A Few Introductory Thoughts on Gospel Proclamation and Cultural Contextualization

by David Rogers on January 17, 2013 · 22 comments

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.

1 Dave Millee January 17, 2013 at 11:40 am

Wow. This one is a 32 ounce steak. It’s gonna take some chewing. But this is one of my real pastoral struggles. I serve a very traditional church where cultural preferences are often mistaken for gospel essentials. Dress. Music. Traditional practices.

This was helpful.

2 Dave Miller January 17, 2013 at 11:42 am

With my fat fingers, I cannot type. I misspelled my own name.

3 Ben Coleman January 17, 2013 at 11:49 am

For a second there, you were one who gets milled, rather than one who mills.

4 David Rogers January 17, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I hesitate to post this video link, because I don’t generally like the idea of setting up fellow believers as open targets for criticism. I came across it this morning over at the blog of Eric Carpenter (a blogging friend and former IMB missionary who in past couple of years has migrated from a more traditional SBC approach to ministry to a house church/simple church approach).

I think, however, that it may provide a good platform for practical application of the ideas I present in the post. If anyone is up for it, I would be interested to hear how you think what is presented in the video is a good use of the principles of contextualization I present or a bad use of them. And why?

(The video is 4 minutes, 39 seconds, in length)

http://youtu.be/YM03NFH3Op4

5 Dave Miller January 17, 2013 at 12:40 pm

I’m gonna watch it. My experience is that we (Americans, perhaps especially white Americans) tend to view our own culture as somehow normative, so we only think of other cultures as having cultural barriers.

6 Truth Unites... and Divides January 17, 2013 at 12:45 pm

“If anyone is up for it, I would be interested to hear how you think what is presented in the video is a good use of the principles of contextualization I present or a bad use of them. And why?”

I watched it. And I was pretty tolerant/agnostic (even though I didn’t like the name “Relevant” church from the get-go), throughout the video until the final part. Really, really trying to see all the good, and to see all the ways that God can use this church, and this approach, and this vision of reaching people with the Gospel within its culturally specific targets.

Sorry, I’m not crazy about what they’re doing there at Relevant Church. But maybe God is.

7 David Rogers January 17, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Truth Unites…,

I think you have some valid points. I don’t want to start casting stones at those who are sincerely trying to reach people for Christ—and for that aspect of what they are doing I commend them.

I think all churches–more “traditional” as well as more “contemporary” or so-called “relevant” ones–have their own cultural idiosyncrasies that are not sacrosanct in and of themselves. The problem, as I see it, is when we begin to put the cart before the horse, letting our cultural preferences drives everything else: either the “traditional” church holding on to outworn cultural ways of doing things when they get in the way of many, if not most, people around them hearing and understanding the gospel they are seeking to proclaim; or the so-called “relevant” church focusing so much on the way they do things differently than the “traditional” church that the focus becomes their cultural trappings and not the message itself, and ends up being more of a distraction than a tool to clearly communicate the gospel.

8 Dave Miller January 17, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Bingo, David.

I, too, am not crazy about a lot of what goes on in the name of cultural relevance.

But I think the subtle reaction of those in my traditionalist church realm is that the traditional church is either a) not culturally conditioned or b) of a superior cultural condition – as if the way things were done in the 50s, 60s and 70s was somehow superior to what is done today. Suits are superior to casual dress. Piano and organ are superior to drums and guitars.

I am doing a lot of reflection on this whole culture issue, because of my church situation and what we are dealing with. It’s a bog.

9 Truth Unites... and Divides January 17, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Friend moving to Tampa, Fla, not far from Relevant Church: “Hey buddy, know of some good churches for me and my family to worship at when we move to Tampa?”

Me: “Yeah, there’s some TGC churches that aren’t too far from you. You might want to check them out.”

Relevant Church Person who overhears: “Hey! Why didn’t you tell them about Relevant Church? We might be the closest to them. Send the video that you watched.”

Me: “Uhhhh…. Well…. Um…. Ya know…. ”

Relevant Church Person: “Hey! You don’t sound like you like our church.”

Me: “I didn’t say that! I didn’t say that! I think you guys are trying to do a good thing.”

Relevant Church Person: “Well then why didn’t you suggest or recommend our church to your friend who’s moving to Tampa?”

Me: “I gotta go! Nice talking to you!”

10 Chris Roberts January 17, 2013 at 3:52 pm

This strikes me as the absolute wrong way to engage culture. The entire presentation focuses on how fun, how encouraging, how inspirational, how hip, how rockin’, how cool the church is. It comes across much more as marketing a product than lifting up a savior. The focus is on the presentation and the package rather than the message. I am familiar with several churches of this sort and haven’t seen one yet that doesn’t go into a theological train wreck of pop-psychology self-help seeker-sensitive messages.

It is all well and good to have a fun, interactive children’s ministry, and to have contemporary music, and to have an on-site Starbuck’s, and to offer encouragement, etc, etc, but when those become the selling points, something has gone way off course. One clear piece of evidence: highlighting how the church band also features music by secular groups. What’s the point in saying that except telling the world, “See? We can be cool like you! Won’t you like us?”

Christ is no longer enough. The gospel needs window dressing. The people must be entertained and made to feel good about themselves. And the church suffers.

11 David Rogers January 17, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Agreed.

12 Chris Roberts January 17, 2013 at 4:35 pm

My favorite example of this sort of thing comes from a local church which at Easter built a giant monstrosity on the roof of the church to advertise a new preaching series: “Conquering the Giants” which focused on God’s desire to help you conquer giants in your life. The series kicked off with an Easter message “Conquering the giant of fear” – Jesus died to help you conquer fear.

And for those sad folks who never had the privilege of meeting the Giant of Northstar Mountain, here it is in all its glory:

http://photoblog.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/04/05/11038952-technicolor-giant-ready-for-display?lite

13 Truth Unites... and Divides January 17, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Chris Roberts: “I am familiar with several churches of this sort and haven’t seen one yet that doesn’t go into a theological train wreck of pop-psychology self-help seeker-sensitive messages.”

Relevant Church Person: “Hater.”

;-)

14 Bob Cleveland January 17, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Contextualization goes on all the time, anyway. Does any preacher insist on using the word “gay” when referring to happy members?

We adapt all the time in our language when dealing with the gospel, too. There are many references in the Bible to “men”, “man” and “brothers” when the references are really gender-neutral. They understood that 30-40 years ago, but not now, so we explain (or change our translations).

If we’re messing with our language to more effectively communicate the gospel, where’s the beef about doing the same with procedures, dress, decor, etc?

15 David Rogers January 17, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Bob,

I think you are right. There is good contextualization, bad contextualization, and some that is more or less neutral. But we need to do whatever we can to ensure the gospel is message is heard and clearly understood, as long as we don’t water down or distort it at the same time.

16 Frank L. January 17, 2013 at 1:13 pm

I am generally supportive of these types of ministries. But is the model transferable in our culture? Can anyone do it? Probably not.

Will a model work where the gospel is one part of the strategy and not the the main draw? This has the danger of confusing the gospel with the culture.

I see some dangers with using anything else as the main draw for church. Yet as I think Bill points out, I do this all the time to some degree. It is a matter of balance I suppose

17 Bennett Willis January 17, 2013 at 3:19 pm

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/january-february/too-much-context-may-harm.html

Christianity Today has had a series of stories on this theme. If you go to this link, you should be able to connect to them.

We grew up with the story of Lottie Moon who spend years in China with no useful contact with the people she was trying to convert–and only one conversion. It still works that way if you don’t relate to the culture.

18 David Rogers January 17, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Thanks for the link, Bennett. Yes, “insider movements” (both in Muslim-background and Hindu-background contexts) are big issues within Evangelical missiology at present. One of the big problems I have with what I have read about certain manifestations of certain “insider movements” is the tendency toward a de facto isolationism and separation from the rest of the Body of Christ (whether locally, or around the world). I believe that our transcultural unity with fellow believers is an essential element of the gospel itself, not just optional window dressing. It is also true, at the same time, that Western missionaries have imposed Western cultural norms upon new believers from other contexts. This is also wrong. But the answer is not turning around and doing the same thing in return, just from the opposite perspective. It is the radical, and often costly, message of reconciliation: reconciliation of man with God, yes, but also reconciliation of man with his fellow man.

19 Chris Roberts January 17, 2013 at 3:30 pm

“It is never acceptable to distort or obscure the authentic gospel message with a view to making its presentation more appealing.”

This is perhaps the greatest challenge. It opens the question: “Am I contextualizing because it aids the hearer in understanding, or because it will make people like me and the message better?” Put more bluntly: are we modifying our method (and often our message) in order to win favor? If we are changing things because the world doesn’t like us and we want to make them like us, we are certainly doing it wrong. If we are changing things because the world finds our message difficult, we are doing it wrong. If we are changing – contextualizing – in order to speak in the language of culture, we’re doing a better job.

I pastor a congregation with primarily senior adults. One thing I try to tell them is to remember how it feels for them to attend a more contemporary service. The same discomfort they feel is also felt by many young people who attend a more traditional service. It’s not necessarily that anything is done wrong, but it is alien, foreign, unfamiliar and as such, unengaging. There is certainly a place for equipping people to understand a certain context (ie, growing believers to receive meat rather than milk) but that is not the same as trying to force one cultural context into another.

20 David Rogers January 17, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Great thoughts, Chris. I totally agree.

21 Frank L. January 17, 2013 at 4:23 pm

House Churches are naturally relevant and easily reproduced.

Why is it not the norm? One reason is that we’ve confused worship with entertainment. Our relevance has made the gospel irrelevant–an unintended but very real consequence.

Tie the gospel to culture and culture always wins.

22 Jess Alford January 17, 2013 at 10:08 pm

Frank L.

Great stuff, I couldn’t agree with you more.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: