When God created man, he created him with the ability to develop culture. With the progress of history, cultural differences emerged. According to the biblical account of Genesis 10 and 11, it was God himself who took the initiative to disperse humanity into different territories, dwelling together as different clans and nations, and speaking different languages. This reality stimulated the further development of cultural differences, creating at the same time a communication gap between people of different cultural backgrounds (Gen 11:7).
God himself, however, is not limited in his ability to transcend cultural differences and bridge communication gaps. In the beginning, he communed directly with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:8–9). Various generations later, Enoch “walked faithfully with God” (Gen 5:22, 24), implying a certain degree of comprehensible communication between them. Noah also “walked faithfully with God” (Gen 6:9) and was a direct recipient of God’s communication, including commands regarding the building of the ark (Gen 6:11–22; 7:1–5; 8:15–18). In Genesis 12, after the flood, and after the dispersion of humanity into different territories, God directed his communication in a special way to Abram, who was by this stage of human history already the heir of a specific cultural heritage.
At various stages of human history, God has chosen to make his message known to various individuals and groups through human channels. He spoke especially to the people of Israel through Moses and the prophets. At times, he brought his people into contact with other peoples with other cultural backgrounds. When this happened, they were influenced to some degree by the cultural idiosyncrasies of these peoples. On occasion, he used his servants from one cultural background (usually that of Israel) to communicate his message to those of other cultural backgrounds (for example, Moses to Pharaoh, Jonah to the Ninevites, Daniel to the Babylonians and Medes, etc.).
When the fullness of time arrived, God sent his perfect envoy of contextualized communication, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was born into a specific cultural context, spoke a specific language, and made effective use of the rhetorical devices characteristic of his own cultural milieu, with a view to faithfully and forcefully making known the message the Father had entrusted to him. Fifty days after his ascension to heaven, God sent the Holy Spirit to empower his disciples to communicate his message “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). On the day of Pentecost, the era of the Spirit was inaugurated, as the disciples spoke in tongues that were understood by “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:4–6).
The New Testament model portrayed in the book of Acts and the epistles of Paul fleshes out in dramatic fashion the carrying out of the mandate to make God’s message of grace known among people of varied cultural backgrounds. In addition to the examples given by way of biblical narrative, Paul spells out his intended strategy of contextualization: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22). The clear implication is that God’s people down through the ages are called upon to follow this example, proclaiming the gospel, and calling out people “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Rev 7:9), so that they may be “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph 2:21–22).
The ramifications of this are inescapable. In order to be faithful to this task, the church of Jesus Christ must learn the art of appropriate cultural contextualization. There is a real sense in which all communication involves, to one degree or another, some cultural contextualization. Cultures are not neutral vehicles of communication. In each cultural context, however, there are certain elements that serve as bridges to the proper communication of the gospel, others that are incompatible with the gospel or detract from its faithful communication, and still others that are more or less neutral with regard to gospel faithfulness.
The main goal of faithful cultural contextualization is that of making God’s message understood as clearly as possible. The gospel communicator must learn to distinguish correctly between the supra-cultural, universal elements of the message, which transcend cultural differences and must be faithfully retained, and cultural variables that are not essential to the core message, and serve either to make it more understandable and relevant, or, as the case may be, detract from clear, effective communication.
In order to do this effectively, the gospel communicator must first of all master the content of the gospel itself. He must know how to distinguish between gospel essentials, and secondary or tertiary matters. He must also be a student of cultures: the culture(s) of the Bible, his own culture, and the culture of the people he is seeking to impact with the gospel. Taking into account this knowledge, the cross-cultural gospel communicator, whether consciously or unconsciously, must continually evaluate everything he does among the people he is hoping to impact with the gospel in accordance with the following questions: Does this method of contextualization help to make the authentic gospel message clearer or does it in any way distort or obscure the message? Is there anything that can be done to make the gospel message more understandable or relevant for the people to whom it is being directed? Is there anything that is already being done that must be avoided in order to not compromise the integrity of the message?
One’s understanding of the gospel message will depend, to a great degree, on the view one takes of biblical authority. Several examples of inappropriate cultural contextualization that should be avoided in faithful gospel communication include various strands of liberation theology, and certain so-called “insider movements.” Both of these models root in a defective understanding of biblical authority that gives higher priority to human goals, objectives, and preferences than to clear biblical mandates. These abuses, however, should not lead cross-cultural gospel communicators to a neglect of faithful contextualization.
Another question has to do not only with barriers to a correct understanding of the message, but with barriers to the likely acceptance of the message by the recipients of the communication. It is at this point that cross-cultural gospel communicators must be especially careful. It is never acceptable to distort or obscure the authentic gospel message with a view to making its presentation more appealing. At the same time, though, it is important to avoid, whenever possible, cultural stumbling blocks, which are not part and parcel of the gospel itself but rather a part of the cultural clothing in which it is dressed.
The cross-cultural worker may easily be blinded to such stumbling blocks in his own culture. For this reason, he must make every effort to overcome these blind spots. He must study the receptor culture from various perspectives. He must invite input from cultural insiders regarding methods of communication. At the same time, he must be ever vigilant to ensure methods of contextualization used do not in any way compromise the integrity of the gospel itself.