addressing.
Models of Contextualization
One can contextualize the message of the Gospel well or poorly, and it is important to know not only the need for contextualization but also how to engage in the process appropriately. Paul Hiebert has helpfully suggested that there are four levels of contextualization: no contextualization, minimal contextualization, uncritical contextualization, and critical contextualization. The no contextualization approach understands the Christian faith as something that is not a part of human culture; it rejects the notion that culture shapes how one receives and practices Christianity. The minimal contextualization approach acknowledges that differences exist between cultures, but it tries to limit cultural adaptation as much as possible. Under this model, missionaries might translate the Bible into a foreign language but will likely arrange new church plants in a fashion similar to the churches in their home country. Uncritical contextualization tends to prioritize culture over the Gospel. It minimizes the eternal truths found in Scripture in order to emphasize cultural convictions and practices.
Critical contextualization seeks a balanced approach. In the words of Hiebert, in critical contextualization the Bible is seen as divine revelation, not simply as humanly constructed beliefs. In contextualization the heart of the gospel must be kept as it is encoded in forms that are understood by the people, without making the gospel captive to the contexts. This is an ongoing process of embodying the gospel in an ever-changing world. Here cultures are seen as both good and evil, not simply as neutral vehicles for understanding the world. No culture is absolute or privileged. We are all relativized by the gospel.
Out of all of these approaches, contemporary Christians should prefer critical contextualization. This approach preserves the truths found in the Gospel while also taking into account cultural differences.
Several missiologists and theologians have offered suggestions as to how Christians can practice a critical approach to contextualization. John Thorn lists six steps: be present, practice discernment, develop your theology, find courage, speak clearly, and love. I like to explain that when examining a culture, Christians must decide what parts to accept, what parts to reject, and what parts to redeem for Christ. I believe this assessment tool will allow Christians to contend for the faith as they contextualize the Gospel message.
The goal for contextualization is to create “indigenous expressions of gospel-centered, mission-shaped churches.” Describing what an indigenous church might look like, Allen Tippet writes that when the indigenous people of a community think of the Lord as their own, not a foreign Christ; when they do things as unto the Lord, meeting the cultural needs around them, worshipping in patterns they understand; when their congregations function in participation in a body which is structurally indigenous; then you have an indigenous church.
Though this indigenized church might look radically different from a church in a different culture, it can be a faithful ambassador of the Gospel within its own cultural context.
Two Dangers to Avoid
I warn that contemporary Christians must avoid two pitfalls in regards to contextualization—obscurantism and syncretism. Obscurantism occurs when a person “confuses the gospel with some idea or expression external to the gospel.” For example, a person might believe that certain musical genres or evangelistic methods are essential features of the Christian faith.
Syncretism is the opposite error. It is the “mixing of Christianity with something else.” In an attempt to contextualize the Gospel, some Christians might uncritically accept the religious convictions of a particular culture. Should they believe and present these religious convictions in a manner that distorts or denies the Gospel, they are guilty of syncretism.
I offer three suggestions for those who seek to avoid these two dangers. I instruct readers to conduct an honest self-evaluation, develop an awareness of the history of the church, and maintain a focus on the Gospel. I also commend a document prepared by the International Mission Board. I have attached that document as an appendix to this brief.
Contextualization is an important component of effective Gospel ministry. The Gospel is an eternal, transcultural reality, but it comes to us within the context of a human culture. Contemporary Christians should carefully seek to discern the difference between Gospel truth and cultural tradition. They should then present the Gospel in a manner that is culturally relevant, taking care to practice the cautions I outline here. By doing so, they can create effective, indigenous churches.
APPENDIX: PRINCIPLES OF CONTEXTUALIZATION
1. We affirm that the Bible is the only infallible text that exists. It is appropriate to evaluate all other books by the Bible. We encourage our personnel to search the Scriptures daily to see whether the principles presented by any text or teacher are true (Acts 17:11). Content that is in accord with biblical truth should be embraced. What is contrary to sound doctrine should be rejected.
2. We affirm that there is a biblical precedent for using "bridges" to reach out to others with the Gospel (Acts 17:22-23). The fact that Paul mentioned an aspect of the Athenians' idolatrous worship was not a tacit approval of their entire religious system. He was merely utilizing a religious element of their setting (an altar to an unknown god) to connect with his hearers and bridge to the truth. Similarly, our personnel may use elements of their host culture's worldview to bridge to the Gospel. This need not be construed as an embracing of that worldview. It should be noted that Paul not only used their system to connect, he also contrasted elements of it with the truth. Our evangelism must go beyond bridges to present the whole unvarnished truth of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
3. We affirm an incarnational approach to missions that is bound by biblical parameters. Following the example of Him who became flesh (John 1:14), it is appropriate that our personnel continue to tailor their ministry to their setting. The apostle Paul likewise embraced this approach, "I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22b). We advocate the learning and appropriate utilization of language and culture. Constant vigilance is required lest contextualization degenerate into syncretism. Where linguistic categories and cultural mores are deficient, these must be challenged and corrected with biblical truth.
4. We affirm both the sufficiency and unique nature of biblical revelation (2 Timothy 3:14-17). We deny that any other purported sacred writing is on a par with the Bible. While reference to a target people group's religious writings can be made as a part of bridge building, care should be exercised not to imply a wholesale acceptance of such.
5. We affirm the need to be ethically sound in our evangelistic methodology (2 Corinthians 4:2). Becoming all things to all men in an incarnational approach does not necessitate an ethical breach. Jesus instructed His disciples to be as "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). We are to be wise in our bridge building. We are to be harmless in our integrity as we hold forth the truth.