If you’re involved in North American missions of any kind, you’ve most likely heard that word. What is more, you probably have some vague sense that it is a borrowed term from international missions. And if you’ve studied it at all, you’re familiar with names like Lesslie Newbigin, who labored to demonstrate that even the West needed a missionary encounter and contextualization was essential for those of us who labor in North America. Eventually, the term was popularized and now every decent church planter equipping process mentions it, at least in some sense.
In short, North American church planters know they need to contextualize. For that matter, so do replanters, revitalizers, and regular ol‘ pastors who just want to reach their ministry context. (Note that we now speak in “contexts” when we talk about ministry.)
But what does contextualization actually mean?
Now that contextualization is a mainstay of missional vocabulary, it is easy to assume a definition. Often, well-meaning planters and pastors equate contextualization to mere surface level adjustments in order to be more “relevant” to their context. Contextualization is watered down to slapping a coffee bar in the foyer or adjusting worship style. At the opposite end of the spectrum is jettisoning core pieces of the gospel message in order to make it more palatable. In this way, contextualization is removing the biblical understanding of judgment for sin so that the message goes down smooth for the hearer.
Contextualization as Incarnation
Contextualization is more than letting people come to the worship service in t-shirts, and contextualization is never changing the message of Scripture so that people will like us. If we are to take seriously the importance of contextualization, a more robust, biblical understanding of the concept is required. In his helpful work, Contextualization in the New Testament, Dean Flemming traces the concept of contextualization through the New Testament. Most treatments of contextualization focus on social scientific explanations. Flemming does not discount the value found in the social sciences; however, as a New Testament scholar, he searches the pages of Scripture and uncovers a helpful framework for pastors, missionaries, and church planters alike. After all, the New Testament documents themselves are classic examples of contextualization, since they are written to particular people in a specific place and time.
Flemming defines contextualization as “the dynamic and comprehensive process by which the gospel is incarnated within a concrete historical or cultural situation.” Contextualization is the process of gospel incarnation within a given context. He continues, “This happens in such a way that the gospel both comes to authentic expression in the local context and at the same time prophetically transforms the context. Contextualization seeks to enable the people of God to live out the gospel in obedience to Christ within their own cultures and circumstances.” [Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament, xx]
Such a definition goes much further than Sunday morning lattes and provides an important goal for contextualization. It is more than cross-cultural communication. According to Flemming, contextualization is the very embodiment of the gospel in a specific culture for the purpose of evangelism, discipleship, ethics, worship, fellowship and social activities. [Flemming, Contextualization in NT, xxi] When contextualization is done well, the gospel wears new skin. The gospel is actually translated not just into the language of the group but its human existence as well.
The gospel makes itself “at home” in the new culture, and from within it begins the work of sanctifying the people of that culture, so that it eventually transforms the actions of those members of that culture who have embraced its truth.
Too often, our attempts at contextualization fall far short of gospel incarnation in a new culture. It is easy to misunderstand the goal of contextualization and the manner in which we approach culture. Our ultimate goal is not the transformation of society but bearing witness to the gospel through its proclamation and a testimonial ethic. When we talk about transforming culture, we must never make transformation some ethereal end in itself. The goal of contextualization must always be the making of disciples, not the manipulation of culture for culture’s sake. Remember, culture is the medium of missions, not its aim. We await our coming king who will make all wrongs right and renew and restore creation. Until then, we are his witnesses in a fallen world we cannot fix.
Contextualization Requires Cultural Agility
A thick understanding of contextualization as gospel incarnation requires cultural agility. When it comes to the culture of our audience, our tendency is often to stand either in fundamental opposition or uncritical acceptance. Neither stance will do for gospel ministry. The irony of fundamentally opposing a particular culture is that it typically requires the uncritical acceptance of another. We must be agile, approaching culture in more than one way and realizing most of us now minister in a geographic space that contains a host of different cultures. And we must never forget, the people in each of those cultures are worth having their own cultural manifestation of the gospel so that they may understand and live out its truth.
Culture must be honored, but cannot be ultimate. It should be affirmed, but also relativized. In this way, we can simultaneously appropriate and confront the culture of any group we hope to reach.
The gospel message must be incarnated into cultural particularity. Because of this, we must affirm culture. There is no acultural gospel message. There is no acultural expression of the church. Every believer expresses their faith in a given culture. Every church creates a particular cultural manifestation of the gospel.
Every time there is an attempt made to share the gospel, it is done so in a cultural way. This is an unavoidable truth. Culture is unavoidably the medium of missions. Thus, the question is not whether or not we contextualize. The question is how well we contextualize.
The only way people will ever hear and understand the gospel is if it is incarnated into their own culture in a manner that is both intelligible to them and sufficiently confronts their underlying worldview with the truth. This requires taking the culture of others seriously. It requires affirmation of their culture and looking for those values that can be appropriated.
Contextualization as gospel incarnation says yes to certain cultural artifacts. However, contextualization must also say no to others. While a group’s culture must be affirmed, it must also be relativized. The gospel message says there is now a higher authority than any norm placed by culture. In this way, culture is put in its proper place. Maintaining cultural agility allows us, as ministers of the gospel, to affirm, relativize, confront, and hopefully transform the culture of those we are attempting to reach with the gospel. [Flemming, 101]