Clearly Uncomfortable with Contextualization


Some people are really uncomfortable with contextualization, even though we all do it and benefit from it all the time.   What is it, anyway?…well here’s one definition…Contextualization is “the attempt to communicate the message of the person, works, Word, and will of God in a way that is faithful to God’s revelation…and that is meaningful to respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts” (Hesselgrave and Rommen 2000, 200)

Awhile back, Andy Johnson posted briefly on contextualization. I want to build on that a bit, if I may. Andy suggested that contextualizers (and that’s really all of us, in some ways) be ready to examine their aims, goals and motivations for contextualizing in order to make sure they are biblical aims and goals. The goal, it was suggested, should be clarity not comfort. In other words, when we seek to communicate the gospel or any other biblical truth, our goal should be to glorify God by communicating His words CLEARLY enough so that the listener understands the meaning well and can respond to that communication based upon a clear understanding of what was communicated.

Since the gospel has so many sharp edges (the Bible does too, doesn’t it?), it can be tempting to aim for making our hearers/watchers comfortable even at the expense of communicating clearly. As natural as that tendency may be to fallen people, when pursuing comfort for ourselves or our hearers trumps clarity as our goal in contextualizing, we’re in a danger zone, because our motives are not those we see promoted in the Scriptures.

Go and re-read your New Testament (or the OT for that matter) afresh with this in mind. Look for ambassadors or gospel communicators who are commended and look at Paul’s requests for boldness and clarity in communicating. You might start with Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:1-4

1Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. 3And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”[a]made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

So, let me suggest that our duty in contextualization is to show and tell clearly in a way that the receivers or listeners (the context) can meaningfully and clearly understand what we are showing and telling. That means once we think that we have told and shown the message (and that is by no means a given, particularly where cultural and langauges are very different from our own), then we are VERY interested in whether our watchers and hearers, our context, is clearly understanding what it is we are showing and telling. Our motive is not that they be comfortable with that message per se, but that they clearly understand it, that they clearly understand the good news story line of the Scriptures including the hard bits of that gospel. They might be clearly uncomfortable if they really understand gospel demands!

It seems that there are uncomfortable parts of the gospel story that rub every culture the wrong way. But each culture has its own culturally inherited and entrenched ways of rebelling against God’s authority, and so, some Scriptural truths might be very abrasive in one context and less bothersome in another. But the gospel will always challenge a culture and correct it; it will never leave it the same, even a Western culture that has a strong Christian heritage and influence. But, let’s not make contextualization the goal of pioneer church planting either. Clearly showing and telling the good news while identifying and discipling the first group of elders who oversee the new assembly in a particular place might be some worthy goals.

But if contextualization becomes our goal, we easily begin to assume that really good contextualization will mean acceptance of the gospel and the founding of a new assembly, maybe even a multiplying assembly. And that’s where the clarity/comfort stuff comes in again. Particularly in pioneer and hostile areas, we desperately want to believe that if we can get really close to the local context, go as native as possible with our showing and telling and imitate the cultural context to a large degree, then the message and the resulting assembly will also be quickly and wholeheartedly accepted, particularly if our contextualization goal has been clarity and not comfort.

The Bible gives us no reason to believe that clear communication will result in acceptance of the gospel or a new church in a given location. Clear communication does mean that the true Savior or the real gospel is understood, and either accepted or rejected. In fact, Jesus might be called the perfectly contextualized communicator and yet his clear message was both understood and rejected by most. Though one might argue that at times he was less than clear (he had his reasons for using parables and a particular unique mission never to be repeated!), he was ultimately crucified precisely BECAUSE his enemies clearly understood what he was showing and telling them and they rejected him and it. So, let’s not make acceptance of the message our goal or the goal of contextualization…a clearly understood message is what we aim for.

But neither do we want to minimize the cultural and linguistic differences that often exist between the sent- out-ones and the unbelieving context where pioneer church planting takes place. I like to say that any assembly that is planted in a Muslim background context will probably make me a little uncomfortable, even if I had a hand in helping establish that church. If it makes someone uncomfortable who knows the language fairly well and understands the culture well enough to be considered an acceptable outsider, how much more uncomfortable might it make the visiting elders, pastors or guest from the West. What I mean is that pioneer church planters cannot make the comfort of short term visitors or sending churches their motivating goal as they undertake to practice biblical contextualization in showing and telling the gospel. They need the accountability of dialogue with trusted outsiders for sure. But it needs to be a dialogue, I think, and contextualization, even good contextualization often makes outsiders clearly uncomfortable, as perhaps it should.

When hearing about or seeing followers of Jesus from very different contexts, even charitable people may be uncomfortable, and we may be overly dismissive at first. Something about our sinful hard wiring makes most of us naturally ethnocentric with the result that different is always perceived as bad, rather than simply different. So we do well to ask questions seeking clarity. We want to understand clearly, if we can, what we’re seeing and hearing means in that context and what it doesn’t mean and perhaps cannot mean. Please don’t assume that you know what it means for him to nod his head. It might mean no! not yes! In fact, in Turkey, apparently it does mean “No,” or… it can mean “hello.” That’s dumb, you say…no, it’s just different, like many aspects of foreign cultures that make us uncomfortable, especially when meanings are not clearly understood.

When we hear or read of Muslim background believers saying some things that make us uncomfortable, we need first to understand clearly what they mean and what they intend to communicate with that phrase or behavior. When we hear first generation Asian Christians struggling to express their Christology in English, and their terminology makes us uncomfortable, let’s make sure we understand clearly what they are saying and intend to say before we reject them or label them heretics. When a pioneer church planter explains how the local assemblies are ordered in his context, make sure we listen and dialogue with a view to understanding before we simply dismiss that arrangement as un-biblical.

We’re not to be cultural relativists, no, not at all. And acceptable outsiders do have an important role to play in discipling and training cross culturally. But Christian charity requires those who contextualize to aim for clarity in showing and telling the gospel message, not to make their hearers comfortable with a message that God clearly intends to disrupt and challenge a culture’s values and worldview. That same charity requires outsiders to endure a little discomfort from time to time for the sake of clarity in communicating the good news in contexts very different from our own.  So, sometimes I guess maybe it’s ok, for the right reasons, to be clearly uncomfortable with contextualization.

Ed Roberts

Ed Roberts has been planting churches in Central Asia for nearly twenty years.

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