Mission Briefing: Contextualization

By Howard Culbertson

When believers from one culture introduce the “unchanging gospel” to people of another culture, how do they keep the Good News from being dismissed as a foreign import? The short answer is one word: Contextualization.

When Christianity moves from one culture to another, there is danger that it will be thought of as belonging in the first culture, but very much out of place in the second one. The chances of that happening can be lessened if the Gospel will be proclaimed and lived out in culturally understandable ways. That process of meaningfully connecting biblical revelation to a specific culture is called “contextualization.”

Missiologist Darrell Whiteman said it this way: “Contextualization attempts to communicate the Gospel in word and deed and to establish the church in ways that make sense to people within their local cultural context.”

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Having the gospel “make sense” to people of a culture does not, of course, mean everyone will rush to embrace it. People must decide if they are willing to make the changes necessary for Jesus to be their Savior and Lord. That does not mean, of course, that people must abandon their ethnic or cultural identify to follow Jesus. Authentic contextualization is based on the premise that when people allow Christ’s transforming power into their lives, they will be even better Nicaraguans or Japanese or Bulgarians or Navajos than they were before.

Contextualization does not mean robbing the Gospel of its essence or “watering it down” to make it more palatable. On the contrary, good contextualization renders expressions of the “unchanging Gospel” more faithful to Scripture than they would otherwise be. Holy-Sprit-led contextualization allows Scripture to be as powerful and transformative in each cultural context as it can possibly be.

Proper contextualization moves gospel proclamation past a sense of foreignness to allow each people group to hear God say: “This is my design for you.” Contextualization allows people of a culture to see that Yahweh, Creator of the universe who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ, loves them and wants a relationship with them.

In tangible terms, contextualization involves the wording of theological expressions as well as things like sermon illustrations, music styles, artwork, decision-making, lifestyle choices, church programs and schedules, modes of preaching and teaching, the process of discipleship, evangelistic outreach, leadership selection and even architecture.

It must be clear says missions professor Zane Pratt, that the ultimate purpose of contextualization “is not comfort, but clarity.” Thus, authentic contextualization does not involve the softening or white-washing of Jesus’ radical commands. Indeed, contextualization enables the Gospel to be offensive to each culture for exactly the right reasons. Whiteman has said that good contextualization makes sure that the Gospel “engages people at the level of their deepest needs.”

Authentic contextualization must travel on two rails. One rail is an unwavering faithfulness to Scripture. The other rail is that of communicating and living out the Word of the Lord in ways that are familiar to people in a particular cultural context.

This article was originally posted at: Engage Magazine

Heart of God: Parable of the Mustard Seed

By Howard Culbertson

Though [a mustard seed] is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” — Matthew 13:32

Matthew 13 contains over half a dozen of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom.  Jesus opens with the parable of the sower.  Then, He talks about an infestation of weeds, a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a valuable pearl, a fishing net and a homeowner.

To explain the mustard seed parable, Pastor Leo Hartshorn uses only eight words: “A handful of disciples become a worldwide church.”  That the Kingdom of God is going to be large is without question a central point of the mustard seed analogy. There is, however, one detail in it which gets little attention: the birds.

The transformation of a mustard seed into a giant bush emphasizes the Kingdom’s organic, continually expanding aspect. What those birds emphasize is that the Kingdom is open to all. Unfortunately, if people think about the birds at all, they see them as “window dressing” or as simply an indication of how big the bush is.

Sadly, that misses the point of the birds. Here, as in a similar scenario in Ezekiel 17, birds represent various people groups. Jesus mentioned birds to say that the Kingdom is not just for “my kind” of people (those who think, act and speak just like me).  The Kingdom is for all kinds of birds!

Bird watchers say that the land of Israel is a paradise for them.  Indeed, it is. In that fairly small area — 70 miles wide and 270 miles long — more than 400 species of birds have been sighted.  That is because the area where Jesus lived and ministered is a main bird migration route to and from Europe and Asia to the north and Africa to the south.

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In light of that, the “birds of the air” (in King James and English Standard version wording) surely means more than a few sparrows or starlings. Palestine had 70 indigenous bird species.  With those different kinds of birds around, plus all the migratory fowl passing through, wasn’t Jesus likely trying to get us to think about how inclusive the Kingdom of God is?

Furthermore, the birds illustrate that the Kingdom is beckoning to all peoples.  Where the King James version speaks of “perching,” translations like the New Living and New American Standard use “nesting.”  The Kingdom thus is to become a “home.” “Nesting” means that the Kingdom we proclaim is something that is inviting and attractive.

The inclusiveness portrayed in the mustard seed parable evokes for me words I have sung often: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.  Red and yellow, black and white . . .”

The wonderful thing for us is that we get to point all the different “birds” (peoples of the world) toward that extraordinary tree called the Kingdom of God!