In all of the discussion and debate revolving around the issue of contextualization most will agree that knowing the truth of the gospel is not enough, but that we are called by God to also make it known to make disciples. As the Apostle Paul wrote, "... how can they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent?" (Rom 10:14, 15 HCSB).
The desire for contextualization is often driven by a hope for clear gospel communication. (I've touched on this a bit in part 1 and part 2 of this series.) However, agreement on our calling to make the gospel known to make disciples will only help us to see the need for contextualization if we define it properly.
Contextualization is not so easy to define because people use the word differently in different traditions. Yet, as I did when defining culture, I think it is important to consider how evangelicals define and use a term if we are to have any meaningful conversation in the evangelical community. Thus, we look again to The Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, where Gilliland explains that contextualization is a tool to "to enable, insofar as it is humanly possible, an understanding of what it means that Jesus Christ, the Word, is authentically experienced in each and every human situation" (Gilliland, Dean. "Contextualization." In The Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Ed. Scott Moreau. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000).
There are other variants of that view and I will not try to address each one. For that, I would suggest reading Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models by David Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen. And, it should tell us something that whole books would be written on the subject.
Thus, all definitions of contextualization address communication. Gilliland says elsewhere, "Contextualization is, first of all, concerned with communicating by appropriate and understandable means that salvation is in Jesus only." (Cited by Darrell Whiteman in "The Function of Appropriate Contextualization in Mission" in Appropriate Christianity, edited by Charles Kraft. William Carey Library, 2005).
Though communication is not all that contextualization includes (as subsequent installments will discuss), it is a central part of the concern.
What is Contextualization?
Most generally, to contextualize is to place something in a particular context. Thus, I would say that any definition of contextualization must include presenting the unchanging truths of the gospel within the unique and changing contexts of cultures and worldviews. This requires us to retain the nature of the truth and the integrity of the message while explaining and applying such things in the necessarily unique or specific ways that enable hearers to understand and respond.
Maybe Pictionary will help me make this point.
Most of us are familiar with the classic party game, Pictionary. The "artist" gets a name of a person, place, or thing and he has to draw the picture so that his team can guess it, without ever using any words to help. Imagine if I was playing a game of Pictionary at a party. I am assigned to draw the person President George W. Bush. So, in efforts of simplicity and speed, I draw a picture of a bush. I'm playing with a pretty quick crowd, so they guess it right away. "BUSH!!!"
They've partially got the answer, but not all of it, so it doesn't count. So, I start pointing at the bush and make hand gestures, moans, and grunts (but no words). I use my hands to say, "that's right, but more." Again, the crowd is smart, so they can see the clue has something to do with a bush so they start guessing. "Tree!... Plant!... Green!... Photosynthesis!... Oxygen to carbon dioxide!... Krebs Cycle!" (I told you they were smart.) Now, they're getting way off base, but I can't say anything, so I just keep pointing at that bush. I point at it harder and harder and keep gesturing and grunting and, at this point, I'm getting mad.
The others never get it. I know what it is. I know they should know it. It is so obvious. But they don't.
I get frustrated, and yet, I never gave another clue.
Too often, I think this is what many evangelicals look like in the twenty-first century. For example, many today in American culture want to talk about "spirituality," but are unfamiliar with the gospel and not warm to the idea of spiritual absolutes. Some well-meaning Christians hear the spirituality talk and want to move people to the gospel, but the unexplained theological language and the old evangelistic approaches that were targeting a different worldview amount to noise that leaves the hearer in the dark trying to guess. It's like we, as believers, start communicating through our gestures and grunts, but they don't get it. We wind up giving clues that lead them in circles, and not to the truth. We know the answer, and we want them to know the answer, but we just can't make a solid connection.
Without contextualization, the words and arguments we use can amount to ineffective clues.
We Already Contextualize
Let's be clear about this issue of contextualization; everyone does it. Everyone. Whether or not they use the term, all have contextualized, because every presentation of the gospel must be given to a particular audience, in a particular culture. If you share the gospel with others, then you are contextualizing. You either do it properly, or poorly. For example, you do it poorly when you are attempting to share Christ with the unchurched person in front of you, but present the gospel as if you're speaking to someone who is already familiar with the claims of Jesus.
You can't just jump into "Jesus died to save you, and his resurrection demonstrates that he is who he said he is" because the person first needs to know about the one true God, their sin before him, and who Jesus is and what he has done. A person must first know they are lost before they will be found. I am fairly certain most of you will agree with the previous two sentences. If you do, you believe in contextualization, which is placing the gospel in a particular context. We may argue about the amount of contextualization, but we cannot argue with the need for such (assuming the definition mentioned earlier).
We can also turn the example around. The de-churched southerner who has grown up in an evangelical church where the Scripture is preached might not need convincing that the Bible is God's word, or that he or she is a sinner, but he or she may simply need clarity on the new birth, or how one responds to the gospel (personally via faith and repentance).
Contextualized Communication and Clear Gospel Proclamation
Contextualization is necessary because while the human condition and the gospel remain the same, people have different worldviews which in turn impact how they interpret themselves, the world and the things you say. People who care about contextualization care because they want a clear gospel proclaimed AND understood.
It's one thing to know the gospel, but it's another to make the gospel known. And making the gospel known is more complicated in America today than it was in decades past. Less people today have a general Christian orientation, or even a shared Judeo-Christian ethic. This means concepts (truths) like sin, death and hell cannot be assumed. So when we want to communicate the gospel and deal with categories like God, man, Christ and faith we must not only know them well, but also how to effectively make them known to the people God has sent us. Knowing where to begin and how to explain the truth to particular people are issues of contextualization.
We are already contextualizing. Let's do it well.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.