Contextualisation. It is a big word. When used with regard to the gospel it simply means applying the gospel message appropriately to your hearers in the setting in which you find them. The setting may be geographic, ethnic, or religious. In 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 the Apostle Paul gives us a very good example of what contextualisation is. This passage is autobiographical, that is, in it Paul describes his own practice when he presented the gospel. We do well to pay attention to what he has written because it is included in the Scriptures. But we should also pay attention to his words because Paul was successful; when he shared the message he saw results. He preached, brought people to Jesus, discipled them, and established churches in a number of different cities in the ancient world. We see the proof of this in the book of Acts.
There are different kinds of people in the world. The differences include: age, gender, economic status, social status, ethnicity, and religious background. These differences at times require different approaches when one presents the gospel. For example, one does not present the message of Jesus to a child in the same way that it would be presented to an adult. Neither does one approach an atheist in the same way that they would approach someone who has backslidden from the Christian faith. In 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 Paul does not address all of the differences that I mentioned above but he does touch on some of them. Specifically, he refers to ethnic and religious differences. These did not deter him. In spite of these differences Paul made an effort to reach all kinds of people with the message of Jesus. Ethnically Paul was a Jew (Acts 22:3; Phil. 3:4–5) but he did not limit his mission field to the Jews. He ministered to Jews (Acts 13:14–43; 14:1) but he also ministered to Gentiles, who were present in the synagogues. The Gentiles eventually became the primary focus of his ministry, so much so that he referred to himself as “the Apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom 11:13 NIV). He was truly a cross-cultural missionary. Though he does not specifically mention it in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 Paul also ministered to women (Acts 16:13–14), and governmental leaders (Acts 13:6–12; 26:1–29). Acts 17:17 tells us that in Athens he spoke to whomever happened to be in the marketplace. No one was outside of his mission field.
Being sensitive to our hearers and sharpening our skills in relating to different kinds of people in different contexts can go a long way in the cause of world evangelisation.
One might ask why Paul was so successful in spreading the gospel of Christ. There are a number of answers to that question. First, he was called to share the gospel (Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 9:16). Second, he was filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17–18). Jesus indicated that this experience with the Holy Spirit would make His followers witnesses (Acts 1:8). Third, he was obedient to his call, the heavenly vision (Acts 26:15–19). And fourth, as the text in 1 Corinthians 9 demonstrates, he knew how to relate to different kinds of people. This required some effort on his part and it will require some effort on ours as well. It will require that we in some sense enter into the world of our hearers. We need to connect with them in a meaningful way in order to communicate the gospel to them in their particular context. This involves creating a way to present the truths of Jesus to them so that they will understand.
In the twenty-first century our challenges in presenting the gospel may be different than those that Paul faced but they are no less real. We will very likely need to make adjustments in order to reach the people within our sphere of influence, especially if they are different than we are. Some of us live in places that are very international. Perhaps you live in a large city which has people from many different places in the world. The way that you reach people will vary from group to group. Not only do you not want to offend them, you want to relate the message of Jesus to them in a life-giving way that they can understand. Cross-cultural missionaries have to do this all the time. However, this is not something reserved only for full-time cross-cultural missionaries. The truth is that all believers will be called upon to do this from time to time, even if we continue to live in the places where we currently reside.
In the twenty-first century our challenges in presenting the gospel may be different than those that Paul faced but they are no less real.
That being said the gospel message does not change, it cannot be compromised, it is about Jesus Christ, crucified, buried, and resurrected (1 Cor 15:1–4). Paul and others fought to preserve the truth of the gospel (Gal 2:5) and Paul pronounced a curse upon anyone who preached a different gospel (Gal 1:6–9). The gospel is a straightforward message, it is focused on Jesus and His saving work (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). There is no contradiction between the unchangeable nature of the gospel message and what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23. The truths do not contradict one another but complement one another. Paul would not change the message but he would adapt how he communicated it depending on who he was speaking to. He contextualised, he did not compromise. He sought to build bridges.
We too need to be bridge builders. How we follow Paul’s example and implement his teaching “to be like” those whom we are trying to reach will vary from place to place. Scripture is clear that we are not to be like unbelievers in their sin. Being like others in the sense that Paul intended is so that we can relate to them in order to bring them to salvation. We all live in different places, which have different cultures, different customs, and different people groups. The Holy Spirit will enlighten us regarding how best to reach the people that we have contact with. He will illumine the Scriptures and give us specific direction for our particular situation. He will help us separate essential matters from non-essential matters so that we can be Christians who contextualise the gospel rather than compromise it. The New Testament authorises some accommodation in reaching out to others. Paul had it clearly in his mind what concessions he could make. We may not be so sure. In matters where we are unsure we can consult ministers and veteran missionaries, who are more experienced, and they can help us work our way through the issues. Be assured that God wants His word to go forth.
Paul’s strategy, that he wrote about in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23, is one that we can (and should) utilise in our ministries. As Paul’s ministry has shown it was an effective strategy. Being sensitive to our hearers and sharpening our skills in relating to different kinds of people in different contexts can go a long way in the cause of world evangelisation. Paul’s principles will probably be the most effective in our one-on-one interactions. They may also be effective if we are speaking to a group of people who share a common ethnicity or religious background. May God grant us the knowledge, wisdom, and empowering of His Spirit that we too may become all things to all people so that we may save some (1 Cor 9:22).