Wisdom in Contextualization: How Far is too Far?

By Ed Stetzer

How does the word “contextualization” make you feel? Free or fearful?

The $64-million dollar question about innovation and change is this: How far is too far? I can’t think of any question in the church much more controversial than this one. We’ve been asking it for two thousand years and rarely ever seem to agree.

Most of our discussions on these issues center around contextualization. We should change our methodology to better proclaim the unchanging message to a consistently changing world. But not all change is good, even when it is promoted under the guise of contextualization.

I am all for innovation. But it should be used as means to better contextualize the gospel, not simply for its own sake. We need to evaluate where that line is, so that we do not cross it and lose the very reason God has placed us here.

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Measuring contextualization

Contextualization is, obviously enough, all about the context. Walking with my nose in the air could mean I think I’m better than you. Or it might mean I’m trying to protect you from my nosebleed. Context provides meaning to your interpretation.

Gospel contextualization began the moment Christ came teaching in synagogues and preaching the good news of the kingdom (Matthew 4:23). Christ presented words and deeds to His audiences in ways that were meaningful in their language and culture.

The language was Aramaic. The culture was Jewish (with a bit of Roman and Greek tossed in). The reaction of the crowds, especially the religious leaders, makes it clear that Christ’s words and actions were meaningful in His cultural context.

Changing in order to contextualize is not watering down the message of the good news of Jesus. The opposite is true. To contextualize the gospel means removing cultural and linguistic impediments to the gospel presentation so that only the offense of the cross remains.

But when we think about changes and contextualization today, it is easy to think you are the only one who has it right. Everyone to the left of has changed too much and lost the gospel. Everyone to the right is a bunch of legalists who haven’t changed enough and can no longer have a conversation with culture. To overcome this temptation, we need to establish what is unchanging and look for signals that our changes have gone too far.

More art than science

God designed it so the unchanging message of Jesus can fit into changing “cultural containers” in order to reach people where they are, and to take them where they need to go. Contextualization is a skill the missional church in the U.S., like international missionaries, must learn and use.

Contextualization, however, is more of an art form than a science. Clear lines that provide hard and fast boundaries for every language and culture don’t exist, especially as it relates to our orthopraxy (the way we live out the gospel). But there are certain gospel lines that we cannot cross.

What are the signs we’ve crossed un-crossable lines? If we have lost the clear proclamation of the gospel—Jesus’ death on the cross for our sin and in our place—or we downplay repentance and forgiveness, I think we’ve removed the intentional stumbling block of the cross. That would be a first warning sign.

If we teach the message in such a way that excludes or de-emphasizes the Bible, I think that’s a difficulty as well. If I find myself underplaying the role of Jesus in salvation or the necessity to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, that’s another red flag.

What works today

Some segments of our evangelical churches have adopted some changes and are doing anything they can through advertising, media, social media, coffee houses, movie theaters, music, the arts, and other venues to have a meaningful conversation with the world. Some Christians feel that giving any ground toward what they perceive (often rightly) as compromise with the culture will eventually cross the line into a heresy and pluralism slide.

Obviously, we don’t want to be syncretists with the gospel message. But contextualization means change will occur. We will be looking for new ways to translate the gospel that help others grasp its message. This is not accommodating the culture; it’s building meaningful relationships with people and speaking with them about the gospel (on the gospel’s own terms) in ways that make sense to them.

So when has change gone too far? When the gospel no longer looks or sounds like good news and Jesus no longer looks or sounds like the Jesus found in the pages of Scripture. But if the feet of those who bring the gospel are beautiful upon the hills, it is at least partly because those who hear the gospel are able to understand meaningfully the wonderful person and work of Jesus. The feet can still be beautiful even after you change shoes.

This article was originally published at: Christianity Today.

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Shouting With one Voice: Salvation Belongs to our God!

By Ramcely Cozar Castro

“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.  They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” Revelation 7:9-10

In this beautiful passage it is obvious that God himself has focused all his attention on assuring that the whole world will be saved.

When we read these verses, we must notice that God sees humanity as a single people, without borders, political divisions or cultural divides. Still, he respects and delights in its diversity, the vast spectrum of skin colors, as well as its linguistic and creative, cultural expressions. These are given by God to man.

John 3:16, a passage used broadly in evangelism, mentions that “God so loved the world…”  The last word does not refer to a single people group, but rather the whole world, with all of its peculiarities: every nation, every race, every people and every language.  God gave his only son, Jesus Christ, as one sacrifice for all because each of us individually is equally valuable.  “…That whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”  Everyone has the chance to be saved.  We can all reach the Father.

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The vision in the passage from Revelation says every nation will be before the throne, in front of the Lamb, unified by particular clothing that represents the redemptive work of God in them.  All, regardless of their contexts, will be worshiping.  The Lord does not change who they are.  Each one, taken as they are with their own characteristics, is shouting with a single voice, “Salvation belongs to the Lord,” recognizing him as the only Almighty Lord.

Once I had the chance to organize a youth camp, and two of the participants were deaf from birth.  Even though I am a special education teacher, I don’t speak sign language fluently enough to be able to evangelize.  I communicated in a very basic way, and I used a lot of paralinguistic expressions.  In the middle of the forest on the outskirts of Mexico City, I began to preach an evangelistic message with only the firelight illuminating the dark night. But I had forgotten about these two young people! I preached without signs and without visual aids, and quickly the presence of the Lord came to that place.  The Holy Spirit touched one of the two deaf participants in such a way that he gave his life to Christ.

Of course, it was not because of my words or talents.  It was God himself speaking into that person’s life and breaking down cultural, linguistic and physical barriers.  He moved, as he has done and will continue to do in every corner of the planet, using his servants.  We must be his instruments so that more and more people will join this celestial chorus that will shout with one voice, “Salvation belongs to our God!”

*Ramcely Cozar is the pastor of the La Olimpica Church of the Nazarene in Naucalpan, Mexico City.

 

Knocking Down Obstacles and Building Bridges

By Ramcely Cozar Castro

“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” I Corinthians 9:19, 23

“When someone is aware of their cultural foundations, they cease to be obstacles to effective communication.” – Nobleza Asuncion-Lande

The book of First Corinthians is a letter to the church in Corinth by Paul, who was known as Saul of Tarsus before his conversion to Christianity.

Paul, in contrast to the 12 disciples of Jesus, did not meet Jesus before his crucifixion.  He was an educated, religious person who belonged to the tribe of Benjamin.  He did not grow up in Jerusalem, but rather in Tarsus, a Greek city in the province of Cilicia.

This places Paul in a privileged situation since he received his education in Tarsus, a city known for its excellent Greek school and the high cultural level of its inhabitants.  Later he moved to Jerusalem where he studied to be a rabbi.  Taken together, this means the Apostle was an expert in Greek culture, religious Jewish culture, and Roman culture.

The phrase from author Asuncion-Lande says that becoming aware of our cultural foundations will minimize the communication barriers between an individual and people from the same country as well as those from other countries.

Paul is a clear example of the truth of this phrase: he was a great missionary and succeeded in taking the message of Jesus to the entire known world.  Language was no limitation to him, and neither were geographic divisions or cultural differences.

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Paul, a man profoundly grateful for what the Lord had done in his life, did work that required heavenly faith and wisdom. It also required him to evaluate his cultural baggage and paradigms so he could keep the fundamental concepts and jettison the rest. That allowed him to build bridges to connect with other cultures.

Those who want to work in different cultures must be aware of their own ways of seeing and living life.  They must understand themselves and their relationship with the surrounding world. We must ask the Lord, the master of all and the one who sustains us in his hands, to help us be flexible regarding any inconsequential things, and remain steadfast when it comes to that which truly forms the basis of our faith.

*Ramcely Cozar is the pastor of the La Olimpica Church of the Nazarene in Naucalpan, Mexico City.

 

 

How to Stay Motivated in Language Learning

By Joey Shaw

It’s been a year or two, or perhaps more, and you are still unable to converse in your host people’s language at the level you had hoped. You get stuck, locals have to slow down, you are constantly embarrassed, you can’t “be yourself,” and you just … don’t … want … to … study … anymore! Let’s face it, learning another language is tough.

Many of you are in this critical phase of your ministry. Without good language ability, you will, inevitably, cut your ministry short of maximum fruit bearing. So you need it, but “success” in language seems so far away. You need encouragement.

How do you stay motivated to keep going with language learning? Here are a few suggestions.

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USE WHATEVER LANGUAGE YOU HAVE FOR THE GLORY OF GOD

If you know a few phrases, find ways to use them to magnify God. I always like to learn the religious phraseology of my host people first: “glory to God,” “God is great,” and so on. It helps me talk about God early on. And there is nothing more motivating to study language than the thrill of magnifying our Savior, even in the smallest way possible, in the local language. Each new word is a new tool to magnify God to your host people.

DREAM ABOUT USING YOUR NEW WORDS TO PERSUADE OTHERS TO FOLLOW CHRIST

The languages the remaining unreached peoples speak are most often very difficult for native English speakers. So, perhaps, our job is harder today than a few hundred years ago. Be that as it may, the greater the disparity between our native and learned language, the greater the opportunity to display the love of a God who humbled Himself to become like us. Think about that during your study times. The word you learn today may be the critical word of persuasion to Christ for your host people one day.

EVALUATE YOUR MOTIVES

Are there any idols to repent of? Perhaps an approval idol: You just want your supporters to know you are not “wasting” their money. Perhaps you are believing the lie that once you speak the language, then you will be useful to God. Watch out for negative emotions: complaining, anger, impatience, grumpiness. These are all common symptoms of idolatry. The problem is that idols are horrible motivators. Idols are fake gods, and as such, they don’t come through on their promises. So if idolatry is at the root of your motivation to learn a language, then you will be left unsatisfied and, eventually, unmotivated.

PRAY FOR MORE LOVE

No matter how hard you work, no matter how good your language ability, no matter how many people you share the gospel with, no matter how effective your ministry seems to be, no matter how early you get up or late you go to bed, no matter what others think of you, … if you do not have love, you have nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3). Let that sink in. BUT, if you have God’s love for the people, it will compel you to endless hours of language study and practice so that your host people might know God and make Him known (2 Cor. 5:14).

This article was originally published at: Verge Network

The Harvest is Still Plenty

By Daniela Santiago

A few weeks ago I had the chance to be part of Third Wave 2019 in India. I am grateful that the Lord allowed me to be a part of this experience.

It’s natural for people to limit their vision of life to what is around them.  We know there is a bigger world out there, but it’s difficult to understand it. Beyond our borders there are different ways of living and different ways of understanding what it means to be a follower of Christ. Many times it means losing your life, and sometimes it means losing your freedom.  Still, none of these risks compare to the love we have and the commitment we have to extend the Kingdom of God to the ends of the earth.

It was incredible to be able to get to know and experience what the Church of the Nazarene does around the world.  What a blessing to know the gospel of Jesus extends to the furthest reaches of the earth, and that our Nazarene family is willing to go.

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One of the moments during Third Wave that most affected me was hearing the testimonies of people who live and serve in Creative Access Areas.  They are places where sharing the Good News of Jesus requires great commitment, patience, wisdom and perseverance.  They shared in India that they felt free to yell and praise God in that moment, but that in their countries, they must do it in silence, hidden away. The realization that the harvest is still plentiful, and that God still needs people to respond by saying, “Send me,” brought tears to my eyes and a burning desire to my heart.

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I am used to getting quick results, so it was challenging for me to hear how they work in those countries.  At the same time my heart kept filling with joy to know that the fire the Holy Spirit has placed in the hearts of our brothers and sisters to serve in those places is the same fire that burns inside of me.  I learned that God is a God of order and processes. My response to his call is valid, and despite my feelings of limitation to serve at this moment, I’m exactly where He wants me to be. The gifts of God are irrevocable, as is his call.

Having a chance to spend time and exchange ideas with people from more than 60 different countries truly changed my perspective of the world.  We exchanged ideas and talked about strategies, points of view and creative evangelism resources. I learned about culture and how much influence it has when the time comes to create and plan strategies to share the gospel.

I learned so many things on this trip. I learned patience is a reward from the Lord and that everything begins with prayer. But I also realized the profound importance of going to those who we do not know in order to share the love we have for Jesus and his gospel.

*Daniela Santiago is a youth leader in the Northwest Oaxaca District of Mexico.

“Restricted…but not Silent”

By Diana Gonzalez

A few days ago I had the blessing to be a part of Third Wave 2019 in Hyderabad, India.  I will never be the same after this experience.  I found new perspectives –  new ways of seeing life.  I was also challenged to hear the needs that exist, and what the Church of the Nazarene is doing to meet them in the name of Jesus.

People from more than 60 nations met to worship God. We shared our experiences, strategies, and ways of doing youth ministry in different contexts, just to share a few examples.  It was indescribable to be among so many nations, languages, cultures and flavors, but all with the same passion for the Lord.  I experienced a small taste of what it will be like after Jesus’ return.  On top of that, in some way, the world became smaller for me, because now I have friends all the way on the other side!

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50437954_447724335764950_2678421380508155904_n.jpgThe most significant thing for me in all of it was hearing the testimonies of the missionaries that work in Creative Access Areas.  In those areas, patience is part of their strategy, and what we understand in our contexts as “good results” must be reconsidered and valued in a different way.  In countries where they do not have the freedom to meet together for a service or the people are simply not interested in hearing about Jesus, the Word of God is “restricted, but not silenced,” as the Eurasia Regional Director shared.

I have learned about relational evangelism in a Youth Ministry class, and how Jesus established his kingdom through friendship and paying attention to important details. In Creative Access Areas, relational evangelism is crucial.  It is through years of friendship that someone is able to share the Good News.

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It is difficult to express how grateful I am for this experience.  It was a time in which God reminded us that this is our moment, this is our place, but it is also our decision to act!

*Diana Gonzalez is a youth leader and the Global Mission Coordinator in El Salvador.