Every Christian minister engages in some form of contextualization. The issue is not whether we “contextualize,” but whether we do it well.
Using historical, geographical, or agricultural events or symbols is useful for illustrating particular points of the gospel message. Another positive example is to familiarize oneself with the translation of the Bible in a given culture’s language. Just as the English language has adopted many phrases from the King James Version into common speech, other cultures have adopted phrases from their translation of the Bible. And the Christian missionary must always adopt certain cultural practices or observances, such as the worship format, that are not contrary to the Christian gospel. This can even be helpful in our own country. Various areas of the United States, in my experience, require a great measure of contextualization. The goal is to create solidarity and trust so the gospel will be well received.
Tanya was ministering to children in an orphanage in Ukraine. One day she wanted to talk about the love of God. For illustration, she started with the question, “Who do you know that loves you?” The children sat silently, then began to answer, “no one.” They had been rejected by their families and brusquely cared for by staff, and did not think anyone loved them.
Many of the children were handicapped physically or mentally. They were not clean or well-behaved, and Tanya commented that sometimes she wished a child’s nose could be wiped before the girl or boy hugged her.
Then one day, after continuing to care for them, she asked the question again, “Who do you know that loves you?” Immediately, the children answered together, “You. You love us.” They now had an illustration for understanding the love of God.
When speaking in America from I Corinthians 10:13 we often say, “God measures the temptation to make sure it’s not too heavy or too hot before He allows it to reach us.”
In Guatemala I noted that men would carry one, or even two, 100-pound (un quintal) bags of corn up and down hills and deposit them at the edge of a road where a truck would pick them up for the market. Their young sons couldn’t carry such weight, though, so fathers limited their boys to one arroba (25 pounds), or maybe two, as the sons built up their strength for carrying heavier loads.
So I started saying, “Just as you won’t let your son bear more corn than he can carry, God won’t let your temptation or trial become so large that you, with His grace, can’t handle it.” It was an illustration that fit their context.
Contextualization can take many different forms. The first time that we set up in a park for “Freedom Outreach Indy,” a community outreach event in the inner city of Indianapolis, people weren’t quite sure who we were or why we were there. To be sure, we stood out from our surroundings in our dress suits and ties. The social walls of race and poverty as well as the prostitution and drug cultures present in this park were real barriers, and it became clear to all of us that we didn’t need dress to be a contributing factor.
We didn’t want our dress to be a distraction from our message. As the congregation that I helped to plant met in that park and then in a homeless shelter for the next several years, I preached nearly every sermon in khaki or black dress pants and a plain, blue, button down shirt.
Good contextualization with other people is indicated in a variety of areas. What is solid contextualization with one group may be meaningless to one’s own people. Unless one is part of the host culture, the effectiveness of the point is usually missed.
Leaders in a country which receives many guests from the USA took special notice when a particular group visited them wearing a certain article of clothing which the group had been told was important to that culture. The leaders indicated they had many guests, but that this group was especially sensitive.
As a missionary serving in The Bahamas, I received a high compliment from a Bahamian new convert following a contextualized statement I had made. He asked, “Is this guy American or is he Bahamian?” I had connected. I see rookie missionaries hit cultural “home runs” when they say phrases in the language of the group into which they are entering.
A Second Example:
A Bible translator was working in an African country. In Rev. 3:2 he rendered the phrase, “I stand at the door and knock,” as most English translations have it. However, his language helper, a local resident, said, “Oh, no, don’t say, ‘I knock.’ Say, ‘I call.’”
The man explained to the translator, “In our culture a thief sneaks up and knocks at the door to learn if anyone is inside the house. If no one is home, he will enter and steal. If someone is there, he will sneak away. However, when a friend approaches he will call out, for he wants the people to know who is coming.”
The translator, wanting people to know that Jesus is a friend and not a thief, chose to write, “I stand at the door and call.”
And I was blessed to read in the Spanish version, “I call.”