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The Gospel and Culture Project
o What is Gospel contextualization? What are the dangers of contextualization when done wrong? What is the danger of not contextualizing? How can we contextualize the Gospel properly?chapter 7 INTENTIONAL CONTEXTUALIZATION Redeemer City to City is an agency that
promotes church planting and gospel movements in the great city centers of the world. As part of
our global ministry, we have had opportunities to talk with Chinese house church leaders. God is
blessing the church in China with extraordinary growth. However, when Chinese churches and
ministers who had experienced God’s blessing in their rural ministries entered the mushrooming
cities of China and tried to minister and communicate the gospel in the same ways that had been
blessed in the countryside, they saw less fruitfulness. Over a decade ago, several Dutch
denominations approached us. While they were thriving outside of urban areas, they had not
been able to start new, vital churches in Amsterdam in years—and most of the existing ones had
died out. These leaders knew the gospel; they had financial resources; they had the desire for
Christian mission. But they couldn’t get anything off the ground in the biggest city of their
country. In both cases, ministry that was thriving in the heartland of the country was unable to
make much of a dent in the city. It would have been easy to say, “The people of the city are too
spiritually proud and hardened.” But the church leaders we met chose to respond humbly and
took responsibility for the problem. They concluded that the gospel ministry that had fit
nonurban areas well would need to be adapted to the culture of urban life. And they were right.
This necessary adaptation to the culture is an example of what we call “contextualization.”
SOUND CONTEXTUALIZATION Contextualization is not—as is often argued—“giving
people what they want to hear.” Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may
not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are
asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with
force they can feel, even if they reject them. Sound contextualization means translating and
adapting the communication and ministry of the gospel to a particular culture without
compromising the essence and particulars of the gospel itself. The great missionary task is to
express the gospel message to a new culture in a way that avoids making the message
unnecessarily alien to that culture, yet without removing or obscuring the scandal and offense of
biblical truth. A contextualized gospel is marked by clarity and attractiveness, and yet it still
challenges sinners’ self-sufficiency and calls them to repentance. It adapts and connects to the
culture, yet at the same time challenges and confronts it. If we fail to adapt to the culture or if we
fail to challenge the culture—if we under- or overcontextualize—our ministry will be unfruitful
because we have failed to contextualize well. Perhaps the easiest way to quickly grasp the
concept is to think about a common phenomenon. Have you ever sat through a sermon that was
biblically sound and doctrinally accurate—yet so boring that it made you want to cry? What
made it tedious? Sometimes it’s the mechanics (e.g., a monotone delivery), but more often a
boring sermon is doctrinally accurate but utterly irrelevant. The listener says to himself or
herself, “You’ve shown me something that may be true, but in any case I don’t care. I don’t see
how it would actually change how I think, feel, and act.” A boring sermon is boring because it
fails to bring the truth into the listeners’ daily life and world. It does not connect biblical truth to
the hopes, narratives, fears, and errors of people in that particular time and place. It does not help
the listener to even want Christianity to be true. In other words, the sermon fails at
contextualizing the biblical truth for the hearers. When we contextualize faithfully and skillfully,
we show people how the baseline “cultural narratives” of their society and the hopes of their
hearts can only find resolution and fulfillment in Jesus. What do I mean by this? Some cultures
are pragmatic and prod their members to acquire possessions and power. Some are
individualistic and urge their members to seek personal freedom above all. Others are “honor and
shame” cultures, with emphasis on respect, reputation, duty, and bringing honor to your family.
Some cultures are discursive and put the highest value on art, philosophy, and learning. These
are called “cultural narratives” because they are stories that a people tell about themselves to
make sense out of their shared existence. But whatever these personal and cultural narratives
may be, sound contextualization shows people how the plotlines of the stories of their lives can
only find a happy ending in Christ. So contextualization has to do with culture, but what exactly
is culture? Effective contextualization addresses culture in the broadest sense of the word, along
the maximum surface area. Culture is popularly conceived narrowly—as language, music and
art, food and folk customs—but properly understood, it touches every aspect of how we live in
the world. Culture takes the raw materials of nature and creates an environment. When we take
the raw material of the earth to build a building or use sounds and rhythms to compose a song or
fashion our personal experiences into a story, we are creating an environment we call a culture.
We do all this, however, with a goal: to bring the natural order into the service of particular
“commanding truths,” core beliefs, and assumptions about reality and the world we live in.
Missionary G. Linwood Barney speaks of culture as resembling an onion. The inmost core is a
worldview—a set of normative beliefs about the world, cosmology, and human nature. Growing
immediately out of that layer is a set of values—what is considered good, true, and beautiful.
The third layer is a set of human institutions that carry on jurisprudence, education, family life,
and governance on the basis of the values and worldview. Finally comes the most observable
part of culture—human customs and behavior, material products, the built environment, and so
on. Some have rightly criticized this model—of an onion or a ladder—as not sufficient to show
how much all these “layers” interact with and shape one another. For example, institutions can
produce something new like the United States interstate highway system, which created “car
culture” behavior, which has in turn undermined older forms of communities and therefore many
institutions. So the interactions are neither linear nor one-way. But the main point here is that
contextualizing the gospel in a culture must account for all these aspects. It does not mean
merely changing someone’s behavior, but someone’s worldview. It does not mean adapting
superficially—for example, in music and clothing. Culture affects every part of human life. It
determines how decisions are made, how emotions are expressed, what is considered private and
public, how the individual relates to the group, how social power is used, and how relationships,
particularly between genders, generations, classes, and races, are conducted. Our culture gives
distinct understandings of time, conflict resolution, problem solving, and even the way in which
we reason. All these factors must be addressed when we seek to do gospel ministry. David Wells
writes, “Contextualization is not merely a practical application of biblical doctrine but a
translation of that doctrine into a conceptuality that meshes with the reality of the social
structures and patterns of life dominant in our contemporary life.” Skill in contextualization is
one of the keys to effective ministry today. In particular, churches in urban and cultural centers
must be exceptionally sensitive to issues of contextualization, because it is largely there that a
society’s culture is being forged and is taking new directions. It is also a place where multiple
human cultures live together in uneasy tension, so cultural compounds are more complex and
blended there. A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TERM The term contextualization may have first
been used in 1972 by Shoki Coe, a Taiwanese-born man who was one of the key figures in the
formation of the World Council of Churches. Coe questioned the adequacy of the older
“indigenous church movement” model identified with Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson. Venn
and Anderson directed Western missionaries to plant churches in new cultures that were “selfsupporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.” Older missionaries had planted churches in
foreign cultures and maintained control of them indefinitely, using native Christians only in
assisting roles. They also explicitly directed national Christians to adopt Western ways
wholesale. The indigenous church movement, however, called missionaries to see themselves as
temporary workers whose job was to do initial evangelism and then, as quickly as possible, to
turn the churches over to indigenous, national leadership so the Christian churches could worship
and minister in native languages, music, and culture. This was a good and important step forward
in our understanding of how Christian mission is conducted. But Coe, who served as principal of
Tainan Theological College, argued that something more than just empowering national leaders
was needed. He observed that the missionaries still gave national leaders forms of church
ministry—ways of expressing and formulating the gospel and structuring churches—that were
unalterably Western. National Christians were not being encouraged to think creatively about
how to communicate the gospel message to their own culture. The Theological Education Fund
of the World Council of Churches was the first agency to use this new term and pursue it within
its mission. The earliest work under this name, however, caused grave concerns. Following the
existential theological thinking of Rudolf Bultmann, who was still highly influential in the
1970s, and Ernst Käsemann, theologians connected to the WCC insisted that the New Testament
was itself largely adapted to a Hellenistic worldview that did not have abiding validity.
Therefore, it was argued, Christians were free to determine in whatever way that fit their
particular culture the “inner thrust of Christian [biblical] revelation” and discard or adapt the rest.
This approach to contextualization assumes that both the text (Bible) and context (culture) are
relative and equally authoritative. Through a dialectical process in which the two are brought
into relationship to one another, we search for the particular form of Christian truth (with a small
t) that fits a culture for the time being. Virtually any part of the Christian faith, then—the deity of
Christ, the triunity of God, the gracious basis of the gospel—can be jettisoned or filled with
radically new content, depending on the particular cultural setting. In the name of
contextualizing to its culture, a church has the potential to make radical changes to historic
Christian doctrine. The irony is deep. The original call for contextualization intended to allow
national churches to do theological reflection without having extrabiblical, Western thought
forms imposed on them. However, much of what the ecumenical WCC Theological Education
Fund propagated was nonetheless deeply shaped by Western thinking. Contextualization based
on the idea of a nonauthoritative Bible stems from the views of modern Western theologians who
themselves accepted the European Enlightenment’s skepticism about the miraculous and
supernatural. The result was that, yet again, the Christian faith was overadapted to culture. This
time it was not the older, more conservative Western culture of nineteenth-century missionaries,
but the liberal culture of twentieth-century Western academia. THE DANGER OF
CONTEXTUALIZING Because of this history, the word contextualization makes many people
in conservative theological circles nervous, as indeed it should. As Craig Blomberg points out in
an essay on contextualization, “Many who have embraced universalism began life as
evangelicals … In the Spanish-speaking world, the same is true of many liberation theologians.”
In all these cases, the values of a culture were given preference over the authority of Scripture. IS
CULTURE NEUTRAL? The view of culture as something neutral can’t really account for the
power of culture. James Hunter writes, “The problem with this perspective … is that it assumes a
… self, one free and Independent from culture, unencumbered by moral commitments defined by
virtue of one’s membership in the community. But culture is much more pervasive, powerful,
and compelling than is allowed for in the liberal understanding of the self.” Although the word
contextualization was not around at the time, this was the same issue J. Gresham Machen faced
in the Presbyterian Church in the early twentieth century. In his book Christianity and
Liberalism, Machen states that liberal Christianity was trying to solve a problem: What is the
relation between Christianity and modern culture; may Christianity be maintained in a scientific
age? It is this problem which modern liberalism attempts to solve. Admitting that scientific
objections may arise against the particularities of the Christian religion—against the Christian
doctrines of the person of Christ, and of redemption through His death and resurrection—the
liberal theologian seeks to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these
particularities are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards
as constituting “the essence of Christianity.” As a matter of fact … what the liberal theologian
has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not
Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a
distinct category. Machen, speaking from the early twentieth century, declared that his culture
had become “naturalistic”—it had completely rejected any account of supernatural intervention
by God. Everything, in this view, must have a natural, scientific explanation. The problem with
the liberal Christianity of Machen’s day is that it granted this cultural belief, even though it
clearly contradicted Scripture. Liberal Christianity adapted to the culture when it should have
been confronting it. In order (they thought) to make Christianity palatable to modern people,
liberal Christian leaders redefined all doctrine in naturalistic terms. The reformulated version of
Christianity looked (and still looks) like this: • The Bible is filled with divine wisdom, but this
doesn’t mean it is inerrant—it is a human document that has errors and contradictions. • Jesus is
the Son of God, but this doesn’t mean he was the preexisting, divine Son of God. He was a great
man infused with God’s Spirit. • Jesus’ death is not a cosmic event that propitiates the wrath of
God—it is an example of sacrificial love that changes us by moving us through his example. •
Becoming a Christian, then, doesn’t entail the supernatural act of the new birth. It means to
follow the example of Jesus, follow the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, and live a life of
love and justice in the world. Machen goes on to argue forcefully and persuasively that the effort
to reconcile Christianity to a naturalistic philosophy results not in an adapted version of biblical
faith but an entirely new religion, one that directly contradicts classic Christianity at nearly every
important point. Perhaps the most telling and devastating example is given in Machen’s chapter
titled “Salvation.” There he points out that if Jesus’ atonement is now just an example of how to
live, and if being a Christian is not to be born again but to live like Jesus, we have replaced the
Christian gospel of salvation by grace with a religion of salvation by good works. “Such teaching
is just a sublimated form of legalism,” he concludes. The call to contextualize the gospel has
been—and still often is—used as a cover for religious syncretism. This means not adapting the
gospel to a particular culture, but rather surrendering the gospel entirely and morphing
Christianity into a different religion by overadapting it to an alien worldview. But how do we
judge when we have moved from legitimate contextualization into fatal syncretism? In a helpful
essay, Natee Tanchanpongs states that evangelicals usually try to defend contextualization by
arguing that it is simply adapting the less essential parts of Christianity and that syncretism
occurs when “the critical and basic elements” of the gospel are lost. In this view,
contextualization involves keeping the essentials while flexing on the nonessentials.
Tanchanpongs argues, however, that it is wrong to look at Scripture and imagine that some core,
essential teachings are more important than other, more tangential ones. In fact, Harvie Conn
argued that syncretism is most likely to occur when (in the name of culture) we forbid the whole
of Scripture to speak. Every culture will find some parts of Scripture more attractive and other
parts more offensive. It will be natural, then, for those in that culture to consider the inoffensive
parts more “important” and “essential” than the offensive parts. This is exactly what the liberal
Christianity of Machen’s day did in rejecting the “offensive” supernatural elements of the Bible.
Syncretism is, in fact, a rejection of the full authority of the Bible, a picking and choosing among
its various teachings to create a Christianity that does not confront or offend. Faithful
contextualization, then, should adapt the communication and practice of all scriptural teaching to
a culture (see below on the dangers of having a “canon within a canon” when contextualizing).
THE INEVITABILITY OF CONTEXTUALIZING Here is a beautiful paradox that is easy to
miss: the fact that we must express universal truth in a particular cultural context does not mean
that the truth itself is somehow lost or less universal. D. A. Carson writes, “[While] no truth
which human beings may articulate can ever be articulated in a culture-transcending way … that
does not mean that the truth thus articulated does not transcend culture.” It is important to seek to
maintain the balance of this careful and important statement. First, this means there is no one,
single way to express the Christian faith that is universal for everyone in all cultures. As soon as
you express the gospel, you are unavoidably doing it in a way that is more understandable and
accessible for people in some cultures and less so for others. On the other hand, while there is no
culture-transcending way to express the truths of the gospel, there is nonetheless only one true
gospel. The truths of the gospel are not the products of any culture, and they stand in judgment
over all human cultures. If you forget the first truth—that there is no culture-less presentation of
the gospel—you will think there is only one true way to communicate it, and you are on your
way to a rigid, culturally bound conservatism. If you forget the second truth—that there is only
one true gospel—you may fall into relativism, which will lead to a rudderless liberalism. Either
way, you will be less faithful and less fruitful in ministry. LIBERALISM AND NATURALISM
When liberal Christianity adopted naturalism, it assumed this was a permanent change in human
thinking that had to be accepted. Those who clung to supernatural Christianity were, it was said,
“on the wrong side of history.” But this was a category mistake. Early modernity was both
naturalistic (“everything must have a natural, scientific explanation”) and individualistic (“there
can be no higher authority than the reasoning, choosing self”). Late modernity or postmodernity,
however, while maintaining belief in the autonomous self, has rejected naturalism’s confidence
that science can eventually answer all-important questions and that technology can solve all
significant problems. Liberal Christianity wedded itself to what is now seen as a fading, obsolete
cultural view. Pentecostalism (the most supernaturalistic form of the faith) and other forms of
orthodox Christianity have grown exponentially in the past hundred years, leaving liberal
Christianity far behind. What should we conclude from this? If there is no single, context-free
way to express the gospel, then contextualization is inevitable. As soon as you choose a language
to speak in and particular words to use within that language, the culture-laden nature of words
comes into play. We often think that translating words from one language to another is simple—
it’s just a matter of locating the synonym in the other language. But there are few true synonyms.
The word God is translated into German as Gott—simple enough. But the cultural history of
German speakers is such that the word Gott strikes German ears differently than the English
word God strikes the ears of English speakers. It means something different to them. You may
need to do more explanation if you are to give German speakers the same biblical concept of
God that the word conveys to English speakers. Or maybe a different word will have to be used
to have the same effect. As soon as you choose words, you are contextualizing, and you become
more accessible to some people and less so to others. There is no universal presentation of the
gospel for all people. However, even within the field of one language, numerous other factors
unavoidably involve us in the work of contextualization. Let’s think back for a moment to the
boring sermon. Sometimes the sermon we hear is boring because it went on for too long (or it
was not long enough) to engage the listeners. One of the most culturally sensitive areas of human
life is this area of time. What various people and cultures consider “late” and “too long” varies
widely. In the United States, African-American and Hispanic Christians have services in which
singing, prayer, and preaching go on at least 50 percent longer than the attention spans and
comfort zones of most Anglo people. Anyone who leads worship services will, then, unavoidably
be contextualizing toward some people and away from others. A sermon can also lose listeners
because of the types of metaphors and illustrations that are chosen. When Jesus tells those who
preach the gospel to hostile people to avoid throwing pearls to pigs (Matt 7:6), he is uniting two
fields of discourse. He is connecting preaching the gospel to the concrete world of raising pigs.
By doing so, he is conveying meaning in a far more riveting and illuminating way than if he had
simply said, “Don’t preach the gospel indefinitely to people who are hostile to it.” Jesus used an
illustration, but every illustration by definition must use some concrete life experience. And so,
as soon as we choose an illustration, we move toward some people (who share those life
experiences) and become more remote and less accessible to others (who do not). I once spoke to
a mature British Christian believer from a working-class background. For a time, he attended a
solidly evangelical church, but all the leaders and ministers were from the upper classes and the
elite schools. The preaching referred to life situations and concepts that the speakers knew,
which meant frequent illustrations drawn from the sports of cricket and rugby. This man shared,
“People in my world know very little of these sports, and the constant references to them
reminded me that I did not go to their schools or have their privileges. That was distracting, but
not insurmountable, because we are all one in Christ now. But I realized that I could not bring to
that church the working-class folks to whom I was ministering. The continual reminders that the
leaders were from the upper crust would make it very hard for my friends to listen to the Word.
You might say to them, ‘Why so touchy?’—but you can’t expect people to be sanctified before
they are justified. You can’t expect people who are not yet believers to shed all their cultural
sensitivities.” Eventually he went to another church. Does this example mean that the church in
this situation failed in some way? It is possible that the church could have consulted with this
man and others to discuss ways that it could have been less culturally strange and remote to
working-class people. But there is always a limit to this flexibility. The preachers must choose
some particular illustrations and concepts that will inevitably be more meaningful to some
cultural groups than others. We need to stretch as much as we can to be as inclusive as possible.
But we must also be aware of our limits. We should not live in the illusion that we can share the
gospel so as to make it all things to all people at once. Another reason a sermon can be accurate
but still have little impact is that the level of emotional expressiveness is not calibrated to the
culture of the person listening. I once had a Hispanic member of my church tell me, a bit
sheepishly, that when he brought other Hispanic people to hear me preach at Redeemer, he had
to tell them, “He really does believe what he is saying with all his heart, in spite of what it looks
like.” He had to do that because so many people from his culture felt that my level of emotional
expression signaled indifference to my subject matter. “In our culture, if you really believe
something and are committed to it, you express more feeling.” I was struck by the fact that if I
adapted to a certain type of culture and expressed my emotions more fervently, it would look to
people from another culture like a rant and be completely unpersuasive to them. There is no
universal presentation. We cannot avoid contextualization. We have talked about the manner and
mode of preaching, but contextualization also has much to do with the content. A sermon could
be unengaging to a person because, though expressing accurate biblical truth, it does not connect
biblical teaching to the main objections and questions people in that culture have about faith. A
few years ago, I participated in a consultation on evangelism for several churches in London.
One of the dilemmas we discussed was the two very different groups of non-Christians in a
particular area of the city. On one side were millions of Hindus and Muslims who believed that
Christianity was not moralistic enough; on the other side were secular British people who
thought that Christianity was far too rigidly moralistic. Of course, the gospel is neither legalism
nor antinomianism, and so it is possible to preach a single sermon on the gospel that engages
listeners from both groups, but if we are ministering in a neighborhood or area dominated by one
of these groups, we must preach each passage with the particular objections of that people group
firmly in mind. No one single gospel presentation will be equally engaging and compelling to
both sides. GARDENS OR FIELDS? Craig Blomberg points out that in Matthew’s parable of the
mustard seed, the sower sows his seed in a “field” (agros, Matt 13:31), while in Luke the sowing
is in a “garden” (kēpos, Luke 13:19). Jews never grew mustard plants in gardens, but always out
on farms, while Greeks in the Mediterranean basin did the opposite. It appears that each gospel
writer was changing the word that Jesus used in Mark—the word for “earth” or “ground” (gē,
Mark 4:31)—for the sake of his hearers. There is a technical contradiction between the Matthean
and Lukan terms, states Blomberg, “but not a material one. Luke changes the wording precisely
so that his audience is not distracted from … the lesson by puzzling over an … improbable
practice.” The result is that Luke’s audience “receives his teaching with the same impact as the
original audience.” Finally, as we will see below, contextualization doesn’t simply include
language and vocabulary, emotional expressiveness and illustrations. It goes even deeper.
Contextualization affects the way we reason because people in one culture find one way of
appealing persuasive, while those of another may not. Some people are more logical; some are
more intuitive. When we choose a particular way to persuade and argue, we will unavoidably be
adapting more to some kinds of people than to others. CONTEXTUALIZATION IN
LEADERSHIP I used a boring sermon as my case study for contextualization (or a lack of it),
and so all my examples have been about verbal communication of the gospel. But culture has a
pervasive impact on every aspect of how a Christian community is ordered—how people relate
to each other, how leadership is exercised, how pastoral oversight and instruction is done. For
example, some years ago, a Korean member of my staff watched our pastoral staff make a
decision. He noticed that I as senior pastor would not betray my view at first but would try to get
everyone, even the youngest and newest, to offer their opinion; then I would affirm them and try
to incorporate their input into our final decision. He pointed out that in a first-generation Korean
church, the senior pastor would give his full view first and then others would comment in order
of age and seniority. Junior members of the pastoral staff only spoke after the decision was
already a fait accompli. As I listened to him, I realized there was no culture-free way for the
pastors of my church to make a decision. We were unavoidably going to be very contextualized
to one culture. As soon as we seek to communicate, we will automatically be making all sorts of
AREN’T) All gospel ministry and communication are already heavily adapted to a particular
culture. So it is important to do contextualization consciously. If we never deliberately think
through ways to rightly contextualize gospel ministry to a new culture, we will unconsciously be
deeply contextualized to some other culture. Our gospel ministry will be both overadapted to our
own culture and underadapted to new cultures at once, which ultimately leads to a distortion of
the Christian message. The subject of contextualization is particularly hard to grasp for members
of socially dominant groups. Because ethnic minorities must live in two cultures—the dominant
culture and their own subculture—they frequently become aware of how deeply culture affects
the way we perceive things. In the movie Gran Torino, an older blue-collar American named
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) lives alongside an Asian family in a deteriorating Detroit
neighborhood. He finds it impossible to understand the cultural forms of the Hmongs, just as the
elderly Hmongs (who cannot speak English and live completely within their ethnic enclave) find
Walt strange and inexplicable. But the teenage Hmong girl, Sue, is bicultural—she lives in both
worlds at once. So she understands and appreciates both Walt and her own parents and
grandparents. As a result, she is able to communicate persuasively to both about the other. Isn’t
this the very thing we are doing whenever we present the truth of the gospel to a culture that has
alienated itself from it? In the United States, Anglo-Americans’ public and private lives are lived
in the same culture. As a result, they are often culturally clueless. They relate to their own culture
in the same way a fish that, when asked about water, said, “What’s water?” If you have never
been out of water, you don’t know you are in it. Anglo Christians sometimes find talk of
contextualization troubling. They don’t see any part of how they express or live the gospel to be
“Anglo”—it is just the way things are. They feel that any change in how they preach, worship, or
minister is somehow a compromise of the gospel. In this they may be doing what Jesus warns
against—elevating the “traditions of men” to the same level as biblical truth (Mark 7:8). This
happens when one’s cultural approach to time or emotional expressiveness or way to
communicate becomes enshrined as the Christian way to act and live. Bruce Nicholls writes the
following: A contemporary example of cultural syncretism is the unconscious identification of
biblical Christianity with “the American way of life.” This form of syncretism is often found in
both Western and Third World, middle-class, suburban, conservative, evangelical congregations
who seem unaware that their lifestyle has more affinity to the consumer principles of capitalistic
society than to the realities of the New Testament, and whose enthusiasm for evangelism and
overseas missions is used to justify [lives of materialism and complacency]. Lack of cultural
awareness leads to distorted Christian living and ministry. Believers who live in individualistic
cultures such as the United States are blind to the importance of being in deep community and
placing themselves under spiritual accountability and discipline. This is why many church
hoppers attend a variety of churches and don’t join or fully enter any of them. American
Christians see church membership as optional. They take a nonbiblical feature of American
culture and bring it into their Christian life. On the other hand, Christians in more authoritarian
and patriarchal cultures often are blind to what the Bible says about freedom of conscience and
the grace-related aspects of Christianity. Instead, their leaders stress duty and are heavy-handed
rather than eager to follow Jesus’ words that “if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very
last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). An inability to see one’s own enculturation has other
results. One of the most basic mistakes ministers make is to regurgitate the methods and
programs that have personally influenced them. After experiencing the impact of a ministry in
one part of the world, they take up the programs and methods of that ministry and reproduce
them elsewhere virtually unchanged. If they have been moved by a ministry that has forty-fiveminute verse-by-verse expository sermons, a particular kind of singing, or a specific order and
length to the services, they reproduce it down to the smallest detail. Without realizing it, they
become method driven and program driven rather than theologically driven. They are
contextualizing their ministry expression to themselves, not to the people they want to reach. I
have been moved to see how churches and ministries around the world have looked at what we
do at Redeemer Presbyterian Church and how they have expressed their appreciation and have
sought to learn from this ministry. But I have been disappointed to visit some congregations that
have imitated our programs—even our bulletins—and haven’t grasped the underlying theological
principles that animate us. In other words, they haven’t done the hard work of contextualization,
reflecting on their own cultural situation and perspective to seek to better communicate the
gospel to their own context. They have also failed to spend time reflecting on what they see in
Redeemer and how we have adapted our ministry to an urban U.S. culture. Everyone
contextualizes—but few think much about how they are doing it. We should not only
contextualize but also think about how we do it. We must make our contextualization processes
visible, and then intentional, to ourselves and to others. QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION AND
REFLECTION 1. This chapter defines contextualization as “giving people the Bible’s answers,
which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time
and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and
arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.” Unpack the four parts of this
definition. Which of these elements of contextualization do you tend to do best? Which do you
tend to skip or overlook? 2. Evangelicals often try to defend contextualization by arguing that it
is about adapting the less essential parts of Christianity and that syncretism and compromise
occur when “the critical and basic elements” of the gospel are lost. In this view,
contextualization involves keeping the essentials while flexing on the nonessentials. What is the
danger of this approach, according to this chapter? 3. Keller writes, “There is no universal
presentation of the gospel for all people.” What do you think is meant by this statement? Do you
agree or disagree? 4. D. A. Carson is quoted as stating that “no truth which human beings may
articulate can ever be articulated in a culture-transcending way.” What distinctive values or
biases have you learned through your own cultural formation (family, hometown, nation, race,
church, etc.) that affect your communication of truth? Which biblical themes are you most
tempted to edit out? How did you become aware of these biases? 5. Keller writes, “One of the
most basic mistakes ministers make is to regurgitate the methods and programs that have
personally influenced them. After experiencing the impact of a ministry in one part of the world,
they take up the programs and methods of that ministry and reproduce them elsewhere virtually
unchanged … They are contextualizing their ministry expression to themselves, not to the people
they want to reach.” How have you seen this mistake made in ministry? What do you need to do
to begin intentionally contextualizing? chapter 8 BALANCED CONTEXTUALIZATION John
Stott’s book on preaching, Between Two Worlds, likens Christian communication to building a
bridge from the Scriptures to the contemporary world. Some sermons are like “a bridge to
nowhere.” They are grounded in solid study of the biblical text but never come down to earth on
the other side. That is, they fail to connect the biblical truth to people’s hearts and the issues of
their lives. Other sermons are like bridges from nowhere. They reflect on contemporary issues,
but the insights they bring to bear on modern problems and felt needs don’t actually arise out of
the biblical text. Proper contextualization is the act of bringing sound biblical doctrine all the
way over the bridge by reexpressing it in terms coherent to a particular culture. How do we do
this? Scholars point out that any reader of the Bible who wants to understand it must go back and
forth between two different horizons, between the two banks of the river in Stott’s analogy—the
biblical text and the reader’s cultural context. Scripture has supreme authority, and so it cannot
be wrong and does not need to be corrected. But a Christian communicator’s understanding of
the Bible may definitely be wrong—indeed, is always partly so—and therefore must always be
open to being corrected. The same goes for the gospel communicator’s understanding of the
hearer’s context, which can also benefit from more insight and correction. Many Christians
seeking to preach the gospel to a new culture are simply unwilling or unable to deal with this
issue; they believe their task is simply to carry biblical doctrine over the bridge into the new
culture. In other words, they see gospel communication as a one-way bridge. They do not like
the idea that information must come over the bridge in the other direction. They don’t see its
importance, or they see this as a threat to the authority of Scripture. The problem with this idea
of mission is that it assumes we who are on one side of the bridge already have an undistorted
grasp of the gospel, and that our knowledge of the culture on the other side is not important. This
view is blind to the truth that we are not only sinful but also finite, and therefore we cannot have
clear and exhaustive knowledge of anything. We are largely oblivious to the power of culture to
shape our understanding of things. So how can we guard the authority and integrity of Scripture
and remain open to being corrected in our understanding of it? How can our message to the new
culture be both faithful and fruitful? The answer is to allow some two-way traffic on the bridge.
When we approach the biblical text, we come with a “pre-understanding,” a set of already
established beliefs about the subjects addressed in the Bible. These beliefs are strong and deep,
and many are tacit—that is, they are difficult to verbalize, formulate, or even recognize in
oneself. They come from a variety of voices we have listened to within our own culture. This
does not mean we cannot or have not arrived at a sufficient and true understanding of biblical
teaching. But it does mean the process is not a simple one, for our existing beliefs—many of
them virtually unconscious—make it difficult for us to read Scripture rightly, to let it correct our
thinking, and to carry it faithfully over the bridge to someone who needs it. Because of our
cultural blinders, we must not only speak to the people over the bridge; we must listen to them as
well. We need to listen to what they are saying and take seriously their questions, their objections
to what we are saying, and their hopes and aspirations. More often than not, this interaction with
a new culture shows us many things taught in the Bible—things we either missed altogether or
thought unimportant, possibly even ways in which we misread the Bible through the lens of our
own cultural assumptions. When I was a professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia,
many of my students had traveled from Korea to study in our school. I often led case study
seminars that discussed real-life ministry situations with both Korean and Anglo-American
students. Despite the fact that all the students shared the same conservative Reformed theology,
they approached ministry in very different ways. One of the key differences had to do with how
my Asian students wielded and regarded human authority. Koreans cede far more power to
pastors and fathers, while American culture is much more egalitarian and democratic. The
Korean students were able to point out to American students that there is quite a lot in the Bible
about the authority of civil magistrates, parents, elders, and ministers, which Americans tend to
ignore or screen out because our culture is deeply suspicious of institutions and authority. But
while Korean students could point to texts such as Romans 13 and Hebrews 13:17, American
students could point Asian colleagues to passages such as Matthew 20:24–28 and 1 Peter 5:1–4
(warning against leaders “lording it over” others) or Acts 4:19 and 5:29 (telling us we must not
let human authority usurp God’s) or the book of Revelation (in which human authority
overreaches and becomes demonic). What was happening? Information was going back and forth
over the bridge. Our interaction with a different culture leads us to ask the text questions we may
never have asked it before and to see many things we didn’t see clearly before. Entering into the
text from a different perspective provides a point of triangulation that can help us to identify our
own culturally bound presuppositions about the gospel. As a result we begin to see truths and
insights in the Bible that were there all along, yet we had simply been blind to them. The
questions of the new culture reveal to us as communicators that we have our own unique cultural
blind spots. To provide another example, secular people in Western culture are highly
individualistic, which makes them sensitive to violations of human dignity on the basis of race.
Their commitment to individual freedom leads to sensitivity to racial prejudice wherever it
exists. Many Christians who have interacted with secularists have gone back to the Scriptures
and found that the Bible speaks far more about the evil of racism than they had thought.
Christians are not correcting the Bible, but they are correcting their understanding of the Bible
through humble interaction with nonbiblical philosophies. We know that God in his mercy
sometimes gives pagans morally informed consciences (Romans 2), which sense real evil and
truth even if their overall worldview has no basis for their insights. One of the main ways our
understanding of the Bible remains distorted is through what has been called “the canon within
the canon.” That is, we treat some parts of Scripture as more important and ignore or discard
other parts of it. All Christians fall victim to some form of this, depending on our temperament,
experience, and culture. D. A. Carson notes many instances of this. For example, the Bible tells
us that God loves everyone in the world with his providential love, and yet it also teaches us that
he loves the saved with his gracious love and is angry at the wicked. Different cultures will
respond to these biblical aspects of God’s love differently. Members of Western cultures love the
concept of God’s love for all and recoil from the doctrine of God’s wrath on evil. More
traditional tribal cultures will have no problem with a God of judgment but will bristle at the idea
that he loves all people groups equally. Each culture, then, will tend to highlight certain biblical
teachings and downplay others, creating a mini-canon within the canon of Scripture. But if we
stress the first biblical teaching (about God’s universal, providential love) and play down the
second (about God’s judgment)—or vice versa—we have distorted the faith. Interactions with
different cultures help us lose our blinders and slowly but surely move to a more rounded biblical
Christianity. Other examples abound. The Bible has much to say about wealth and poverty, and
what it says is enormously varied and nuanced. In some places it is very positive about private
property and riches—such as when God blesses Abraham, Job, and others with great wealth.
Other Bible passages contain severe warnings about the dangers of money and make strong
statements about the responsibility of God’s people to promote justice and care for the poor.
People typically ignore much of the teaching on one side and latch on to other parts, largely
dependent on whether they live in prosperous conditions or in poor ones. Carson summarizes,
“The name of the game is reductionism,” that is, taming Scripture by not letting all of it speak to
us. Our sociocultural location makes us prone to flatten the teachings of Scripture, ignoring some
parts and exaggerating others. When we interact with people from other cultures and social
settings, we find our particular distortions being challenged. So while gospel communicators
should seek to correct their hearers’ cultural beliefs with the gospel, it is inevitable that contact
with a new culture will also end up correcting the communicators’ understanding of the gospel.
The bridge, then, must run in both directions. While the Bible itself cannot be corrected by nonChristian cultures, individual Christians—and their culturally conditioned understanding of the
Bible—can and should be. There should be heavy traffic back and forth across the bridge. We
speak and listen, and speak and listen, and speak again, each time doing so more biblically and
more compellingly to the culture. THE BRIDGE AND THE SPIRAL The two-way bridge image
is important. In hindsight, we now recognize that the original call for “contextualization” in the
1970s was essentially a call for a two-way bridge rather than the older, one-way bridge of the
“indigenous church” model. The older model did not encourage national Christian leaders to
engage in deep theological reflection on how profoundly the gospel challenges culture. It
assumed that Western Christianity was the true, undistorted, universal expression of the faith.
Transporting it across the bridge required only a few minor adaptations, such as language
translation and appropriating native music and dress. Harvie Conn argued that the indigenous
model was based on a “functionalist” view of culture, which saw culture as a set of unrelated
practices that helped a people group adapt to its environment. In this view of culture, you can
slip out one piece of a culture (say, by replacing Hinduism with Christianity) and not expect the
rest of the culture to change (such as the music, art, family structures, relationships between
classes, and so on). This encouraged national Christians to engage in wholesale adoption of
much of their indigenous culture, uncritically embracing it without examining it in light of the
Scriptures. The indigenous church movement also failed by not challenging Western
missionaries to recognize the culturally adapted nature of their own theology and practices.
CONTEXTUAL THEOLOGY AND HARVIE CONN Much of my thinking in this section is
derived from Harvie Conn’s “Contextual Theology” course, available as a course syllabus and
recordings of twenty lectures from the Westminster bookstore. Conn relates how cultural
anthropologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century began to see each culture as a
complex set of practices, beliefs, and customs that helped a people group adapt to its
environment. This view was called “functionalism,” and it was a Darwinian approach. Culture
enabled people to survive in a particular environment. A culture was studied to determine how it
functionally met people’s psychological and social needs. The functionalist approach saw culture
as a fairly mechanical entity, like a set of keys on a ring. You could remove a couple of pieces
and put others in their place without changing the whole. The functionalist approach to culture fit
in well with the pietistic impulse of much of European Christianity. Pietism focuses on the inner
individual experience and does not expect or ask how the experience of salvation will change the
way we use our money, do our work, create our art, pursue our education, etc. In the indigenous
church movement, personal salvation is offered without much thought as to how Christianity
substantially changes a people’s attitude toward power and powerlessness, art and commerce,
cultural ritual and symbolism. Conn states, “The Christian faith is consigned to the realm of
mind and spirit rather than to the broad stream of the history of society and civilization.”
RECOMMENDED READINGS See Richard Lints’s excellent survey of the issues in The Fabric
of Theology (pp. 101–16). Other important works that occupy various points of view across the
middle of the contextualization spectrum include the following: Bevans, Stephen B. Models of
Contextual Theology, rev. ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1992. Carson, D. A. Biblical
Interpretation and the Church: The Problem of Contextualization. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster,
1984. Conn, Harvie. Eternal Word and Changing World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984. ——
—. “Contextualization: Where Do We Begin?” Pages 90–119 in Evangelicals and Liberation, ed.
Carl Amerding. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1977. ———. “The Missionary
Task of Theology: A Love/Hate Relationship.” Westminster Theological Journal 45 (1983): 1–
21. ———. “Normativity, Relevance, and Relativity.” Pages 185–210 in Inerrancy and
Hermeneutic, ed. Harvie Conn. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988. Cook, Matthew et al., eds. Local
Theology for the Global Church: Principles for an Evangelical Approach to Contextualization.
Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 2010. Cortez, Marc. “Context and Concept: Contextual
Theology and the Nature of Theological Discourse.” Westminster Theological Journal 67 (2005):
85–102. ———. “Creation and Context: A Theological Framework for Contextual Theology.”
Westminster Theological Journal 67 (2005): 347–62. Hesselgrave, David J., and Edward
Rommen. Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey
Library, 1989. Kraft, Charles. Communication Theory for Christian Witness. Nashville:
Abingdon, 1983. ———. Anthropology for Christian Witness. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1996.
Nicholls, Bruce J. Contextualization: A Theology of Gospel and Culture. Downers Grove, Ill.:
InterVarsity, 1979. Ott, Craig, and Harold Netland, eds. Globalizing Theology: Belief and
Practice in an Era of World Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006. Sanneh, Lamin. Translating
the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1989. But for all its
benefits, the two-way bridge has limitations as a metaphor for explaining contextualization. In
the end, evangelicals believe that the two sides of the bridge do not have equal authority—the
Bible is supreme. Yes, our interaction with culture helps us adjust and change our understanding
of the Bible for the better, but in the final analysis, the Bible must be seen as the ultimate
authority over both the culture and our consciousness. If the Bible is instead seen as a fallible
product of human culture, then we are locked in an endless interpretive circle that goes back and
forth between our culture and the Bible. In this view, the Bible and culture are equally
authoritative, which is to say equally relative. Thus we may use the Bible to correct a culture, but
we can also use the culture to argue that parts of the Bible are now obsolete. This is why, for
example, some mainline denominations use the Bible to denounce various forms of economic
injustice in the United States, but at the same time they insist that what the Bible teaches about
sex and gender is oppressive and dated. Following this pattern, in every generation and culture
Christianity will be changing radically, often contradicting the teaching of the church in other
centuries and lands. There is no way for us to increasingly come to grasp the truth. But the
deeper flaw in this “hermeneutical circle” approach is that it cannot exist in real life. Though we
may say we make the Bible and culture equally authoritative, in the end we really are not doing
so. If we state that what the Bible says here is true but what the Bible says over here is regressive
and outdated, we have absolutized our culture and given it final authority over the Bible. Either
the Bible has final authority and determines what in the culture is acceptable or unacceptable, or
the culture has final authority over the Bible and determines what in the text is acceptable or
unacceptable. So the image of the circle (or of a completely symmetrical two-way bridge) falls
short. In the end the circle must be broken, and, fallen creatures that we are, we will always
break it by privileging our own cultural biases. For these reasons evangelicals have insisted that
while contextualization must be a two-way process, the final authority of the Bible must be
maintained. This is why many have come now to speak of contextualization as a hermeneutical
spiral rather than a circle. If Scripture and culture are equally authoritative, the movement back
and forth between text and context is an endless circle of change. But if Scripture is the supreme
authority and the interaction with culture is for the purpose of understanding the text more
accurately (not to bring it into line with the culture), then the text-context movement is a spiral,
moving us toward better and better understanding of the Word of God and how it can be brought
to bear on and communicated to a particular culture. Using the hermeneutical spiral, evangelicals
have been seeking to avoid either extreme on a spectrum described by Richard Lints in his book
The Fabric of Theology. At one end of his spectrum is a cultural fundamentalism that believes
we can read the Bible and express its theology in culture-free, universal terms; at the other end is
a cultural relativism that holds “that the Scripture can have no other meaning than that which is
permitted by the conceptuality of the present-day situation.” Evangelicals seek to work in the
middle of this spectrum, insisting that while there are no universal, culture-free expressions of
biblical teachings, the Bible nonetheless expresses absolute and universal truths. I would call this
approach “balanced contextualization” because it avoids these two extremes as it rests,
ultimately and firmly, on the fulcrum of scriptural authority. Lints writes that despite the effort to
find this middle ground of balanced contextualization, there is still a lack of consensus about
many particulars, and of course many evangelicals tend to lean toward one side of the spectrum
or the other. Some are moving more toward giving the culture more say in how the gospel is
communicated, and this is driving others toward the other end of the spectrum, refusing to
acknowledge how culturally influenced our theological formulations are. Since this is a book for
practitioners, I will not delve further into a discussion of the more theoretical issues related to
contextualization other than to say how important it is to maintain the balance that Lints and
many others speak of. But it’s important not only to maintain this balance, but to do so in a way
that is shaped by the patterns and examples of Scripture. I want to look at three biblical
foundations for doing contextualization and then use Paul’s ministry to provide some examples
and practical “ways and means” to go about it. QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION AND
REFLECTION 1. When you err in the way you contextualize the gospel, do you tend to create a
“bridge to nowhere,” or a “bridge from nowhere?” What makes you suspect this is true? What
factors or beliefs contribute to this tendency? 2. Keller writes, “Our interaction with a different
culture leads us to ask the text questions we may never have asked it before and to see many
things we didn’t see clearly before … As a result we begin to see truths and insights in the Bible
that were there all along, yet we had simply been blind to them.” Have you ever experienced the
benefit of interacting with another culture in this way? What blind spots has this experience
revealed to you in your own understanding of the Bible and the gospel? 3. What is your “canon
within the canon”? Take a few moments to jot down the themes of Scripture to which you
typically give special prominence. Which parts do you notice other Christians emphasizing that
you do not? Do you see a pattern? What does this tell you about your spiritual or cultural blind
spots? 4. Keller writes, “Evangelicals have been seeking to avoid either extreme on a spectrum
… At one end … is a cultural fundamentalism that believes we can read the Bible and express its
theology in culture-free, universal terms; at the other end is a cultural relativism that holds ‘that
the Scripture can have no other meaning than that which is permitted by the conceptuality of the
present-day situation.’ ” What dangers are associated with each of these two extremes? What
examples have you seen of either extreme? On which side of the spectrum do you tend to err?
Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand
Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 89–106.

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