New missionaries often struggle to communicate God’s Word faithfully to other cultures—or at least they should. Some cultures have seven primary colors, others recognize only four, and some only have the ideas of shiny and dull. Given these realities, how would you translate Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” in a culture that doesn’t have scarlet, white, red, snow or wool? Which word best describes Jesus going to Emmaus, or Jesus walking on water in Zulu which has 120 words for walking? The Malagasy-speaking peoples of Madagascar distinguish over 200 kinds of noises and recognize over 100 colors. One missionary in the Congo consistently used a phrase for “crying out” to describe John the Baptist or the Old Testament prophets until one day he discovered that this referred to the kind of crying that little babies did in their cribs. We must acknowledge that faithfully rendering God’s Word in another culture and language is not an easy task.

Preachers and missionaries must continually strive to communicate the gospel so their hearers may understand the message and embrace Christ as their only hope of salvation. Effective gospel communicators take into consideration their cultural context, especially when preaching to the unreached or unchurched. Today, a controversial debate, pitting brother against brother, is brewing, and threatens to boil over. John MacArthur, Phil Johnson, and others speak of contextualization negatively and believe that it obscures the gospel. Mark Driscoll and others advocate what they call contextualization as the only way to make the gospel relative to people today. Unfortunately, the rhetoric swirls around the use of foul language and sexual references in the pulpit. The result is an inaccurate use of the term contextualization that threatens this essential tool of Christian communicators.

When someone argues that Paul never contextualized the gospel and so they do not either, it is obvious that someone has redefined the term contextualization. They have labeled the other extreme’s use of foul language or sexual themes in sermons as contextualization, and have thrown the baby out with the bath water. The reality is that these very detractors contextualize every Sunday. They preach in English, not Greek or Hebrew, they wear suits and ties, not robes or togas, and they illustrate their sermons with modern life, not from daily life of ancient biblical times. If we forbid contextualization as a threat to the gospel, we will be allowing ourselves the luxury of having something that our hearers may never have—a gospel that they can understand. When detractors of contextualization travel, even then they “contextualize” by eating available local foods, using the national currency, or driving on the left hand side of the road. When they preach or teach those with lower levels of academic attainment, they simplify the same sermon that they preached to a more advanced congregation back home. The problem is not the practice of contextualization; it is a misunderstanding of what the word means.

Some mistakenly believe that contextualization means making Christianity look just like the culture. However, contextualization is simply the process of making the gospel understood. The only reason to utilize filthy language or to reference explicit sexual behavior would be if the local culture communicated used filthy language in every conversation so much that no message would make sense without it. Television programs without such language would require subtitles for them, as they would not understand the message without filthy language and sexual anecdotes. Of course, this is not the case. In fact, much of what many call contextualization is simply an effort to be trendy and edgy. It may be effective, it may attract a hearing, it may not be offensive to the hearers, but that is not contextualization; that is marketing.

When these brothers are invited to preach in a traditional church or conference where all the other preachers wear coats and ties, they often refuse to “fit in” and insist on T-shirts, jeans, flip flops or sneakers. They hope to communicate that they are not “your dad’s old preacher” but rather they are in step with the culture. However, several truths are at work here. While suits and ties are not biblical, in certain venues they communicate respect for God’s Word and God’s presence. In another cultural context, a guayabera shirt could do the same, or even the casual clothes that they prefer.

However, when they wear inappropriate clothing in another’s worship context, they communicate the opposite and seem disrespectful. When they utilize what many consider filthy language in their home ministries, they may make a case that it is the most appropriate and effective. However, when they communicate in a national forum—print or preaching—they are no longer in their home context and such language is inappropriate. It should not surprise them that it is both offensive and ineffective.

What kind of language and ministry communicates respect for God’s Word, recognizes His presence, and honors Him in how we worship? In one culture, suits and ties may be necessary while in another Hawaiian shirts may communicate the same. Among Anabaptist brethren, beards may be seen as essential for godly men. However, they must make some adjustment when contextualizing the gospel among many indigenous people who cannot grow facial hair. Some Christian traditions prefer to worship God by singing metrical psalms, but their missionaries must make adjustments or risk communicating that this is the only way to worship God.

Both sides of this burgeoning debate have sound theology, but they are presenting it in radically different ways. One defends controversial methods by citing the need to contextualize. The other responds by saying that contextualization is not only unnecessary, it is offensive, dishonoring to God, and brings reproach on biblical ministry. Sadly, none of the players in this ongoing, very public debate seems to understand the term. The resulting controversy and side-taking has led many to agree with their favorite in the fight and to embrace irresponsible “contextualization” or to reject the notion of contextualization altogether.

Paul wrote in Romans 10:13-15 that all who call on the Lord may be saved and then went on to ask a series
of questions that point out the importance of hearing the gospel for salvation. Ultimately, he asked, “How shall they hear?” It would be pointless to preach the gospel in English to monolingual Mandarin speakers. Instead, we must preach the gospel in culturally appropriate ways that are faithful to God’s Word.

Years ago, another controversy surrounded this idea of contextualization. One camp argued that the local cultures should be allowed to determine what the content of the gospel should be and what Christianity should look like. The other side rightly argued that the Bible speaks to all cultures and is over them—informing all cultures and informed by none. No culture may change the gospel or any biblical instruction because they think it would be culturally preferable to do so. Yet, effective gospel communicators must take into account the target culture as they preach the gospel.

Because no missionary or preacher would ever want to change the gospel message in any way, many shrink back from the hard work of contextualization. However, if you do not contextualize, you are doing just that—changing the gospel. You become a modern-day Judaizer. You are in effect telling your hearers that they must become like you to be saved. While we do not want to remove the skandalon of the gospel, we do not want to add to the gospel our extrabiblical requirements. I have written elsewhere of a humble, illiterate indigenous believer in Peru who feared for her salvation because she had always been taught that literacy was required for church membership. She equated this with salvation and believed that her inability to read would send her to hell when she died.

When missionaries, and preachers, seek to contextualize the gospel, they may wonder how far is far enough and how far is too far. Paul gives us those guidelines. He wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 that he made adjustments in every lawful way so as to relate the gospel to his hearers in ways they could understand. He also gave the parameters in verse 23 where he wrote, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel.” The glory of God and reverence for His revelation should guide us in the limits of contextualization so that we never say or do anything that would bring reproach on Him or alter the gospel message. The goal of contextualization is to be culturally relevant and faithful to God’s Word.

Cultural relativism is another misunderstood term that helps us understand the process of contextualization. When secular anthropologists study cultures, they often see them as silos, distinc
t from others and as a universe in themselves. With such a mindset, they say that the culture that kills the second twin is not committing murder if the culture does not see it as such. This perspective is often called cultural relativism since these secular anthropologists believe that no culture can be fairly compared to another. Obviously, Christians do not embrace such nonsense; there is a God who has clearly communicated what is sin and what is not in every culture—no matter what the local culture may think.

However, in the extrabiblical matters, those aspects of life that God does not address with moral import, we have freedom. All things being equal, it is not more or less sinful to live in a house made of wood, bricks, bamboo, or mud. Nor does it matter to God whether we wear leather shoes, tennis shoes, wooden shoes, or no shoes. We can enter other cultures and communicate the gospel in ways that they can readily understand, making the adjustments that are necessary for them to “hear it”—especially regarding extrabiblical matters. Aspects that missionaries should contextualize include language, music style, musical instruments, and clothing style. Contextualization adjusts extrabiblical aspects in response to the culture; the message never changes.

The term globalization refers to the ways that multinational corporations carry on the same business in many countries but with subtly nuanced changes. McDonalds still sells hamburgers in Malaysia but the girls behind the counter wear their little paper hats on top of their head-coverings and they call their product “beefburgers,” not hamburgers, to avoid offending the Muslims who would never eat ham. We don’t eat ham on our burgers either, but the culturally offensive name prevents Muslims from getting near enough to find that out. It is the exact same product but clothed in a culturally sensitive form. Contextualization is essential, not simply trendy or stylish, and it does not water down Christ’s message.

Critical contextualization provides the needed balance. On one hand, failure to contextualize at all adds extrabiblical requirements to salvation. On the other hand, allowing the culture to contextualize with no theological or biblical limits results in syncretism and aberrant expressions of Christianity. Preaching the gospel to people with a pagan worldview results in confusion. Preaching John 3:16 to a people who worship a tree or stars or ancestors with no biblical understanding of sin may result in a show of hands at the invitation, but they will not have understood the gospel and need for Christ.

Many missionaries provide a biblical worldview by teaching the grand narrative of God’s revelation through chronological Bible story telling. Some detractors of contextualization believe that we need only preach the gospel as we do back “home,” and this will be sufficient. However, in matriarchal societies, for instance, the mother is the most important figure. Women run the home, serve as rulers, and inherit from their female family members. If the father is even known, he is viewed as a biological necessity and not as an important person in life. When there is an important male figure, it will be the mother’s brother. How will we present the gospel here? Without studying to know the culture to contextualize the gospel, a sermon on God the Father would leave the hearers with a deficient view of God. In such cases, should we allow the culture to contextualize at will and preach God the Mother? Or, should we strike a compromise and preach God the Uncle? Of course, none of these would result in a biblical understanding of the gospel. The missionary preacher who has studied the culture must recognize the challenges and teach the culture the biblical view of God as Father. While such a practice flies in the face of modern anthropology, it is the biblical approach to properly contextualizing the gospel and Christianity among a people.

This is where the hermeneutical community brings the needed balance. As the believers in a culture have come to know the Lord, they join the preacher in studying the Bible to know how to contextualize it among them. Too many missionaries in the past have gone to both extremes, allowing sinful behaviors or forbidding neutral practices in cultures they did not understand. The discipled nationals can see sin that the missionary is unaware of and may never see, and they bring this cultural knowledge to the table. The theologically educated missionary can bring the parameters that 2,000 years of theological and biblical reflection provide—the fence around the process. Together the missionaries and the discipled nationals will find God-honoring, biblically faithful, and culturally appropriate expressions of Christianity for the culture. When studying a passage of Scripture, and how it comes to bear on a cultural practice, the hermeneutical community will see areas needing change and find functional substitutes to address the needs.

A truth in human interaction is “you cannot not communicate.” This awkward construction emphasizes that all our messages are interpreted and assigned meanings by the receiver. Failure to consider the local worldview and culture results in miscommunication. This is easily seen when a missionary asks a Hindu if he wants to be born again or have eternal life. The Hindu believes that he is trapped in an endless cycle of reincarnations and wants to cease his endless rebirths. The Hindu spurns the missionary’s invitation and he chalks it up to a hard heart. In fact, the hearer was interpreting the missionary’s message in a culture and worldview that the missionary did not take into account. To effectively communicate among culturally diverse others, we must learn their cultures and contextualize the gospel among them.

When the preacher or missionary does not understand the culture, language, or rules of the game in a society, his presentation of the gospel is often offensive for all the wrong reasons. When hearers reject the cultural misfit who does not understand them or their cultural heritage, they also reject the gospel without even knowing it.

The current debate between dear brothers in Christ—each of whom is defending what he believes to be the responsible approach to preaching the gospel—could be left for them to sort out since it need not involve us. However, the debate has grown beyond their two camps and is not happening in a corner; increasing numbers are listening, choosing sides, and shaping their own ministries to mimic their chosen champion. Undoubtedly, the edgy language proponents push the limits of preaching and influence demographic segments of the USA population that desperately need the gospel while the other side wants to preserve the sanctity of the gospel and pulpit ministry.

An East African proverb states, “When two elephants fight, the grass gets hurt.” Similarly, there are potential victims in this current struggle that are at risk, and we dare not overlook the danger. One is the pure gospel message. I am not arguing for the merits of presenting the gospel by using what my Bible-belt upbringing would call foul and filthy language. Neither am I jumping on a bandwagon going to the other extreme and pretending that the way I preach the gospel and what I wear when I do so ought to be fine for the entire world. My concern is presenting the gospel in culturally sensitive ways that are faithful to God’s Word. When the gospel is offensive for the wrong reasons, many people will reject it without ever hearing and understanding it. Another potential victim is the unity that Christ called us to maintain. Jesus said that this testimony of unity would proclaim to the world that the Father sent Him and loves us. (John 17:23) A final potential victim is the missiological method of critical contextualization. Preachers and missionaries must present the gospel in culturally appropriate ways or people will never understand the gospel message Christ sent us to proclaim.

As I taught on the exclusivity of the gospel in the Andean community of San Agustín, the elderly brother
who invited me asked about his parents and grandparents. He explained that they believed in traditional religions and the syncretism of animism with Catholicism. Although their small village did not have a priest, one would come once a year or so to perform a mass. He told me that everything was in Latin and that his parents did not even speak Spanish, much less Latin. Then he asked me what happened to his parents when they died. “Where did they go?”

I humbly explained that as I understand God’s Word, they did not go to heaven if they had not heard the gospel and been born again. He thought for a moment and responded, “I believe that those priests will have a lot to answer for one day.” I felt so superior and vindicated until God brought to my mind on my drive back home how many times I had preached the gospel in ways that made sense to me with little thought as to how well the people were understanding my message.

Of course, we must contextualize the gospel message so that our hearers can properly understand it. Shame on us if we ever debate that. The current debate may be over marketing techniques but let us never sacrifice the necessity of critical contextualization

Dr. David Sills

Dr. David Sills is the founder and president of Reaching & Teaching International Ministries, a missions professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speaker, and author.

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