Contextualization or relevance? Are they the same thing, or is there really a difference? Theologically speaking, there is, but they aren’t in opposition. Maybe they’re like cousins, close like family but not quite siblings. For example, I can contextualize the Gospel without being young or cool, although I might not be relevant (at least in appearance) to a younger generation. The opposite is also true. Someone can be perfectly relevant in their speech, dress and presentation, and yet, not contextualize the Gospel. There has been a lot written and spoken in our movement about being relevant, but what about contextualization?
I recently enjoyed an article about pastoral perspectives1 when I stumbled across a phrase about contextualization that felt out of step. It’s an idea I’ve heard many times from various sources that doesn’t sit quite right with me. The author wrote, “Perhaps 40 years of trying to 'contextualize' the faith to fit the zeitgeist actually transformed, not the social and moral fabric of our society, but the church itself.” I draw attention to the word “try” because I believe he’s speaking of failed attempts, rather than the actual process. So I hardly imagine this author to have espoused the idea, but there is a common thought that the efforts of contextualization have led the church down the path to worldliness. It’s as if the church began to imitate the world and somehow fell under its spell, becoming more like it and less like Jesus. I’d like to concentrate on the subject of contextualization (rather than relevance) because I believe it shouldn’t make the church more worldly in its attempt to share the Gospel.
Many point to Nigerian theologian Byang H. Kato as one of the first to develop the current idea of contextualization in the 1970s. He taught two principals in communicating the Gospel—staying true to its message and finding the right words to communicate in a way that the Word can be received. William Larkin quotes Kato to summarize contextualization as “making concepts or ideas relevant in a given situation…It is an effort to express the never-changing Word of God in ever-changing modes for relevance.”2 Kato saw the need for contextualization in his own mission field as well as for others, but he warned against the dangers of syncretization, the mixture of ideas and beliefs into a new system.
To bring it back to Litfin’s article, he warned us of the church becoming too much like the world to the detriment of the Gospel.
Certainly, the case can be made against a worldly church that concentrates more on relevance and appearance more than shepherding the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2). But a deeper question might be: Have we, as the Church, so reached into the culture to share the Gospel, that we’ve become more like the culture than like the Body of Christ? Again we would be hard-pressed to speak definitively because our society has evolved in an unrecognizable way from its 18th-century roots. It would be like entering a time machine and bringing someone back to analyze the church of today from their perspective. They may be shocked; they may not be able to tell the difference from the church and the culture, or they may see the advances we’ve made using the tools of our time like technology, academics and communications, and praise God. In that case, we can take comfort in the Gospel that never changes and look back to Kato's idea of contextualization—communicating the unchanging Word of God in a way people can understand. We can begin by referring back to Creation as a roadmap to our mission to reach out.
In the beginning, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). There is much debate to exactly what it means to bear the image of God, but one of the views that encourages me the most is to see this in light of the mission. God formed humanity to live on the world He created in a way that would glorify Him. So in giving man dominion, it wasn’t necessary to dominate in the way we take the word to mean today. Our idea of dominating inspires a certain amount of despotic authority, which raises serious questions for the more ecologically conscientious. I believe this view can be corrected in considering how God rules sovereignly today. He’s no despot, but He’s good and so He would give us dominion that we might reflect His ways. Made in the image of God is therefore who we are more than something we possess. Christopher Wright explains:
“In any case, we should not so much think of the image of God as an independent 'thing' that we somehow possess. God did not give to human beings the image of God. Rather, it is a dimension of our very creation. The expression 'in our image' is adverbial (that is, it describes the way God made us), not adjectival (that is as if it simply described a quality we possess). The image of God is not so much something we possess, as what we are. To be human is to be the image of God.”3
It’s with this idea of being made in the image of God we can also feel the depth of the fall.
The separation of indwelling sin grievously mars the imprint of God’s image in our lives. One of the best scriptures that develops this for us is Romans 1:18-32. Paul describes the wrath of God against humanity, not in fire and brimstone but in a vivid description of the dark side of human society. The cause seems to go back to the image of God, for people have “by their unrighteousness suppress(ed) the truth”(Romans 1:18). What they know to be true, what is formed into their DNA is a knowledge of their Creator. Paul pursues, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (Romans 1:19).
But rejection has its price. The effects of sin so penetrating to the fabric of human society that people are closed to the knowledge of God on anything other than their own terms. This is truly a dilemma as God who has made man in His image, finds man rejecting Him and recreating an image of God in his own image. The response of God is chilling. In harmony with their desire to ignore Him gave them up to “futile thinking” (Romans 1:21), “in the lusts of their hearts” (v24) and finally “dishonorable passions” (v24). He has allowed His image-bearers to fall mind, heart and will, into their own destruction. G. Campbell Morgen puts it this way:
“Man distanced from God has not lost the powers of his original creation; he has lost the true sphere of their exercise. His intelligence is darkened, his emotion is deadened, his will is degraded. The spaciousness of the spiritual condition has ceased and man will look at material things in a semi-blindness, which at once is tragic and pathetic. Deadened emotion, a heaven-born capacity, will attempt to satisfy itself wholly in the realm of the earth and love being set wholly upon things material, will forever be wounded in their loss. Degraded will, ever attempting to be authoritative, masterful, will always be thwarted, beaten, overcome.”4
It’s stepping into this wreckage that the born again believer is reunited with her Creator, and He sends her out, restoring her mind, heart and will through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. She is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17); she has even become an “ambassador for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21). She must speak to a world who is darkened through sin and has rejected truth. So she must find a way to communicate, looking for common ground, a point of contact where the conversation can begin. This is where contextualization should take us. The need for contextualization is not so much in being relevant like quoting films or popular cultural icons, but as speaking God’s unchanging truth in an understandable way to a culture in degeneration.
In my next article, I would like to develop the idea of contextualization in the way we preach the Cross and reflect on some missionary examples. In summary, contextualization is about communicating the Gospel to a given cultural context. Rather than make us worldly, it should make us more like Jesus, who showed us masterfully in the Gospels how He went about the same task.
1 Litfin, Bryan. “Why We Need More Pastors Like Augustine.” The Gospel Coalition. The Gospel Coalition, June 21, 2019. https://www.thegospelcoalition... it he brings to light the benefits of living simply, giving more attention to holiness than appearance and then reminds us of the need to “focus on our own flock” as opposed to keeping an eye on our global impact before returning to the call of standing with our congregation until the end. I found his observations especially pertinent in the context of social media and globalization.
2 Larkin, William. Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics: Interpreting and Applying the Authoritative Word in a Relativistic Age, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003, p 152.
3 Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, p 619. Wright, Christopher J. H. Mission of God: Unlocking the Bibles Grand Narrative. Place of publication not identified: InterVarsity Press, 2018.
4 Morgan, G. Campbell, and Winifred M. Howells. The Crises of the Christ. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1903. p. 16.