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How, or even—should we contextualise the gospel?

Until I recently embarked on some study related to contextualisation, I hadn’t realised that there was debate surrounding whether it was a good thing or not. I naively presumed that considering the context you are in when sharing the gospel was a given, and that it was more about the “how” and “to what extent” rather than the “should we” question that needed to be answered. What follows is my attempt at understanding what contextualisation is and the principles that we can use to put it into practice in our lives and ministry.

One of the biggest challenges in thinking about contextualisation is arriving at a definition. Since the term was first used by liberal theologians, it is understandable that evangelicals have been wary and, in some cases, opposed to the term. If you are interested in reading more about the history of the debate, Andrew Prince, in his book about contextualisation, gives a good summary and highlights the main players.1 Much of the discussion is about where we should start when considering contextualisation—the Scriptures or culture—and what principles we should use when putting it into practice.

In its simplest form, contextualisation is about how we understand the Christian faith in terms of a particular setting. There needs to be a balance between careful study of the Bible and also the culture it is being spoken into. The definition that I have arrived at is: Seeking to communicate the gospel in a way that is faithful to the Scriptures, meaningful to those who receive it, and that encourages challenge and critique. In this way, contextualisation feels a bit like a balancing act of carefully considering the Biblical text in its original context, taking into account our own biases, and then seeking to express it in a way that those who hear it can relate to.

Faithful to God’s Word

As people who seek to share the good news with people in Japan, we want to be faithful to the Word of God and this is also where we need to start in contextualisation. If we haven’t worked hard at understanding a Biblical passage in its original context and trying to discern our own personal biases, then any attempt at contextualizing it to our ministry to Japanese people will be futile.

I have been greatly encouraged as I have read through the book of Acts and seen the various ways that the good news is presented to different audiences. The speeches in Acts by Peter, Stephen, and Paul show us that there is “a gospel core, centred on the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the need for repentance, and the availability of forgiveness of sin.”2 While these central truths are non-negotiable, the way that we present them will vary depending on the people and situation that we are in. I particularly love the way Paul shares the core message in Acts 17 with people from a non-Jewish background, helping them to understand God’s character, relationship with creation, and desire for relationship with them.

Meaningful to our audience

We want to proclaim the God’s good news in a way that is meaningful to those with whom we share it. There is no room for compromise of the message, but it must be communicated in such a way that can be understood by those who hear it. In order for people to hear, understand, and accept the gospel, we must, first of all, establish common ground.

In Japan, this means we need to work hard at understanding the language and culture so that we can relate and communicate in a way that is appropriate while seeking common ground with those we minister to. In Acts 17:22-23, Paul respectfully points out the Athenians’ religiosity and observes their altar to the “unknown god”. Rather than ridiculing their beliefs, he uses these things that are obviously important to them as a means of connection. We must also engage with Japanese culture and religion, attempting to understand their basic assumptions and worldview, so that we, too, might be able to present the gospel in ways that resonate with the hearts of Japanese people.

From the variety of speeches that are found in the New Testament, we can conclude that there is not just one way to do this. When Peter, Stephen, and Paul address Jews, their speeches included references that the Jews would have understood. Peter (Acts 2) talks about how Jesus fulfils the Scriptures, Stephen (Acts 7) highlights how Israel has a history of rejecting God and those he has appointed, and Paul (Acts 13) explains how Jesus is the fulfilment of the Davidic promise. From this we can see that the message of the Bible is constant but the presentation depends on the situation.

It may also be helpful to use terms that already exist in Japanese but give them new meaning in light of the gospel. In Acts 17, we see Paul using language and categories with his Greek listeners to convey biblical revelation in a way that they can understand. Just as Paul uses the Greek word “Θεος” (theos) in Acts 17, Japanese use the word “” (kami) for God. Although the word “” already represents the many gods of Shinto, Christians have bestowed on it the biblical meaning of the “one true God”. This may also be the case with selected objects and elements of general revelation that can be used as a bridge in order to communicate the gospel. Obviously, care needs to be taken so that misunderstanding does not occur when the original meanings of the terms are read back into the Bible.

Open the way for critique

Finally, the gospel must be able to critique the culture that it is speaking into and call those in it to be conformed to the image of Christ. The pressure to make the good news accessible and understandable to people should not lead to the watering down of the demands that the Bible makes on those who would follow Jesus. Both Peter and Stephen challenge their listeners to repent of the way they have failed to respond to God. The gospel will, and must, challenge and critique our cultures and point us towards Christ-like discipleship.

We must also remember that all cultures have both positive and negative aspects. God’s Word does not condemn culture outright, but it must be the measure by which any activity or way of thinking is judged. We see an example of this in Acts 17 as Paul affirms his audience’s religiosity (v. 22–23), the work of their poets (v. 28–29), and their sincerity (v. 23) while critiquing their misdirection (v. 27) and ignorance (v. 30).

With this in mind, it would seem that those who put their faith in Jesus Christ do not necessarily need to be dislocated socially and may be able to remain within their own culture and community. For a Jew to become a follower of Jesus, they were not required to reject everything that was connected to their Jewish culture. Gentile believers (Acts 15) were also to remain within their communities with some restrictions placed on things they were unable to participate in (v. 20). For Japanese believers, there will be tensions regarding things like family altars, visiting shrines, and participating in festival celebrations. Again, we see the balancing act that is required in thinking about contextualisation. We need to preach and live out the distinctive demands of the gospel, but there may be many aspects of the culture that can be retained or adapted.

Although there are many challenges involved in contextualisation, I think that faithful and meaningful communication of the gospel cannot be achieved without it. We face the challenge of trying to communicate how to live a life of faith in the place that God has placed us, Japan, and teaching others to do the same. Hopefully, as we continue to read God’s Word and listen to what it says, we will be challenged to understand it in its context and seek to share it in a meaningful way to Japanese people that they may become followers of Jesus.

Edited version of an article that originally appeared on CMS Australia’s website on 29 October, 2018:  https://www.cms.org.au/2018/10/thinking-about-contextualisation/

1. For a historical survey: Andrew J. Prince, Contextualization of the Gospel: Towards an Evangelical Approach in the Light of Scripture and the Church Fathers (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2017), 37-71.

2. Prince, Contextualization, 110.

Kellie Nicholas is a CMS missionary (Australia) who has been serving in Japan since 2008. She works as a KGK (IFES group) staff worker in the Kansai Region, helping Japanese university students to meet Jesus and grow in their relationship with God.

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