The challenge of the contextualisation of the gospel is not be feared. In fact it is one of the greatest gifts we have. The Christian faith demands to be contextualised, and is made capable of such contextualisation because of the dynamic at work at its heart.
From the outset, God contextualised his approach to humankind, through language and imagery, personal encounter and revelation.
The incarnation of Jesus is of course the epitome of contextualisation. Jesus enters our world, on our terms, alongside us in all things. Well, not exactly all things – for his sinlessness reminds us that contextualisation is not the same of identification, for the presence of God will always challenge people and cultures to recognise their need to be transformed into the likeness of God and his Kingdom.
The goal of contextualisation therefore is to enable Jesus, as far as it is possible, to be authentically experienced in every human situation. That human situation comprises the worldview of the person or community. So, for example Jesus was embraced as a rabbi by many of the Jewish people, and amongst them were those who suspected he was the long-promised Messiah. Their Jewish worldview meant they were open to such a person entering their world.
Women experienced Jesus as distinctly counter-cultural, and they welcomed that. Why wouldn’t they! And so did all manner of outcast and sinners. But amongst those for whom that culture had been favourable, many felt threatened.
Rich people walked away downcast because they did not accept the Lordship of Christ. Other rich people, amongst them women, supported the ministry of Jesus. The issues isn’t riches, it’s the love of riches.
Outwardly sinless people were labelled as hypocrites, yet outwardly sinful people were contrite and were restored.
Worldview, or context, is everything. Announcing Jesus as the Messiah to a bunch of Harley-Davidson bikers is likely to have little impact. But a prisoner might need to hear the gospel as that which forgives and gives a second chance. A trafficked woman can hear of the God who welcomed women and restored their dignity. Nations that are powerful need to hear of the dangers of hubris, while the downtrodden will hear good news about the God of small things.
So, in one sense there is no such thing as a simple gospel. The gospel is a fluid thing, subversive, changing shape, finding its way into cracks and crevices and from there, challenging and embracing in sometimes equal measure. The gospel will embrace aspects of culture not embodied in the gospel imported from elsewhere, but it will also challenge that same culture where the Lordship of Christ is ignored or undervalued.
The messenger therefore needs to recognise that the baggage they carry is more than the simple gospel. Their ‘shaped-by-my-culture’ understanding of the gospel can, if we’re not careful, deny new insights that might emerge from other cultures have not yet seen. For example, a western worldview doesn’t allow much room for miracles – and that baggage is easily imparted to others. Conversely, those who read the bible afresh, and from a culture where the reality of the spirit world is readily embraced, may well conclude that God answers our prayers, and often with miracles, and so pray for healing as routine.
There was much to celebrate in the missionary movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. We can see that there were real attempts at contextualisation, long before the concept was ever conceived. Reducing local languages to script and translating the Bible were major steps in allowing the gospel to take root in new soil. But there were also blind spots. African converts dressed as quintessential Englishmen and women, as well as the building of churches with pulpits, pews and spires betray a cultural blindness alongside a desire to share the gospel.
But in spite of shortcomings, and encouraged by brave pioneers, amongst them some BMS missionaries, the converted slaves of the Jamaican plantations found in Scripture the mandate for their own freedom, and they fought for it. The fight was theirs and the victory too.
More recently in Latin America in the 1970s, where the need for contextualisation was first recognised and named, the social strictures of poverty and powerlessness left people yearning for freedom. And along came the gospel, sown in Latin soil, tilled by the priests who lived alongside the underclass, and through their eyes and out of their worldview they discovered a theology of liberation. No powerful elite was going to offer that to the masses! It wasn’t perfect but it was utterly radical.
These things are not just issues of yesteryear. We export our theology today through powerful global Christian publishing houses, when otherwise excellent material such as ‘Purpose Driven…’ or Alpha can, if we’re not careful, be vehicles for stunting the development of truly indigenous theology. Even worse, the ubiquitous tele-evangelists on satellite channels around the world, owing more to showbiz and money-making than the life of Jesus, so often register zero on the contextualisation meter!
So, how far is too far?
Firstly, we are too far away from a contextualised gospel if we fail to engage with the particularities of the human condition in any given culture. The Bible certainly speaks a universal word to all of humanity that entails God’s creation, humanity’s fallenness, God’s salvation plan, the cross and resurrection and eschatological hope.
But this universality does not mean that the gospel is uni-dimensional, or simple. Some will argue that the gospel calls for repentance and faith as means of salvation, but is not designed to deal with issues of poverty and justice. Many evangelicals held this view until the 1970s and it was John Stott’s major contribution to evangelical theology that he reminded us of the need to care for the poor, the widow and the outcast.
To adopt a ‘scripture is simple’ stance in terms of our understanding of human sexuality, or creation-science, or a hundred other disciplines is to say that the insights of science and the humanities have little or nothing to add to our understanding of the bible.
But conversely, we are too far away from a contextualised gospel, in the opposite direction, if we focus so exclusively on contextualising scripture that we forget the message of the cross. Yes, the human condition is an offence to God and in many respects a product of our making. And yes, it is vital that our faith results in us working for the overturning of injustice and the betterment of human life. But the bible can never be reduced to a political manifesto. At the heart of the gospel is a spiritual diagnosis that reckons with the seriousness of sin, and the efficacy of the cross. If our focus on culture neglects engagement with the sin that separates us from God, we are just one more political party.
Besides we will have disempowered the gospel in its ability not just to embrace culture but also to challenge it. Holding these things together gives us both things that we need. We have a contextual gospel, but it is still The Gospel – good news for a broken world.
(First Published at www.bmsworldmission.org/catalyst)