Contextualisation: How Far Is Too Far?

It is universally accepted that the Gospel is above culture. The Gospel is good news about God and what He has done for a lost and sinful humanity and that which emanates from Him alone. Culture and everything it entails is man-made, dynamic, and constantly evolving. How do you take the Gospel message which is timeless, eternally relevant and pivotal for the eternal destiny of humankind and communicate it in a way that is meaningful, relevant and transformative within a cultural construct? Whilst there may be aspects within culture that align with the Gospel and Biblical worldview, there are also other aspects where there is either silence or a negative response from the Word of God. The challenge remains as to how to be culturally sensitive and contextually prudent in acknowledging the good, confronting the bad and wisely handling the ‘in-betweens’. This has always been the challenge from time immemorial and remains so even today, because miscalculations in these areas have proven to be disastrous to the spread of Christianity.

God took on flesh and dwelt with us. In that act itself, we see the greatest model of contextualisation shown for us and to us.

India which is a melting pot of faiths and religious traditions and a plethora of cultures presents a huge challenge when it comes to mission. Two thousand years of Gospel endeavours in this land have yielded little outcomes, if one goes by the sheer number of public adherents of the Christian faith. Christianity remains a minority in India and has traditionally always been perceived as a Western religion and, therefore, alien. Hence, contextualisation of the Gospel in the sphere of mission endeavours becomes more necessary so as to convey the crux of the Gospel but in culturally appropriate and contextually relevant forms. Contextualisation is not new in the history of missions in India. Even from the time of Robert DeNobili, a Jesuit priest who is considered a pioneer of sorts in contextualised mission methods in the mid-1600s and countless others who have in some way, shape or form attempted to be faithful to the core of the Gospel message, yet taken the liberty to contextualise the message to their intended audience. Some have taken small strides with calculated risks, whilst others have pushed the boundaries. The pertinent question that remains, however, is its need and its effectiveness.

Whilst on a research trip to certain states in Eastern and Central India, I came across a group of Muslim background believers of Christ. It was a Friday and for them that was the day of worship and I had the privilege to be with them. They would sit around in a circle, donning a posture that they were familiar with from childhood when it comes to prayer. They would place a local language translation of the Bible on an elevated wooden stand and the leader of the group would read from it and provide an exposition. The way they greeted each other, the clothing they wore, the language they spoke, their cultural practices hadn’t changed much from their previous faith, but something had surely changed on the inside and I could sense it. They now embraced the true and the living God and worshipped the new-found Lord of their lives. They didn’t have to fear persecution from their neighbours or excommunication from their community because for all intents and purposes they remained to them as Muslims, but their inner faith had changed and lives were transformed because they now believe in Isa-al-Masih (Jesus Christ)—their Lord and their Saviour. The spark in their eyes and the passion in their hearts told of their insatiable hunger for Jesus and His Word. I came away with a full heart knowing that God’s mission carries on and he draws people to himself, regardless of what culture, religion or social strata they may be from.

Christianity has traditionally always been perceived as a Western religion and, therefore, alien. Hence, contextualisation of the Gospel in the sphere of mission endeavours becomes more necessary so as to convey the crux of the Gospel but in culturally appropriate and contextually relevant forms.

I thought to myself—if the Gospel was presented shrouded with the garb of another culture, religious facade or traditions—it would have surely been rejected and subdued very quickly. Anyone who would take up the Christian faith along with the weighty baggage that comes attached to it more so in that context will surely be excommunicated and their chances of being a witness to their own people is practically reduced to zero. However, when the Gospel was presented the way it is and allowed to organically grow and outwork itself in known cultural forms, these movements grew unabated and brought about results. Did I have any problem in worshipping God in that setting that was different to mine? Not at all, simply because whilst the forms varied, the meaning remained intact and I got that.

Just like apostle Paul, would say that to the Jews he became like a Jew in order to win the Jews. To those under the law, he became as one under the law, that he might win those under the law. To those outside the law, he became as one outside the law, so that he might win those outside the law (1 Cor 9:20–22), we also need to recognise that contextualisation is an important and a necessary part of the becoming and the relating. It is the becoming and the relating that sets the stage and sparks the interest. It is important to present the Gospel in a way that is understandable, relatable and relevant to people and contextualisation helps towards that end. However, the Gospel should always be allowed to permeate and bring transformation in itself. The minute the forms and methods take centre stage, and the Gospel is sidelined we’ve pushed contextualisation too far.

The second member of the Triune God—The Son of God, Jesus Christ, voluntarily condescended himself to take on the likeness of men, and humbled himself as a servant and was willing to die a gruesome death on the cross (Phil 2:6–8). John 1:1, 14 tells us that the Word (Logos) was with God from the beginning and was God himself, and He took on flesh and dwelt with us. In that act itself, we see the greatest model of contextualisation shown for us and to us. Jesus took upon himself what was necessary to belong and to relate so that many could experience the saving grace of God, but at no point did he steer away from the mission of God and His great grand plan of redemption for the world.

Let’s not hinder or criticise people or methods rather let’s do what’s necessary and possible to facilitate people into God’s Kingdom. It’s souls that are at stake—so whatever it takes for His glory and the extension of His Kingdom ought to be our attitude.

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