In May this year, in Portsmouth NH, we are hosting a national conference to help us reach the nations that are in our cities and build multi-cultural churches that better reflect the communities we are in. http://www.newfrontiersusa.org/nations
Our key note speaker is Andy Martin. Andy is on staff at Churchcentral, a multi-cultural church in Birmingham, UK. Andy’s main work is among the unreached peoples of the Middle East, as well as recruiting and training people who want to serve God in another nation. Here is an article he wrote recently about contextualization.
“In order for the Christian message to be meaningful to people it must come to them in language and categories that make sense within their particular culture and life situation. It must be contextualized." Dean Flemming
For the gospel to be heard as good news in our racially and socially diverse communities, we need to understand that 'one size fits all' does not work. Learning to communicate and relate across cultural and social divides is a priority for the church. As John Stott says,
“The overriding reason why we should take other people’s culture seriously is that God has taken ours seriously. God is the supreme communicator. And His Word has come to us in an extremely particularized form. Whether spoken or written, it was addressed to particular people in particular cultures using the particular thought-forms, syntax, and vocabulary with which they were familiar.”
God so loved the world he stepped right into it—into one particular culture—and lived, loved, ate, slept, served, taught, did miracles, laid down his life, and rose again to then say to his followers, “Now you go and make this good news of the Kingdom known in the way I have.”
The subject of contextualization receives a lot of attention and rightly so. There is plenty of debate and disagreement on different aspects, and there can be a danger that we over complicate the power and simplicity of the example Jesus gave us. Contextualization isn't simply a technical term to describe aspects of mission. It’s meant to be how we live in our communities and with our neighbors and friends. We must not miss the importance of Jesus' example of how the gospel overcomes social and cultural differences.
Jesus talked about loving your neighbor as yourself, laying down your life, and serving others. All of these things are how the gospel will overcome barriers. Loving our neighbor means listening to them, spending time with them, eating with them. Serving others means we will find out about their needs; what is important to them. Laying our lives down means understanding that other people see the world differently from us and have different priorities.
In the West we are a task-oriented culture. We like to achieve things. Getting a job done is the priority. Relationships matter, but time is short and life is pressured so let's do everything we can to accomplish what we need to. However, for our neighbors that haven't grown up in the West, relationships have a far higher value and spending time together—finding out each other's stories and history, and doing this over a good, long meal—IS getting something done! If we don't understand things like this then it is easy to cause offense. We talk about a gospel of love, but demonstrate the opposite because we haven't entered into our neighbor’s context.
This is just one example, there are many other issues we need to consider and be sensitive to. How we dress, how we raise our children, our strong individualistic lifestyle: these can all be areas that can cause offense or be misunderstood when it comes to cross-cultural relationships and fulfilling what Jesus taught us to do—love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
It would be so helpful if there was a manual that listed all cultural differences and values so we could simply look things up and have a list of mistakes to avoid. However, that is, itself, a very Western way at looking at relationships and building community (i.e. a list of solutions)!
Love takes time, effort, and sacrifice. When it crosses barriers, the gospel is at its most powerful: that is contextualization in action. Jesus knew this. This is why he didn't give us a seminar or a manual, but rather gave an example to follow.