As I waited for my plane, I was stumped by what I was looking at. If Chinese understood the English on the KFC sign, no one would want to eat there. It simply read, “finger lickin’ good.” For anyone who knows Chinese culture, this slogan would be like Colgate advertising that it will make our teeth “toilet bowl white.” Uh, maybe that’s true but no one will want to buy something that promises to give me a potty mouth.
You see, Chinese people don’t like eating with their fingers. In fact, many Western burger restaurants offer gloves for people to eat their sandwiches.
Why then is KFC so successful in China? At one level, it is a famous western restaurant and eating there shows you have a comfortable income. However, KFC’s real secret to success is found elsewhere. KFC knows how to contextualize its product. If you don’t want fries, you can order rice porridge, corn, or egg and tart congee. Instead of chicken, customers can buy fish and shrimp sandwiches.
Fortunately for KFC, contextualization is about more than good marketing slogan. Creative communication attracts people to something novel, but in the end, people stick around because of substance, not slogans.
Contextualization Makes Disciples
In business, companies care about “contextualization” in order to make a sale. In the church, is it possible that some of us regard contextualization similarly as “Christian marketing”? Unlike KFC, however, I wonder if many missionaries and pastors think contextualization mainly concerns one’s “slogan” or “style”, not the substance of one’s ministry.
In Christian books and articles, contextualization is typically associated with evangelism. The entire conversation about contextualization is largely driven by the desire to do evangelism well. As a result, too little attention is given to a more fundamental goal––making disciples.
We contextualize the gospel not to make a convert but rather disciples. The difference is very significant. Why we contextualize will shape how we contextualize.
Weddings Don’t Make Marriages
Limiting contextualization to evangelism is like confusing one’s wedding for the marriage. Accordingly, conversation might be comparable to marrying a wife because she wears a really nice dress on the first date and then promises to make life wonderful for me. This approach might initially “seal the deal” but I wouldn’t call this a “best practice.”
To continue the analogy, contextualization is far more like the process of getting to know my wife in different situations and contexts. She is still the same person; yet, I am attracted to her and challenged by her as I come to know her different settings.
In the same way, there is one gospel. Contextualization should transform our entire life as we come to know Christ in different contexts and from various perspectives. We are thus able to talk about him naturally and respond to him in countless ways. When we know Christ like family, contextualization ceases to be a formula.
Transmission or Transformation?
Like many others, I too love the Transformers. The cartoons of 1980s have since turned into blockbuster movies. Today, many people like to put one of the Transformers’ emblems on their car, as if they drove an “Autobot” or a “Decepticon.” (For the uninitiated, those are the “good guys” and “bad guys”.)
Whenever I walk with a kid past one of those vehicles, I like to ask them, “Do you think it’s a real one?” just to make them wonder a little bit. Of course, there’s not more here than meets the eye.
From my experience, I wonder whether too many people unwittingly see contextualization in a similar way. In order to attract people to the gospel, we think one merely needs to give it a face-lift, perhaps by tweaking a bit of our terminology. We hope that somehow our efforts will release the power of God in people’s lives. In a sense, the purpose of contextualization becomes little more than selling Jesus to people.
A biblical approach to contextualization reshapes the way people not only see God, but also the world, their community, jobs, identity and mission. It aims to transform every aspect of a person’s life, not simply his or her religious orientation.
Why we contextualize will inevitably determine how we contextualize.
Therefore, because we want to make disciples, not mere converts, we need to reconsider standard views of contextualization. It is more than the mere transmission of information. We might grab a lot of people’s interest, but we won’t keep it. Presentations don’t transform people. The gospel does.
Why? The gospel transforms a person’s worldview, not simply his or her doctrine. If this is our goal, then how do we begin to do contextualization?
In an upcoming post, I’ll offer a few initial thoughts. We will see that biblically faithful and culturally meaningful contextualization requires far more than just good communication and application.
For those who are interested, I offer a more complete answer in my new book One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization.