When my wife and I first got married, we decided to try and learn a new language together. We signed up for a Russian class offered through the Foreign Language Academy in Knoxville, and I vividly remember my first class. I was so excited and, while not historically a great student, I was ready for this class. My textbook was sitting in front of me, my notebook was perfectly lined up beside it, my pencil was sharpened, my hands were folded neatly in my lap, and my shoes were laced up tightly. It was like kindergarten all over again. But when the teacher walked in, she said, “Dobroye utro, klass!” To which my wife responded, “Dobroye utro!” in perfect Russian. Sigh. In hindsight, I should have known that my wife, whose family had done home missions work in Seward, Alaska, had already learned quite a bit of Russian in her high school days. Needless to say, while I was struggling with memorizing my Cyrillic alphabet, those two were getting along swimmingly.
Language is the great unifying force. At Babel, God divided people and efforts by confounding their language. It’s actually quite amazing when you think about the far-reaching implications of His actions at this moment. Not just in creating diverse languages, but entire cultures. It was important because He recognized that when people are able to communicate clearly it’s much easier to achieve unity in purpose—even if that purpose is evil.
Of course, the entirety of this Pentecostal experience we are now part of is the great undoing of Babel. Where language was used to confuse and divide at Babel, it was used to unite at Pentecost. When the Holy Ghost fell in the Upper Room, they did not speak in ecstatic, unintelligible utterances. Rather, many of the languages they spoke were specific to those of the nationalities that had gathered in Jerusalem for the great feast. The power of God was made manifest, yes—of course—but in that same moment the fire was falling, the gospel was being preached and cultural barriers were being shattered! 3,000 people were added to the church that day, in part, because the message of Jesus was being spoken contextually.
The concept of “contextualizing the gospel” is a difficult one for modern Pentecost to approach, partially because so many have let Truth slip through their fingers while trying to do so. It may be helpful, then, to explain what contextualizing is not. Contextualizing, for example, is not having church in a bar, as a church in my old hometown is doing (“no cover…first round is on us!”). This is a pathetic attempt at some sort of cultural relevancy; a type of dysfunctional codependency in which we adapt attendees’ sinful behaviors so they won’t leave us. Nor is contextualizing the gospel about taking a Jimmy Buffet-esque, “Cheeseburger in Paradise” approach to church where the pastor shows up in a wrinkled t-shirt and flip-flops to give a milquetoast re-telling of the latest Christian best-seller or trendy self-help book.
The culture has grown tired of this kind of interpretation of “their language.” It’s a bit like that one teacher we all had that really wanted to be seen as a cool student instead of simply teaching the class (youth pastors, take note). It never quite worked out that way, did it? No, instead of coming across as cool, whatever they adopted in trying to fit in simply became uncool to those they were trying to impress.
Contextualization, then, is not the act of trimming off the offensive bits and sanding down the rough edges of the gospel. No. There’s simply no other way about it, I’m afraid. The gospel is offensive.
What is it then? Well, one very good example—perhaps the supreme example—is the Incarnation. “And the Word was made flesh…” (John 1:14). God looks down at humanity and sees the very best way to get us to understand the law is to fulfill it. To wrap Himself in flesh, and suffer among us. Why? So we could say, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrew 4:15). This is contextualizing. To be able to say, “I feel what you’re feeling. I’m touched by what touches you.”
Here’s another example. I preached a message shortly after I began pastoring about “digging deeper” in our relationship with God, using the process of digging wells as an example. It went over just fine, I suppose, but this is a country where water is simply a given. No one in my congregation had ever had to pump water out of a well, let alone dig one. But when I preached that message in India a short while later, it took on a completely different meaning. If anyone knows the struggle of getting to the pure, fresh water deep in the earth, it’s the water-poor area of Chennai I was in. It also so happened, unknown to me at the time, the service was being held in the home of a man who worked digging wells. It was a powerful, moving service; due largely to the message being placed in the context of the people receiving it.
The Context of the Gospels
This isn’t a new concept, I should add. If we look to the authors of the gospels we find brilliant examples of contextualization of the gospel message. Matthew, writing primarily to the Jews, traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham and David, establishing Him as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Much of Matthew’s writing, upwards of 60%, are Jesus’ words, spoken as rabbi, intermingled with some 50 Old Testament quotes. Matthew knew how to present Jesus to his audience.
Mark, on the other hand, is writing with the Romans in mind. He doesn’t provide any genealogy, as the Romans wouldn’t care. What he does, however, is provide insight into Jewish words and customs so non-Jews could better understand Jesus’ saying and actions, which are described in detail.
Luke, a Gentile himself, writes primarily for a Gentile audience. He traces Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Adam, emphasizing Jesus’ humanity. He focuses on Jesus’ early years, and approximately half of his gospel is dedicated to Jesus’ words.
John addresses his gospel primarily to the Greeks. Jesus is presented as the Logos—the eternal Word or plan of God. Some 90% of John’s gospel is unique to John. He builds a case throughout proving (especially through Jesus’ “I am” statements) that Jesus is not simply a god among many, but the only God.
These men, after that transformative, empowering moment in the Upper Room of Pentecost, were no longer fishermen, tax collectors, or doctors. Nor were they simply preachers. They were, altogether, something more because of the Great Commission. It forced them into situations and cultures they had probably never dreamed they would engage, let alone influence. They were missionaries.
The Job of a Missionary
The Bible is quite literally full of examples—in both Old and New Testaments—of contextualizing. But the best summation, perhaps, of the job of a missionary, the great challenge of contextualizing the gospel, comes from Paul.
He was an amazing student, not only of the law and the Scripture, but the world around him. An incandescent communicator, Paul gives us a masterclass in contextualizing the gospel in Acts 17. He was obviously heartbroken over the idolatry of Athens, but also saw an opportunity to engage them on their “own turf” by taking his message to Mars Hill. And it’s to this group of people, who “spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing,” that Paul begins to quote…poetry and Greek philosophy? “For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain of your own poets have said…” He was referring to Epimenides, who is historically associated with helping to relieve Athens of a severe plague by making petition to “the unknown god.” Paul was saying, “I happen to know you’ve been looking for this unknown god for the past 600 years. I’m here to tell you about Him.”
Because he so loved the gospel, he took the unchanging message and, lifting it above his head, as it were, waded into the waters of an ever-changing world:
“For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Contextualizing isn’t just the job of foreign missionaries; it’s the calling of every church and pastor. We often frustrate ourselves by trying to replicate another’s success—we do the same songs, use the same lights, preach in the same style—and then scratch our heads while wondering why we’re not getting the same results. Well, we’ve removed those things from their context. Matthew would have failed to reach the Jews if he had written like Luke. Mark couldn’t have reached his Roman audience with John’s narrative. So, engage the culture of your area, get comfortable in your own skin (and ministry), and stop trying to duplicate your favorite preacher! God called you to be you so He could reach the place where He put you!