In a sermon I referred to the time when the Holy Spirit filled the disciples. The translator assumed that there is only one way that people get filled, and translated it, “God gave the disciples food.” A preacher giving an altar call said, “Let’s settle it,” so the translator told the crowd to sit down. Speaking to a crowd of youth in Ukraine, the speaker told them they could demonstrate responsibility by cleaning their rooms, but most of them had never had a room of their own. A preacher urged the people to praise God by running and shouting, but in their culture that seemed like irreverence.
To evaluate whether they will “grasp the concept” (another figure of speech), consider how you would explain it in other words. If you don’t know how else to say it, they probably won’t know how to say it in their terms.
Contextualization can take place in illustrations, in symbols and explanations, and in applications of truth that are appropriate for the culture in which one is working.
In one of the first sermons I preached in Egypt I did not contextualize or appropriately apply the message. Speaking about sin, I listed several examples of sins that people commit. One of them was going to the bar or tavern to drink liquor.
Rev. Saied, our Egyptian national leader, later told me that I didn’t need to preach against drinking alcohol. “All forms of alcoholic beverages are banned here,” he told me, because Egypt is a Muslim country. However, an appropriate application would be to speak out against the places where men gather to smoke drugs through bongs or glass water pipes. Such places are bad because of the effects of drugs and because they’re where men gossip and hatch evil schemes.
The inner city is one of those places where people come to “do stuff” for our neighborhood. There are a lot of opinions on how to “help.” One church decided that our neighborhood needed a soup kitchen serving meals twice a day, seven days a week. No one from that church resided in the neighborhood and no one bothered to check with the people living there to see if they thought this was a good idea. It sounded good to those church folks, so they did it.
The neighbors where we ministered protested. Why? Because they didn’t want 400+ needy people descending on their community twice every day for the free food, walking through their yards, endangering their children. The church went to court and lost. They never did understand and finally they closed. Innocent Christians, they thought they were just “doing what Jesus would do.”
As a rookie missionary, I was given little time to adapt to our new host culture. Thus, when I spoke in church, I had not changed my reference point; in other words, I was not contextualizing my message. During such messages, I repeatedly made reference to “back home”: “Back home in the States,” or “Back home in Pennsylvania,” was the context of my illustrations and stories. My messages were not clearly communicated because the crowd could not relate to my illustrations. Thankfully, I have a loving wife who brought that communication flaw to my attention. From that point forward, my “job description” included looking for events, illustrations, stories, etc. which were from within my host culture so I could use them in my messages. Once I dug into the culture, 1) I personally had a much better understanding of the culture, and, 2) my messages reflected more effective communication.