No First-Century Churches Exist Today, So Biblically-Faithful Contextualization Matters

Contextualization is a hot topic in missions. When a Hindu hears “You must be born again” (John 3:7 ESV) and thinks in terms of reincarnation, he needs help understanding Jesus’s words. Helping him involves contextualization. Simply put, contextualization is the word we use for the process of making the gospel and the church as much at home as possible in a given cultural context.

There’s No Such Thing as a First-Century Church Today

Our culture today is very different from the culture of the first churches in first-century Palestine. We dress differently and eat different foods. Our homes, furniture, and religious buildings are different, and so are our cultural customs. Our church services look and feel very different in everything from the language we speak to our seating arrangements to the music we sing. There is no such thing as a first-century church in the twenty-first century. This is as true in North America as it is in any mission field in the world.

“We need to make sure that the only
offense we give is the offense
of the gospel and not the offense
of our foreignness.”

Every church today contextualizes the gospel message and the church to their own modern cultural setting. That being the case, how do we contextualize well? Certain principles help us to think through the issues.

Here are five questions that lead toward biblically faithful contextualization.

  1. Does the Bible give a clear command or a prohibition about this matter? (If not, adapt.)
    Some things are simply different from one culture to another, and there are no biblical principles at stake. It really doesn’t matter whether you eat with a fork, or with chopsticks, or with your hands. It really doesn’t matter, biblically speaking, whether you take your shoes off at the door or wear them into the house. It really doesn’t matter whether you eat steak and potatoes, or stir-fried squid, or roasted sheep eyeballs—at least not in moral or spiritual terms. Musical styles vary wildly from culture to culture, but the Bible doesn’t tell us anything about tonal patterns. In matters like these, where the Bible gives us no commands or prohibitions, we need to adapt to the culture of the people we are trying to reach.
  2. Does optional behavior, dress, or speech give offense? (If so, be sensitive to cultural norms.)
    Some things have moral significance but play out differently from one culture to another. For example, modesty in dress is a biblical value. However, what is modest in one culture may be very immodest in another. A modestly dressed person in North America might appear shockingly immodest in a traditional setting in the Middle East. Here again, in such cases, it is best to give up our “rights” and show sensitivity to the norms of the people we are trying to reach.
  3. Do clear biblical commands or prohibitions forbid you to adapt to this culture in certain ways? (If so, faithfully follow Christ.)
    Where the Bible draws a line, that line applies in every cultural setting. We don’t suddenly practice polygamy or beat our wives in order to fit in better with a new culture! Where the Bible gives us a command or a prohibition, those are binding across cultural lines.
  4. Are you clear that your aim is to make followers of Jesus, not to make North American Christians of all nations?
    Our goal is to make biblical Christians from all nations. The standard is Scripture, not us. We need to communicate clearly that we are not trying to turn people into Americans, and we need to make sure that the only offense we give is the offense of the gospel and not the offense of our foreignness.
  5. Are you at home with the fact that the gospel is at odds with fallen humanity?
    The Bible presents a worldview that is at odds with every fallen human culture. The nature and character of God, the nature of the world as a creation of God, the nature of humanity as created in the image of God and yet fallen and corrupted by sin, the requirements of God and the nature of right and wrong—all of these are taught by Scripture, along with many more things that shape the way we view reality. Every culture in the world, including modern Western culture, is deeply flawed in its worldview and needs to be corrected along biblical lines.

“The gospel challenges and stands in judgment over every culture, but it can be at home in any culture.”

Putting Principles into Practice

With these things in mind, we can draw several practical conclusions.

  • As gospel witnesses, we should adapt to local culture regarding biblically neutral things like the food we eat, the way we dress, and the way we furnish and decorate our homes. In these areas, we want to be as unremarkable in our new setting as possible. On the other hand, where local culture normalizes things that are clearly wrong in biblical terms, like sexual immorality or lying or racism or the oppression of women, we need to be visibly out of step with culture and in step with the Bible.
  • Our presentation of the gospel message should strive for clarity in our new cultural setting. So, for example, when we call Jesus the Son of God around Muslims, we realize that they have been taught the lie that Christians think that God the Father had sex with Mary the Mother to produce Jesus the Son. So, we are proactive in explaining that we believe and mean no such thing.
  • When we teach new believers, we realize that their worldview gives them different issues than ours (such as a deep fear of evil spirits in many cultures around the world), and we address those issues from Scripture. We learn their worldview, and we address the issues of that worldview in biblical terms. However, we never change or compromise any element of biblical truth simply to make the gospel more comfortable in any cultural setting.
  • With new believers and churches, we encourage them to remain in their society and live within the patterns of their culture as much as they can without compromising biblical standards. If they have buildings for their churches, those building should look local and not foreign. Their music should put biblical words to local tunes. Their teaching should apply the Bible to their issues, and it should reflect the learning styles and communication patterns of their culture. However, as image bearers of Jesus, they should also be different in all the right ways.

The gospel challenges and stands in judgment over every culture, but it can be at home in any culture.

Zane Pratt is vice president of training for the International Mission Board.