Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Today in CIT our focus is Contextualization. I did not even know this word a month ago. Now I realize it is one of the most important concepts I need to learn in order to share the Gospel in another culture. This is my favorite explanation of Contextualization:

Contextualization attempts to communicate the Gospel in word and deed and to establish the church in ways that make sense to people within their local cultural context, presenting Christianity in such a way that it meets people's deepest needs and penetrates their worldview, thus allowing them to follow Christ and remain within their own culture.

This means that to evangelize another culture we need to purposefully remove our ingrained "American" spin on the Gospel, which often contains symbols, stories, and sentiments that resonate in our culture, but would carry no real meaning in another. In addition, we need to learn and understand their symbols, stories, and sentiments, and when appropriate, use them in communicating the Gospel.

The apostle Paul was a master of Contextualization. If you look at how he shared the Gospel with Jews in Acts 13:13-41, and compare it with how he shared the Gospel with Greeks in Acts 17:18-31 you will see completely different approaches.

To the Jews, he quotes Old Testament prophets, but to the Greeks he quotes their own poets. To each group, Paul used words and symbols that were appropriate to the culture without compromising the Truth of God's word.

Nevertheless, while scripture affirms culture, it does not affirm worldliness. Because man is universally fallen, all cultures have sinful tendencies. For this reason, the Gospel is almost always, in some ways, counter-cultural. Yet, the Gospel has the power to transform and redeem every culture without destroying what is beautiful, unique, and precious in the sight of God.

There is such a thing as OVER-contextualization, which is when we try so hard to adapt to a culture that we actually begin to compromise or water-down the Gospel. When this happens, the result is often syncretization, which is when Christianity is simply absorbed into and blended with pre-existing belief systems. For those of you who read the book, The Life of Pi, this is exactly what the character Pi did. Throughout the book he prays to Mary, Jesus, and Vishnu. He never turned from his Hindu beliefs, he simply added Jesus (and Mary for that matter) to his collection of gods. Needless to say, over-contextualization is not a good thing.

But then again, neither is under-contextualization, which gives no thought or value to cultural differences. With under-contextualization, it is easy for the Gospel message to be entirely miscommunicated. An example of this is when David went with YWAM to Taiwan. He was on a drama team, where the actors all painted their faces white. In an American context, white represents purity, cleanliness and goodness. But in this Asian culture, white is the color of death. Fortunately, a local citizen notified the drama team of this, and they were able to wash their faces before going out to preform before an audience of school aged children, who more than likely would have been frightened by the white faces.

I am so blessed to sit next to a young French woman in class here at CIT. She has lived in the States for eight years, but she and her American husband are returning to France as missionaries. I ask her all sorts of questions throughout our class time. She told me that one American Church tradition that does not translate well to France is the Pot-Luck. Good to know. She also said that the French do not have "church clothes" or the concept of "Sunday Best." The French dress the same (fashionably!) for every setting, whether work, leisure, or church. I cannot tell you how fun it is to have my own personal French culture expert sitting right next me through this experience. I just know God loves me best!

So next Sunday, as you go to church, look for evidence of Contextualization within your own congregation. At my church, for example, the worship team will often play a secular song before the service begins. This is a form of Contextualization. What about having an Easter Egg hunt at church? Or even a Vetran's Day service? Do you see anything that you might consider Over-Contextualization? Are there places where we try too hard to blend in to our culture and we water down the Gospel? What about in your own life? What about mine?

Oh Lord, let us never compromise the Truth of who you are for comfort in our culture.

Okay, Gumby more, Wierd Al Gumby:


  1. Your blog was sent to me through a very good friend, Sharon. Good words and so true. I am French and I have been living in the States and through out the world for the past 21 years. I am married to my dear husband, who is American. As I was reading the advices you received from a French friend, I was thinking that is so true. I remember having trouble understanding the pot-luck thing a while back...I think Americans are simply practical and take it easy manners. French, there are standards on how we do things in every aspects of our daily lives. Even though, I have been living away from my culture, I know my French roots are definitely showing in everything I do. But away, I enjoy reading your blog. I facilitate a bible study, and I understand what you are saying. Being in the military makes it easy, often I am not the only foreigner sitting around the table, but I may be often enough the only French. The Lord has been gracious to give me the ability to simply be, and so I am grateful and so thankful for His love for all of us.

  2. Thanks so much for your insights, and PLEASE chime in anytime! I need much help to learn the French culture.