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Thinking about contextualisation

Contextualisation

CMS missionary Kellie Nicholas is on study leave in 2018 to better prepare herself for continuing ministry to students in Japan. As part of her studies, she has been thinking about contextualisation, and shares here her understanding of the concept and principles for its application in ministry.

Until I recently embarked on some study related to contextualisation, I hadn’t realised that there was debate surrounding whether it was a good thing or not. I naively presumed that considering the context you are in when sharing the gospel was a given and that it was more the ‘how’ and ‘to what extent’ rather than the ‘should we’ question that needed to be answered. What follows is my attempt at understanding what contextualisation is and the principles that we can use to put it into practise in our lives and ministry.

One of the biggest challenges in thinking about contextualisation is arriving at a definition. Since the term was first used by liberal theologians, it is understandable that evangelicals have been wary, and in some cases, opposed to the term. If you are interested in reading more about the history of the debate, Andrew Prince’s book[1] gives a good summary and highlights the main players. Much of the discussion is about where we should start when considering contextualisation—the Scriptures or culture—and what principles we should use when putting it into practise.

In its simplest form, contextualisation is about how we understand the Christian faith in terms of a particular setting. There needs to be a balance between careful study of the Bible and also the culture it is being spoken into. The definition that I have arrived at is: Seeking to communicate the gospel in a way that is faithful to the Scriptures, meaningful to those who receive it, and encourages challenge and critique. In this way, contextualisation feels a bit like a balancing act of carefully considering the biblical text in its original context, taking into account our own biases, and then seeking to express it in a way that those who hear it can relate to.

Faithful to the Scriptures

As people who seek to share the good news with others, we want to be faithful to the word of God. This is also where we need to start in contextualisation. If we haven’t worked hard at understanding the passage in its original context and trying to discern our own personal biases, then any attempt at contextualising it to our current situation will be futile.

I have been greatly encouraged as I have read through the book of Acts and seen the different ways that the gospel is presented to different audiences. The speeches in Acts by Peter, Stephen and Paul show us that there is “a gospel core, centred on the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the need for repentance, and the availability of forgiveness of sin.”[2] While these central truths are not negotiable, the way that we present them will vary depending on the people and situation that we are in. I particularly love the way Paul shares the core message of the gospel, in Acts 17, with people from a non-Jewish background, helping them to understand God’s character, relationship with creation and desire for relationship with them.

Meaningful to people

Secondly, we want to proclaim the gospel in a way that is meaningful to those with whom we share it. There is no room for compromise of the message, but it must be communicated in such a way that can be understood by those who hear it. In order for people to hear, understand and accept the gospel, we must first of all establish common ground. Developing rapport with the people, using culturally appropriate ways and identifying commonalities where possible. In Acts 17:22–23, Paul respectfully points out the Athenians’ religiosity and observes their altar to the ‘unknown god’. Rather than ridiculing their beliefs or denigrating their religiosity, he uses these things that are obviously important to them as a way of connection. We must also engage with the worldview of our audience, understanding their basic assumptions so that we might be able to adjust our presentations according to our hearers.

From the variety of speeches that are found in the New Testament, we can conclude that there is no one way of presenting the gospel. When Peter, Stephen and Paul address Jews, their speeches included references that they would have understood. Peter (Acts 2) talks to Jews about how Jesus fulfils the Scriptures, Stephen (Acts 7) highlights how Israel has a history of rejecting God and those he has appointed, and Paul (Acts 13) explains how Jesus is the fulfilment of the Davidic promise. From this, we can see that the message of the Bible is constant, but the presentation depends on the situation.

It may also be helpful to use terms that already exist in a given culture, but give them new meaning in light of the gospel. In Acts 17, we see Paul using the language and categories of his Greek listeners to convey biblical revelation in a way that they can understand. Just as Paul uses the Greek word ‘Θεος’ in Acts 17, Japanese may use the word ‘神’ (kami) for God. These words already hold cultural significance and meaning, but they can be given new meaning in light of the gospel. This may also be the case with selected objects and elements of general revelation that can be used as a bridge in order to communicate the gospel. Obviously care needs to be taken so that misunderstanding does not occur if the original meanings of the terms are read back into the Bible.

Critical of the culture

Finally, the gospel must be able to critique the culture that it is speaking into and call those in it to be conformed to the image of Christ. The pressure to make the gospel accessible and understandable to people should not lead to the watering down of the demands that the Bible makes on those who would follow Jesus. Both Peter and Steven challenge their listeners to repent of the ways they have failed to respond to God. The gospel will, and must, challenge and critique our cultures and point us towards Christ-like discipleship.

We must also remember that all cultures have both positive and negative aspects within them. The gospel does not condemn culture outright, but it must be the measure by which any activity or way of thinking is judged. We see an example of this in Acts 17 as Paul affirms his audiences’ religiosity (verses 22–23), the work of their poets (verses 28–29) and sincerity (verse 23), while critiquing their misdirection (verse 27) and ignorance (verse 30).

With this in mind, it would seem that those who put their faith in Jesus Christ do not necessarily need to be dislocated socially and may be able to remain within their own culture and community. For a Jew to become a follower of Jesus, they were not required to reject everything that was connected to their Jewish culture. Gentile believers (Acts 15) were also able to remain within their communities, with some restrictions placed on things they were unable to participate in (verse 20). Again, we see the balancing act that is required in thinking about contextualisation. We need to be preaching and living out the distinctive demands of the gospel, but there may be many aspects of the culture that can be retained or adapted.

Although there are many challenges involved in contextualisation, I think that faithful and meaningful communication of the gospel cannot be achieved without it. We face the challenge of trying to communicate how to live a life of faith in the place that God has put us, and teaching others to do the same. Hopefully, as we continue to read God’s word and listen to what it says, we will be challenged to understand it in its context and to seek to share it in a meaningful way with those around us.

PRAY

Pray for our missionaries as they seek to share the gospel in the many different cultures they live in. Pray for wisdom as they contextualise their communication while remaining faithful to God’s word. Pray for Christians in Australia and around the world as they navigate how to be faithful followers of Jesus in the different cultures they live in. Give thanks that God has sent the Holy Spirit to guide us and work in us.


[1] See “Prince, Andrew J., 2017, Contextualisation of the Gospel: Towards an Evangelical Approach in the Light of Scripture and the Church Fathers, Wipf and Stock, Oregon, USA, pp37–71″ for an historical survey.

[2] Prince, Contextualisation, p110.