You’re a Lay Christian—a person who is not really trained in Christian studies. One evening, you are browsing through YouTube videos and you accidently come across a video of the eminent preacher John Piper. In that video Piper says that we do not need contextualisation and all we need is to take the gospel to people, talk about sin and salvation, and the people will understand. Simple.
Before you can scratch your head, you click on the next recommended video. And this video features another eminent preacher Tim Keller talking about contextualisation. Keller says that contextualisation is a necessary part of Gospel communication, compulsory for all Christians to use.
Seeing these two Christian stalwarts disagree, you are confused. “Who to believe?” you ask, scratching your head. So, to address your confusion head-on, you decide to become a specialist yourself. “I’m going to upgrade myself,” you commit. “I’m going to Bible college,” you decide.
And so, you take the leap of faith. You fill in an application form. You raise support. And you join a Bible college. Then, suddenly you’re faced with another shock. You had begun with a simple confusion about the word ‘contextualisation’. But in the college, you are introduced not just to ‘contextualisation’ but also ‘inculturation’ and ‘contextual theology’. Suddenly, you, the Lay Christian, wonder, “Maybe I shouldn’t have come to seminary after all!”
Think about the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are about the same person, Jesus, but they are written in four different ways depending on the audience.
The above apocryphal story is the setting of the fantastical dialogue that follows. Rather than talking about the merits or demerits of contextualisation, I want to explain contextualisation by showing how it contrasts with inculturation and contextual theology. I use a dialogue-skit approach to hopefully show what these concepts mean, and why I think the Church needs to understand and wisely use these concepts.
Once upon a time, a pastor sees his Church member, Lay Christian, heading out with his bags?
Pastor: Where are you going? I thought you were joining us for our mission trip.
Lay Christian: Pastor I want to study further; I want to learn more.
Pastor: Is not our church enough for you? Is my teaching lacking anything?
Lay Christian: Of course, … no, I mean… of course the church is enough, and no I don’t think your teaching lacks anything. But I would like to study a little bit about this concept called “contextualisation.” I am confused about it, and we don’t really talk about it in this church.
Pastor: Beware of “contextualisation.” It will confuse you and lead you away from the truth. When I was in Bible college, I…
Lay Christian: Oh, ok, pastor. Thank you. I’ll be careful. Pray for me, Pastor.
Pastor: I pray that you will not be led astray and come back safely with your faith intact. When I was in Bible college, I would…
Lay Christian: Ok pastor, bye pastor.
(The Lay Christian reaches the Bible college and heads straight to the library, to read books on contextualisation)
Lay Christian: Excuse me, if you don’t mind, I would like to meet contextualisation.
Contextualisation: Hi. I’m Contextualisation. How can I help you?
Inculturation: Hi, I’m inculturation.
Contextual theology: And I’m contextual theology. Hi.
Lay Christian: Wait, what? I came here to read about “contextualisation.” Who are you all?
Contextualisation: Don’t worry about them, we’re all the same thing.
Inculturation and Contextual theology: (together) No we’re not!
Lay Christian: Can someone please tell me what’s going on?
Contextualisation: Well, you see, dear Lay Christian, contextualisation means communicating the Gospel clearly across cultures. Think about the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are about the same person, Jesus, but they are written in four different ways depending on the audience. Contextualisation is all about adapting the Gospel to suit a particular audience, in hope that they will understand better.
Inculturation’s goal is to live out your faith within a non-Christian community in such a way that your behaviour and practices adapt to local culture, even if your beliefs remain the same.
Inculturation: That’s true.
Contextualisation: You agree?
Contextual theology: Of course. Not just in the Bible, but all good preaching and evangelism begins with contextualisation.
Contextualisation: Well, yes, so basically, my goal is to take the truth of the gospel and express it in a way that different people can understand. And, that’s basically what inculturation and contextual theology also do, right?
Contextual theology: Wrong.
Inculturation: Let me explain. Inculturation focusses on “culture”, it focusses on living the Gospel in a way that is more than preaching. Contextualisation tends to limit the Gospel to communicating the “message” of Scripture. Inculturation focusses on how we live our public lives in cultures where we go. So, when missionaries go to other countries, they often have to change the way they eat, dress, and even worship. In making cultural changes to their Christian practices, they are doing inculturation.
Contextualisation: Hey, contextualisation is not just about message, it’s also about our life.
Inculturation: Well maybe, but your name does not have “culture” in it. Mine does, in-“culturation”! So, I more intentionally focus on how Christians live in a culture.
Contextualisation: Hey that’s not fair. My concept is the broader category which includes…
Contextual theology: Ok, ok, no fighting. Remember we have a guest here. Let me explain contextual theology. My interaction with the world, the context, starts even before contextualisation and inculturation. These two words usually focus on non-Christian communities. My focus is on how Christian beliefs and practices are shaped by their culture and environment.
Lay Christian: Like what?
Contextualisation and Inculturation: Yeah, like what?
Contextual theology: Well contextualisation’s goal is to communicate what you already know, to a typically non-Christian audience, in a way that will make sense to them.
Contextual theology: And inculturation’s goal is to live out your faith within a non-Christian community in such a way that your behaviour and practices adapt to local culture, even if your beliefs remain the same.
Inculturation: Well, yeah.
Contextual theology: But I focus primarily on Christians, helping them to rethink what they claim to know. I lead Christians to question their blind-spots and challenge some of their beliefs that may not actually be from the Bible, or also highlight some beliefs that the people need to change in line with what is happening with culture.
Contextualisation: You mean you make heretics.
Lay Christian: Oh no. Then why am I studying here? Oh God, save me!
Contextual theology: Excuse me. I don’t make heretics. My goal is to help people become better Christians. After Christians believe in Jesus, then what?
Contextualization: What do you mean, then what? We die and go to heaven of course!
Contextual theology: Not immediately. Rather than dying, Christians live, and sometimes they live for a long time. And during that time, they are called to grow in their faith, grow in the knowledge of God. I encourage people to grow deeper in their faith in a way that is relevant to their culture.
Lay Christian: That’s why I’m studying in this Bible college… to grow in my knowledge of God and the Bible.
Contextual theology: Exactly. Contextualisation is a “communication” method, and inculturation is a “living” method. Both concepts help Christians bring the Gospel message to typically non-Christian cultures. However, contextual theology can be called a “thinking” method, one that helps Christians improve their thinking about God and the world we live in.
Lay Christian: I’m confused. Don’t we just need the Bible to make sense of the God and his world? Why do we have to complicate God’s word by looking at “context”?
Contextualisation: I can answer that. Context is just another word for ‘the world that we live in’. And different communities live in different worlds. Contextualisation takes context seriously because the Bible was written in different contexts. To better understand the Bible, we need to better understand its context. Similarly, if we want to communicate the Gospel to different people, we need to understand their context and sometimes adapt the message in such a way that they will understand the message. So, for instance, if a person living in a very hot climate has no understanding of ‘snow’, he or she may not understand what it means to say Jesus makes us as “white as snow”. So, using contextualisation, we can adapt the idea of snow to communicate in way that they can understand that Jesus forgives our sins.
Lay Christian: This, I understand. Because I think even my pastor tries to do contextualisation when he preaches to the youth, and when he preaches to the older congregation. He adjusts his message according to the audience.
Contextualisation: Exactly. Adjusting the message to the context, according to the people in front of you, without changing the fundamental message, is contextualisation.
Lay Christian: So why do I need to know inculturation or contextual theology?
Inculturation: Talk, talk, talk. That’s what these contextualisation people and contextual theologians do. Inculturation is needed because it’s all about practising your faith and adapting your actions for the sake of others. So, if your church is located in the middle of a Hindu community, the church would encourage its members to take off its shoes before entering the sanctuary (like in a Hindu temple). Sometimes we even adapt our eating habits and adopt other practices to help other people know Jesus.
Contextual Theology: The Church needs contextual theology because we need to correct our own cultural thinking. Let me give slavery as an example. In the old days, in Europe and America, slavery was widely practised, even by Christians. And many Christians used the Bible to prove that slavery was ok. But in the 1800s, Christian voices arose that challenged the practice of slavery, arguing that it was against God’s intention and that we must abolish it. Both groups used the Bible, and both groups were influenced by their culture. But still, it shows how Christians can often grossly misread the Bible. Contextual theology helps Christians to be alert about what’s happening in world, respond to it, and even challenge their own blind-spots.
Lay Christian: But, if you challenge everything, then what guarantee is that you will not lose your faith?
Contextualisation: Good question. My own view is that there are some principles that transcend culture, there are principles that can be translated across cultures. We should never compromise on those principles.
Inculturation: That I fully agree with. But more importantly, why can’t we just practice what we preach. In the real-world, the true language of faith is tested through actions.
Contextual theology: So, can you at least agree that there are some principles that Christians believe are not universal, and perhaps those principles should be challenged?
Inculturation: Are you thinking like “how” we live out our faith? What practices we follow?
Contextual theology: But more than that, we need to improve how we express our own faith, how we talk about it, how we teach our children about God…
Contextualisation: Yes, sort of, but I want to say that…
Lay Christian: Stop, stop, stop! All this is too abstract. This conversation is getting too confusing. Thank you so much for your talk, all three of you. But I’m heading back to my church to do anything other than study in a Bible college. My pastor was right.
(Lay Christian runs back to Church)
Pastor: Welcome back Lay Christian. How was Bible college?
Lay Christian: Terrible, pastor. You were right. It’s too confusing.
Pastor: I’m glad you think this way. Now, will you join us for our mission trip?
Lay Christian: Yes Pastor, anything Pastor.
Pastor: But I must warn you. You will need to learn the local language so that you can communicate the gospel in a way that the local people can understand. You will also have to adjust the way you eat food and dress. And finally, when you go, you must not simply criticise everything, instead identify things that you can learn from that community that can challenge your own blind-spots. Are you prepared to take up this challenge?
Lay Christian: Pastor, what you just said sounds like you’re combining contextualisation, inculturation and contextual theology… oh, forget it! Yes, I’ll join the mission trip. Hallelujah!