3 Unhelpful Ways to Do Contextualization

I recently used the phrase “throwing shade” in exactly the wrong way. In a valiant attempt to utilize relevant language, I promised a colleague that I’d “throw them some shade” when I got the chance. I meant to promise them that I’d promote them and their project when the opportunity arose. I assumed that shade was a good thing, like giving someone shade on a hot day.

Later, I began to doubt my use of this lingo, so I asked my twenty-six-year-old son about it. He explained that throwing shade meant something, well, bad. It actually means to dis (another term I use with trepidation) or to talk trash about someone. Unfortunately, my inexperience with today’s lingo doesn’t end there. At another time, I read the symbol # in an announcement before hundreds of college students as “number sign.” Now I know it means “hashtag” (whatever that is!).

If you’re on your way to the mission field, or already there, you may be fearing a similar situation. You may fear that your attempts to contextualize the gospel in a new culture may look like my attempts to use “shade.” And as I seem to be the expert on bad contextualization, let me start by sharing with you three unhelpful ways to contextualize before exploring a more healthy mindset for contextualization.

1. Make Them Too Much like You

Every Christian first trusted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior in one particular culture. They then grew as Christians within this culture, often making it the only way they know how to express their faith. It’s tempting to take our experience of Christianity and try to fit those from another culture into our perspectives, practices, and terms.

“Our gospel calling doesn’t involve Westernizing, Americanizing, Canadianizing, or any other attempt to force the host culture to look like our own.”

However, our gospel calling doesn’t involve Westernizing, Americanizing, Canadianizing, or any other attempt to force the host culture to look like our own.

2. Make You Too Much like Them

Surely, in order to share the gospel with others, we must respectfully enter their space, learning their language and understanding their history. We can’t, however, just start acting like them as a tactical move, attempting to throw off our own cultural shaping by taking off our business suit and putting on a pair of jeans.

Further, we mustn’t compromise the transcendent authority of the gospel when we translate it into the vernacular and customs of any culture. Paul became all things to all people for the sake of the gospel. He never altered the gospel for the sake of contextualization (1 Cor. 9:23).

3. Create a Neutral ‘Christian’ Culture

Paul argued that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal. 3:28). Is he claiming that Christianity is a third race? Does mature Christianity leave culture behind in order to create a third, dis-encultured, neutral space? To begin, we must realize that it is impossible to sterilize ourselves or others from culture. Additionally, God envisions for us a church “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” worshiping him (Rev. 7:9; NIV hereafter). The gospel doesn’t melt all national, tribal, personal, and language differences into one, neutral culture.

Now, you may be thinking, “Okay, I know how I shouldn’t contextualize, but what should I do?” Theologian Miroslav Volf suggests that every Christian must depart their culture without leaving it in order to reach “the other” well. While “departing without leaving” sounds contradictory, understanding this paradox can revolutionize the way we approach missions.

Departing . . .

In order for Abraham to follow God’s call to bless “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3), he first had to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household (Gen. 12:1). Like the disciples who left “their nets” (economy) and “their father” (family) (see Mark 1:16–20), we’re called to an absolute allegiance to Jesus Christ that transcends any culture.

“The gospel demands a transcendent allegiance.”

As Volf writes, “At the very core of Christian identity lies an all-encompassing change of loyalty, from a given culture with its gods to the God of all cultures.” This idea of departing relates to missiologist Andrew Walls’s “pilgrim” principle. This principle whispers to the Christian “that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society; for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system.”

The gospel demands a transcendent allegiance.

. . . without Leaving

Yet, in Abraham’s departing, God announced, “All nations will be blessed through you” (Gal. 3:8). Jesus Christ inhabited a specific culture, and his church is composed beautifully of different cultural expressions of the gospel. Jesus told his disciples that they would become “fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19)—using the vernacular of the culture that they dwelled within. He took on a particular body in a particular place to declare God’s universal love for all people groups in all places.

All Christians, then, are called to inhabit a certain culture and work out the gospel in a particular location—a principle that Walls refers to as the “indigenizing” principle. In a sense, we can’t completely depart from our culture because it’s essential to who we are and how we live out our faith. We recognize that our primary love—our allegiance to Christ—is in some sense defined by our cultural particularities. The cultures we contextualize in will manifest these particularities differently, and once we are able to value those particularities, we are able to love others—and “indigenize” Christianity—well.

Thus, to contextualize well, we depart without leaving. We’re loyal to Christ above our place and people, but our allegiance to him calls us to love our place and people with his love, a love that embraces and transforms every culture.

“The gospel has an inherent power to contextualize because it addresses the spiritual condition of all people everywhere.”

Adopting this fresh perspective on contextualization calls the Christian missionary to do two things. First, look critically at your own context. How has the gospel shaped your culture in fruitful and productive ways? Is your first allegiance to Christ above your native land and people? Next, reflect on the mission field where you’re hoping to serve or are presently ministering. What inroads has the church made into cultural transformation already? What is good, true, and beautiful within the culture that is compatible with the gospel, and what aspects of the culture run counter to the gospel?

Finally, don’t put all the pressure for contextualizing on yourself. The gospel has an inherent power to contextualize because it addresses the spiritual condition of all people everywhere. It has worked its way out in faithful expressions in every era and place, from the first believers in Jerusalem to the uttermost parts of the earth. Christ, who is supreme over every context, loves every culture the same by bringing the gospel to bear in each land and people group differently. His desire isn’t to make all cultures the same but to transform each one of them into a unique and original, creative expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Align your primary allegiance to him, and let your love for people stem from this love.

Mark D. Allen (PhD, University of Notre Dame; DMin, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) is an elder at Forest Baptist Church in Forest, Virginia, and serves as the executive director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement at Liberty University and the executive editor of Faith and the Academy. He and Joshua D. Chatraw are the authors of Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness (Zondervan, 2018).