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Jesus-style contextualisation

While talking with a Buddhist man about God’s creation, I said to him, “Look at that bottle of water in your hand. Do you think the plastic just happened to be that shape? What about the label? Were those words there just by accident?” After he had acknowledged that they were designed, I gave the application: “If you can’t believe the water bottle just made itself by chance, what about your body? Your brain is far more powerful than any computer, your eye more complex than any camera.” The discussion evidently stuck in his mind because when, two weeks later, I asked him if he remembered what I told him earlier (though I was actually referring to a different conversation), he immediately responded, “About the water bottle?”

I got this idea from a pastor in England, but I realised that Jesus did the same thing. He wanted his listeners to look at a child or a coin physically in front of them (Matt. 18:2; 22:19). His words “Look at the birds of the air” (Matt. 6:26 ESV) were given during his open-air Sermon on the Mount, where, presumably, actual birds were flying around. The visual aid seems to make the message more memorable.

Often we think of “contextualisation” as referring to evangelism or church planting in cultures outside of our own, but the same principles also apply to evangelism within our own cultures. Each society is diversified, and various approaches might be needed for sharing the gospel with people of different generations, genders, or educational levels. Moreover, because each individual is unique, we still need to “contextualise” our message to some extent to make it relevant to that person.

Learning from Jesus’ example

That is why we can learn some basic principles of contextualisation from the ministry of Jesus, even though he usually spoke to Jews rather than Gentiles. At first glance, they seemed to be from the same culture as Jesus, but in his incarnation Jesus had left the “culture” of heaven and had, as it were, “gone native”, adopting the customs of his host culture. In this way, Jesus was a perfect anthropologist because he learned the new culture from the inside out. He was involved in people’s daily lives—at a wedding, sharing meals, healing, helping fishermen in their work, and getting a reputation for hanging out with those at the margins of society. He was doing what anthropologists call “participant observation”, which is the best way for anyone to learn about another culture.

Asking questions

Jesus also asked questions, which is the essence of research. At the age of 12, he was “sitting among the teachers . . . and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Likewise, when we are in an unfamiliar culture, we need to ask questions and perhaps consult experts about certain topics. Jesus often asked questions in reply to questions (e.g. Luke 10:26; Matt. 21:25; John 18:34). In doing this, he was finding out where the person was “at”. He also challenged people with questions so that they would think about something for themselves (e.g. Luke 10:36; Matt. 22:42).

Some of us can be so eager to evangelise that we do not take time to ask questions and hone our message according to where the person is at. In particular, the question “Why?” is very important because it elicits motivations. For example: “Why did you use seimeihandan (name divination) when choosing your child’s name?” “Why do you have a mamori charm in your car?” “Why do you visit the graves at the bon festival or higan?”

The outer circle of a target

My book The Unseen Face of Japan contains suggestions on how to apply cultural knowledge when sharing the gospel, but the Holy Spirit can show us the right approach to use in particular circumstances. Applying cultural knowledge to evangelism is like shooting at a target. Just as it is easier to hit the outer circle, there are many very general themes that relate to almost anyone. Christ’s parables and comparisons use themes from everyday life, including birds (Matt. 6:26; 10:16,29), flowers (Luke 12:27; Matt. 6:28), salt (Matt. 5:13), water (John 4:7-15), or children (Matt. 11:16–17). This is the essence of contextualisation: taking something familiar and imparting to it a new spiritual meaning or using it to draw people into a deeper understanding of spiritual truth. Illustrations from nature often seem to appeal to Japanese people. For instance, Jesus’ resurrection made more sense to a Japanese woman when I compared it with a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. Illustrations from nature may also point towards a Creator. Nowadays, some Japanese people doubt that millions of deities could agree enough among themselves to create a universe with inbuilt laws or constants. A worldview shift is inclining some Japanese towards a belief in a Creator.1

Getting closer to the centre

The middle circle of the target relates to illustrations that are more specific to the local culture. Even if some examples may be characteristic of the region (e.g. East Asia) rather than specific to Japan (e.g. the use of certain kanji as points of contact to share spiritual truths or to relate to the early chapters of Genesis), they can still bring the listener to an “I get it” moment.

Folk sayings or proverbs often embody folk wisdom about life, and we can use them as points of contact to illustrate a spiritual truth we want to convey. In Matthew 16:2–3, Jesus quotes the Jewish equivalent to “Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight,” which has counterparts in many cultures. However, it is important to understand clearly what the saying actually means within the culture so we can use it appropriately.

Close to the heart of a culture are writings and narratives that embody respected values or beliefs. Jesus often quoted the Old Testament, while in a Gentile context Paul cited Greek literature (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12). Likewise, pastor and former missionary to Japan, Patrick McElligott has used Japanese literature as a starting point for communicating spiritual truths. For instance, poets such as Issa refer to cherry blossoms as a metaphor for the transience of life but McElligott then points beyond the fading flowers to that which is eternal—the word of God (Isaiah 40:8).2

Jesus also used current events as opportunities to share spiritual truths (Luke 13:1–4). He did not give a political commentary, but he explained the spiritual significance of these events. In Japan, a land subject to natural disasters, we need to be sensitive to suffering and express our compassion in deeds as well as words, but we also need to address the spiritual questions people are asking. After the 2011 tsunami, local people claiming to have a religious belief approximately doubled from 27% to 52%.3 Conversely, many Japanese people believe that their country was miraculously saved from the Mongols in 1274 and 1281, but they are unsure which deity sent the kamikaze (divine winds). I suggest that this “unknown God” not only cared for Japan, but was great enough to save Western Europe from the Mongols, too.4

In talking with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4–42), Jesus used water as a metaphor to bring out a spiritual truth. Although this form of contextualisation was in the “outer circle” of the target, it aroused the woman’s curiosity and provoked questions. Such contextualisation provides relevant metaphors for explaining spiritual concepts and ideas. Jesus not only knew about Samaritan culture but also gave an example of how to get beyond surface-level cultural differences to address more important spiritual issues (John 4:19–24).

Hitting the bull’s eye

Moreover, his cultural knowledge was informed by spiritual discernment. Jesus hit the bull’s eye when he referred to the woman’s marriage history and private life—knowledge that was revealed supernaturally. Similarly, we need to address not only the mind but also deeper issues in the person’s life. In sharing our contextualised approaches, we also need to be listening to the Holy Spirit, who may give us deeper spiritual insights.

1. David C. Lewis, Religion in Japanese Daily Life (London and New York: Routledge, 2017), 292–297.

2. Patrick McElligott, “Using Japanese Literature in Preaching” in Carl C. Beck (ed.) All things to All Men: Interaction of Biblical Faith and the Surrounding Cultures—Major Papers presented at the 24th Hayama Men’s Missionary Seminar, Amagi Sansō, 5th-7th January 1983 (Tokyo: publisher unstated), 32.

3. Norichika Horie, Continuing Bonds in the Tōhoku Disaster Area: Locating the Destinations of Spirits (Journal of Religion in Japan Vol. 5, Issue 2-3, 2016), 210.

4. David C. Lewis The Unseen Face of Japan, 2nd edn. (Gloucester: Wide Margin Books, 2013), 295–296.

David C. Lewis is a British cultural anthropologist whose latest book is Religion in Japanese Daily Life. He teaches postgraduate courses in Social Anthropology and also conducts training workshops for Christians on contextualisation and cross-cultural ministry.

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