If you have studied missions history, you know that Hudson Taylor was a successful missionary in China, one many modern-day missionaries seek to emulate. While Taylor certainly did not do everything right, what distinguished him from his contemporaries was his immersion in the Chinese culture to which he was sharing the gospel. He dressed in native Chinese clothing and insisted on affirming Chinese culture in order to more effectively reach them. Other missionaries lived in compounds separate from the people to whom they were ministering, dressed differently, and preserved their own culture. These missionaries disagreed with Taylor’s methods, but you’ll notice that he is the one remembered from that time.
Taylor’s ministry is notable because he employed something called contextualization. Simply put, contextualization is what we do to make the gospel at home in a particular culture. The good news of man’s salvation through Christ is relevant to all people in all places at all times. No matter their language, worldview, or religion, the Bible speaks with equal relevance to them all. After all, God’s gift of grace is for everyone. That said, the words of Scripture come to us in a specific language and clothed in a specific culture. For us in America, that has been translated into English, and we have worked hard to communicate this message in ways that make sense to people in our culture.
We are always contextualizing.
Contextualization is always occurring. Those missionaries who disagreed with Taylor mistakenly thought they could choose not to contextualize. However, every time we attempt to communicate God’s truth we contextualize it by simply using human communication. The question is not if we should contextualize but how well we will do it.
Of course, attempting to adjust the manner in which we speak the gospel to people from different cultures has its challenges. Done poorly it will either result in an “overcontextualized” message that mixes Christianity with a person’s original religion or an “undercontextualized” message that makes no sense to the hearer. It is important to consider this when we share the gospel, especially with people who are different from us. Below are three important benefits of contextualization, and in my next article, I will deal with three warnings concerning contextualization.
Contextualization affirms culture.
All people are born and raised in a particular culture. Culture is an expression of humanity, which affects how we live, work, and play. Contextualization, then, enables believers to live out the gospel in obedience to Christ within their own culture. It allows people to worship in a way that is culturally familiar to them. At its very basic form, it allows the gospel to be translated into every language.
To clarify, culture is different than worldview. While I do not have the space to elaborate much on this, worldview is the lens through which we interpret the world around us. Our worldview holds our belief system. While culture is neutral, worldview is not. We must differentiate between these two things when we contextualize. When we contextualize to the culture, the result is an indigenous church. When we contextualize to the worldview, the result is syncretism (see my next post for more on this).
Contextualization helps people understand the gospel in a way that makes sense to them.
There are hundreds of different cultures all over the world. Because culture is mostly inherent, we likely don’t realize aspects of the gospel that speak to our own culture. It affects the language we use, the way we worship, how we read the Bible, etc. Because culture is neutral, we can make the gospel at home in it.
Realizing that the gospel can make its home in the culture, and that there are hundreds of cultures around the world, means that there is not one right way to worship, or to share the gospel, or to interpret the Bible. (As a caveat, when I say “There is not one right way to interpret the Bible,” I mean we often catch or miss things in the Bible because of the cultural lenses through which we read it. The Bible remains authoritative and inerrant regardless of what culture you’re in.) Again, at its simplest, contextualization allows the gospel to be translated into every language so people who speak that language will be able to hear and understand it. This means that we can take the gospel to another culture and allow believers in that culture to make it their own. We do not have to force them to conduct worship services the way we do, or preach the same kind of sermons, or pray a certain way.
Contextualization helps us gain a broader perspective of the faith.
As we contextualize to another culture, we begin to see some of the things we miss because of our own cultural lenses. If you ever worship at a church in a different culture (and I encourage you to do so), you may be surprised by some elements. Maybe the congregation all prays out loud at the same time, maybe they dance, maybe the pastor preaches for a couple of hours rather than thirty minutes.
If you ever share the gospel with someone from another culture, or read the Bible with them, you may be surprised by the elements they latch onto that you have never thought of before. Some cultures will be struck by the utter shame Christ endured on the cross. Some will hear the story of the prodigal son and will focus on the fact that there was a famine in the land, rather than the fact that the younger son squandered his inheritance.
Contextualization is always rooted in the gospel. But as we practice contextualization, working with believers in other cultures to make the gospel at home in their culture, we begin to gain a broader understanding of the faith. We are reminded of just how big our God is, that He understands all languages, is pleased by worship in many forms, and speaks through His word in many ways.
It is good to contextualize. We will not get it right the first time, but the gospel is not fragile. We will make mistakes, but there is grace and the Lord will preserve His message despite the sinfulness that causes us to mess up. By working humbly with other believers of all different cultures, we can take the gospel message to the nations and let the gospel make its home in their culture, just as it has for us.