Generally, to contextualize an idea, statement or event is to place it within its larger setting in which it acquires its true and complete meaning. Contextualization aids comprehension. For example, an arithmetic problem may not seem very practical until it is seen within a story problem; the real-life situation contextualizes the math problem and makes it more understandable. In Christian evangelism, to contextualize is to tailor the presentation of the gospel to the wider sociological context in order to achieve greater understanding and, therefore, greater acceptance of the message.
Various churches and missionary efforts through the years have used varying levels of contextualization. At one end of the spectrum is no contextualization at all. On the foreign field, this means that the gospel is presented in Western terms that may not be understood by the indigenous peoples. Truth is presented with no regard for the background, experience or thinking of the hearers. In America, we sometimes see churches that refuse to adapt music or programs to the surrounding culture. Gospel truth remains, but it is set in a rigid framework that allows little room for creativity.
At the other end of the contextualization spectrum is too much adaptation. A message is presented in terms that are easily understood by the audience, but truth is compromised. We see this in places where Christian customs have been added to pagan belief systems, resulting in a confused syncretic of doctrine, and in churches that try to incorporate modern philosophy into their theology, whether or not it’s biblical. The result is a watering down of the truth.
The necessary balance falls somewhere between those two extremes. The gospel must be presented in terms that are easily understood, but truth must also remain distinct from untruth. This occurs in churches that understand the culture in which they function and adapt their methods to the preferences of that culture. Gospel truth remains, presented in a culturally relevant manner, and no attempt is made to “sanitize” the cross to avoid offense (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Contextualization is most often discussed in terms of missionary work. Some very early missionaries made no attempt to contextualize, but rather required their converts to become “Westernized,” or at least required a drastic break from their native culture. This tended to build walls rather than build relationships. Later, missionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael and others, leaned more toward immersing themselves in the culture and partnering with natives in reaching the lost. They contextualized the message to the culture without diluting the truth. This led to the modern missionary movement.
In his book Peace Child, Don Richardson tells of his effort to bring the gospel to the Sawis, a tribe of headhunters in Papua New Guinea. He faced tremendous obstacles in a culture that honored deceit and betrayal—when they first heard the gospel, the natives saw Judas Iscariot as the hero of the story. In order to bridge the gap between the Sawi worldview and God’s message of love, Richardson had to contextualize the message. Through much prayer, hard work and persistence, Richardson was able to find the “key” to unlock the Sawi culture and present the gospel of Jesus in a way the Sawi could truly understand. The result was that a jungle church was established and some of the Sawi began evangelizing neighboring tribes.
In the Bible, Daniel and his three friends were fully immersed in the Babylonian culture without giving in to influences that might draw them away from their God (Daniel 1-2). Their willingness to accommodate earned them an audience with the Babylonian king, and their refusal to compromise truth eventually led to the king’s acknowledgement of God (Daniel 4). When Paul spoke to the Athenians, he not only emulated the Athenian style of argument and oratory, but he also used their own writers to bolster his points (Acts 17:22-34). In other words, Paul understood Greek culture and contextualized the gospel in order to gain a hearing.
There are clear biblical examples of contextualization in the New Testament. Jesus preached to Samaritans and Gentiles without requiring them to conform to Jewish practices. Peter’s dramatic vision of Acts 10 showed him that he needed to modify his approach to the Gentile culture; this he did, and a Roman centurion came to faith in Christ as a result. Paul’s statement that he would be “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22) indicates his willingness to contextualize the truth for his hearers, whoever they may be. And, finally, in Revelation we see that the Lord Jesus has redeemed people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Revelation 5:9; 14:6). The gospel is truly cross-cultural and must be presented in a way that each culture can apprehend.
The Christmas song “Some Children See Him” describes the baby Jesus from the point of view of various children of the world: to different children, Jesus is “lily white,” “bronzed and brown,” “almond-eyed,” or “dark as they.” The children understand Jesus in terms of their own background and culture. That is contextualization.