Diaspora Missions

Intro to Contextualization

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I teach church planting at an evangelical seminary in the Pacific Northwest. This semester, my online church planting class includes students who are preparing for missional work in Hawaii, San Francisco, Nigeria, England, and Australia. It would be a mistake to assume that church plants in each of these locales would look identical. Differences in geography, language, culture, and spirituality are a few of the many factors that shape how we design a unique church plant that is not just IN a particular place, but FOR that place.

But in my experience, many church leaders are naïve about this reality. They assume that all approaches to mission work (whether church planting, revitalization, or cross-cultural missions) are the same and that a church in Nigeria should look identical to a church in Australia. Yet, most seasoned leaders from Nigeria and Australia would tell us that their churches ought to be unique expressions of the gospel rooted in their own contexts.

Culture matters. It matters to God, so it ought to matter to us.

Of course, there are certain realities expressed in every church plant around the world. The gospel is the same. The marks of a true church are the same. Yet how the church looks and feels will emerge in various ways throughout the world. Missiologists call this process contextualization. This article is the first of a three-part mini-series on contextualization. In this more theoretical article, we will examine three reasons why we should contextualize the gospel. The second and third articles will be more illustrative and practical, drawing from my experiences contextualizing in the City (New York) and the “None Zone” (the Pacific Northwest)

First, contextualization is theologically sound.

Culture matters. It matters to God, so it ought to matter to us. How do we know that culture matters to God? Three doctrines establish culture’s importance to God: creation, incarnation, and eschatology. God created the first humans and endowed them with a mission: fill and steward the earth on behalf of God (Genesis 1-2). As humans filled the earth, they obeyed God’s directive and created culture. They developed technology, invented music, built cities, and crafted poetry (Genesis 4). Of course, in a fallen world, all life occurs “East of Eden.” Our sin warps our ability to image God, but it does not completely erase our capacity to create something that reflects his glory. That was seen when humanity rebelled against God and built a tower to the heavens. Divine judgment ensued as humans propelled outward in obedience to God. In the aftermath of Babel, humans split up, and various cultural-linguistic groups emerged in fulfillment of the original divine mandate to fill the earth (Genesis 11). Thousands of years later, diverse peoples descend from this seminal moment. We are living out a fractured reality that is both broken and blessed. It can be tempting to look back at the brokenness of Babel and the tumult of our time and think that culture is a curse, not a blessing.

And yet, the Incarnation of Jesus demonstrates that culture still matters to God, even in a fallen world. The Son of God did not come to earth as a culturally neutral robot. He came as a Jewish man who ate Jewish food, embraced Jewish style, wore a beard, worked a trade, and spoke Aramaic with a Galilean accent. Jesus came in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham: all families of the earth would be blessed through the family of Abraham (Genesis 12:3). To save the world, the Son of God became Jewish.

In the aftermath of the Resurrection, is culture now abolished? We find the answer when reading the final pages of Scripture. The eschatological destiny of God’s people is that of a multinational kingdom comprised of people from every nation, tribe, people, and language (Revelation 7:9). The New Earth will be a place in which the glory and honor of the nations will be stewarded, and the Tree of Life will provide healing for the nations (Revelation 21-22). In heaven, the Edenic vision will be realized. God will eternally dwell among humans in all their culturally embodied glory.

This quick survey of the cultural implications of creation, incarnation, and the Eschaton demonstrates that culture matters to God. Contextualization is, simply put, expressing the gospel in culturally embedded ways. Contextualization makes sense theologically because it takes seriously the communicative dimensions of what the Bible says about the enduring importance of culture. We would also expect culture to be taken seriously in the pages of Scripture. In fact, this is exactly what we see in the Book of Acts.

Second, contextualization is in the Bible.

If you think every gospel presentation should be identical, please skip over the Book of Acts, because it confounds your expectations. In the pages of Luke’s record, we discover sermons directed at both diaspora Jews (Acts 2) and religious leaders (Acts 7). Each sermon (one by Peter and one by Stephen) contains the same kernel of gospel truth but is articulated in different ways. The contextualized preaching only increased when Paul arrived on the scene. He preached to devout Jews (Acts 13), to polytheists (Acts 14), to idolatrous philosophers (Acts 17), to church leaders (Acts 20), to a mob (Acts 21-22), and to government officials (Acts 24-26). Each sermon trumpets the unchanging gospel with nuanced language that can be understood by each distinctive audience.

Dean Flemming noted, “Acts is an intercultural document. It transposes a story that is grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as the Jewish identity of Jesus and the early Jerusalem church, into a Greco-Roman cultural setting.” (Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission). In the aftermath of Pentecost, God’s (now culturally diverse) People spread across the globe making disciples in the name of Jesus. This leads us to our final reason for contextualizing the gospel.

Third, contextualization is missionaly fruitful.

The church depended on contextualization during its early missional efforts. To share the gospel with new people in new settings, the first Christians learned to express the good news in contextually appropriate ways. Their theology of culture and their missional mandate drove them to proclaim the unchanging gospel in each successive missionary encounter with culture. The first Christians contextualized by knowing which idols to confront, which stories to subvert, and which language to use. And as they explained the gospel in a way that people could understand, the church grew.

Tim Keller asserted, “Contextualization is…giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them” (Center Church). This is at the heart of contextualization. It is an attempt to take seriously a biblical theology of culture. It is also an attempt to imitate the practices found in the Book of Acts and communicate fruitfully on the frontier of unbelief. In the next two articles, we will explore the practical ramifications of contextualization in two places I have been privileged to serve: the City and the “None Zone.”

  • Diaspora Missions
  • Great Commission
  • Other World Views
Stephen Stallard

Stephen Stallard is the Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He served in NYC for eight years, where he planted a multicultural church. Stephen earned a PhD in Applied Theology from SEBTS. Trained as a missiologist, he enjoys exploring a rich diversity of cultures. Stephen is married to Sonya, the love of his life. They have four children: one girl and three boys. Stephen's hobby is making hot sauce.

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