What should you use for communion in a country that doesn’t have grapes? How do you translate Psalm 23 in a country that doesn’t have sheep? How do you translate the word God in a language that has a word for various superhuman gods and a word for an impersonal universal god, none of which are like the biblical God?
We do know that the gospel must take root in a culture so that it produces a Christianity that is at home in that culture while being true to “the faith once delivered to the saints.” A Christianity that remains a foreign religion will never spread widely in the culture that is being evangelized. The process of making Christianity at home in the culture can never be completed by foreign missionaries, but they should follow principles that will help the national believers to finish the process.
Contextualization is the effort to make the gospel message relevant and understandable in another culture. It is not changing the gospel, but making it comprehensible. It means:
-- using terms that convey gospel truth. In a culture with several words for “love,” which one will be the best?
-- using examples that give accurate concepts. How does one present Jesus the Good Shepherd to a tribe which leaves shepherding to the mentally deficient?
-- using illustrations that local people are familiar with. Paul spoke to the Athenians about the unknown god (Acts 17:23) that some people worshiped and he quoted one of their poets (17:28).
-- showing people that God can meet their particular needs. For example, HeGod has power over the evil spirits that they fear.
Contextualization is the answer to the
Psalmist’s missionary’s question, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4).
Contextualization is placing the Christian message in a context (e.g. inner-city Detroit, middle-class USA, or rural Honduras). It is determining how best the principles and practices of Jesus should be lived out in that place.
Hudson Taylor, the first missionary to go to the interior of China in the 1890s, adopted traditional Chinese dress and even let his hair grow so that he could wear it in a long braid in order to identify more fully with the people he was trying to reach with the gospel, and he was criticized for it.
We all contextualize the gospel whether we realize it or not. Determining what is fundamental and essentially Christian in each context is not quite as simple as it looks. Like Taylor, not everyone is going to see this the same or draw the same conclusions, and we need great love and wisdom.
Contextualization is critically important in cross-cultural mission work and in church ministry in general. The gospel is always relevant and applicable to every era, country, culture, and worldview. Contextualization enables missionaries and ministers to show the relevancy of the gospel and help people understand how it applies to them. In other words, contextualization is vital for both CLEAR COMMUNICATION by the presenter and CLEAR UNDERSTANDING by the recipient. Sometimes presenters think they are clearly communicating, when in fact they are way off the comprehension wave-length of the hearers. A Somali man once said “When you put the church on the back of a camel, then I will believe.” In other words, we must connect the dots for the people so they see that the gospel message is for their culture as well as ours. Otherwise, the message of Christ remains a “foreign religion” to them.
Accommodating culture, utilizing social customs and values, incorporating the peoples' way of thinking into your presentation of the gospel to make it more understandable, tangible, and effective to the people of that nationality.
To contextualize the gospel, you place it within the larger social context of the culture you are attempting to win to Christ. Just as story problems contextualize a math equation and make it relatable and thus more understandable, so the contextualizing of the gospel will do the same. Jesus Christ became a Jewish man, from the hills of a real town called Nazareth. He learned a trade and subjected himself to all the religious traditions and customs of the day. Wearing their clothes, he became a local known as, "Jesus of Nazareth!" Paul understood the need to contextualize the Christian message when he said, "I have become all things to all people that I might win some."
Contextualization is the process of making the Christian message meaningful within a particular cultural context. Some of the elements of contextualization are employing cultural symbols to communicate the meaning of the Gospel, appealing to cultural virtues that are ultimately grounded in the Christian Gospel, and using language that is meaningful in a given context. In truth, Christian ministers are constantly faced with the need to contextualize the Christian message. The reason for contextualization is to avoid unnecessary ambiguity or confusion among those being reached. Of course, there is a certain horizon over which if one passes the Gospel message is no longer in view. What Christians must do is, to use Anthony Thiselton’s image, bridge the two horizons of the Gospel truth and Culture. Contextualization is the process. The danger is when we lose sight of one horizon or the other. As Christian ministers the option is not eitherthe Gospel or Culture, but the Gospel in Culture.