|Photo Credit: DVS1mn
"All gospel ministry and communication are already heavily adapted to a particular culture. So it is important to do contextualization consciously. If we never deliberately think through ways to rightly contextualize gospel ministry to a new culture, we will unconsciously be deeply contextualized to some other culture.
Our gospel ministry will be both overadapted to our own culture and underadapted to new cultures at once, which ultimately leads to a distortion of the Christian message. The subject of contextualization is particularly hard to grasp for members of socially dominant groups. Because ethnic minorities must live in two cultures — the dominant culture and their own subculture — they frequently become aware of how deeply culture affects the way we perceive things.
In the movie Gran Torino, an older blue-collar American named Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) lives alongside an Asian family in a deteriorating Detroit neighborhood. He finds it impossible to understand the cultural forms of the Hmongs, just as the elderly Hmongs (who cannot speak English and live completely within their ethnic enclave) find Walt strange and inexplicable. But the teenage Hmong girl, Sue, is bicultural — she lives in both worlds at once. So she understands and appreciates both Walt and her own parents and grandparents. As a result, she is able to communicate persuasively to both about the other. Isn’t this the very thing we are doing whenever we present the truth of the gospel to a culture that has alienated itself from it?
In the United States, Anglo-Americans’ public and private lives are lived in the same culture. As a result, they are often culturally clueless. They relate to their own culture in the same way a fish that, when asked about water, said, “What’s water?” If you have never been out of water, you don’t know you are in it. Anglo Christians sometimes find talk of contextualization troubling. They don’t see any part of how they express or live the gospel to be “Anglo” — it is just the way things are. They feel that any change in how they preach, worship, or minister is somehow a compromise of the gospel.
In this they may be doing what Jesus warns against — elevating the “traditions of men” to the same level as biblical truth (Mark 7:8). This happens when one’s cultural approach to time or emotional expressiveness or way to communicate becomes enshrined as the Christian way to act and live.
Bruce Nicholls writes the following:
"A contemporary example of cultural syncretism is the unconscious identification of biblical Christianity with “the American way of life.” This form of syncretism is often found in both Western and Third World, middle-class, suburban, conservative, evangelical congregations who seem unaware that their lifestyle has more affinity to the consumer principles of capitalistic society than to the realities of the New Testament, and whose enthusiasm for evangelism and overseas missions is used to justify [lives of materialism and complacency]."
Lack of cultural awareness leads to distorted Christian living and ministry. Believers who live in individualistic cultures such as the United States are blind to the importance of being in deep community and placing themselves under spiritual accountability and discipline. This is why many church hoppers attend a variety of churches and don’t join or fully enter any of them. American Christians see church membership as optional. They take a non-biblical feature of American culture and bring it into their Christian life.
On the other hand, Christians in more authoritarian and patriarchal cultures often are blind to what the Bible says about freedom of conscience and the grace-related aspects of Christianity. Instead, their leaders stress duty and are heavy-handed rather than eager to follow Jesus’ words that “if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
An inability to see one’s own enculturation has other results. One of the most basic mistakes ministers make is to regurgitate the methods and programs that have personally influenced them. After experiencing the impact of a ministry in one part of the world, they take up the programs and methods of that ministry and reproduce them elsewhere virtually unchanged. If they have been moved by a ministry that has forty-five-minute verse-by-verse expository sermons, a particular kind of singing, or a specific order and length to the services, they reproduce it down to the smallest detail. Without realizing it, they become method driven and program driven rather than theologically driven. They are contextualizing their ministry expression to themselves, not to the people they want to reach.
I have been moved to see how churches and ministries around the world have looked at what we do at Redeemer Presbyterian Church and how they have expressed their appreciation and have sought to learn from this ministry. But I have been disappointed to visit some congregations that have imitated our programs — even our bulletins — and haven’t grasped the underlying theological principles that animate us. In other words, they haven’t done the hard work of contextualization, reflecting on their own cultural situation and perspective to seek to better communicate the gospel to their own context. They have also failed to spend time reflecting on what they see in Redeemer and how we have adapted our ministry to an urban U.S. culture.
Everyone contextualizes — but few think much about how they are doing it. We should not only contextualize but also think about how we do it. We must make our contextualization processes visible, and then intentional, to ourselves and to others."