I was interested to see an article on this topic in the latest edition of Evangelicals Now.
Tim and Lois Wells explore the place of contextualization in preaching the gospel (‘The Contextualised Gospel — delightful, doubtful, or damnable?’ Evangelicals Now, February 2021). I was disappointed that they couldn’t find a place for it.
What is abundantly clear is that we should not change the core Christian message.
What is less clear is what responsibility and freedom we have in how we present that message.
To what extent should we engage in what Matthew Kim describes as “Cultural Intelligence?”
What Kim means by this term is that we need to be aware of the shaping influences of the people we are addressing in our preaching. This involves us asking ‘how will these listeners hear what we are saying’?
Preachers need to be aware that even if they preach the same message to different congregations, the way people hear the message will be very different. This listening is not designed to shape a different gospel for different contexts but to shape a sensitivity to the cultural filters that can obscure the clear hearing of that gospel.
Kim explores this concept further in the book Finding our Voice: A Vison for Asian North American Preaching, co-authored with Daniel L. Wong. (Lexham Press, 2020)
“Contextualization, when done appropriately, is not hazardous to evangelical Christianity. Rather, it is imperative for interpreting Scripture faithfully in view of ethnic and cultural variances that cannot and should not be ignored.” (p. 55)
Scripture addresses me, but not every Scripture passage is directly speaking to my situation or setting. When I engage in the process of transposing the message of Scripture to my situation and setting, I am involved in a process of contextualization. Do we see this happening in Scripture? I think we do.
Scripture does this in the way it expresses itself in different contexts. For example, in Luke’s Gospel, which appears to have a mainly Gentile target audience we have Jesus talking about the “Kingdom of God.” In Matthew’s Gospel, which appears to have a mainly Jewish target audience we see Jesus use the term “Kingdom of Heaven.” We assume that this is out of respect for Jewish readers who are reticent about speaking or writing the divine name. It is interesting to see how even in the 21st Century Jewish writers when using the divine name will spell it G-D.
Therefore, we see in this adjustment of language an attempt at sensitive contextualization.
Looking at Paul preaching in Lystra and Athens in Acts 14 and 17, we seem to see an example of the same core message being preached to a society that has no Bible. Yet in each setting the way that the sermon is preached is very different. Paul was university trained in Tarsus, known to be a popular stop on the Greek Philosophers’ trail, and he was also an artisan with a trade. Preachers need to be culturally aware, think clearly and retain the common touch.
It is also worth thinking about the three times that the story of Paul’s conversion appears in the Acts of the Apostles. Why the repetition? It does fall into line with Luke’s habit of writing in patterns of threes. Yet, might it also have something to do with how the story needs to be retold differently in three diverse contexts?
One of the examples given in the Evangelicals Now article is that of the notion of shame and honour. The authors find no evidence of this in the key gospel texts they use for their case study. Yet the concept can be observed in the wider biblical story.
The story of Adam and Eve hiding (Genesis 3), the indirect approach to David by Nathan when exposing the king’s guilt (2 Samuel 12) and the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5). In the New Testament the concept can be seen particular in the parables of Jesus: the prodigal (Luke 15), the shrewd manager (Luke 16), and the persistent widow (Luke 18).
Perhaps the key thing to remember is that there is no Greenwich Mean Time of gospel understanding.
No one looks at the gospel through culture-free lenses. The assumption of the article is that a Western lens for viewing the message of Scripture is the default option for biblical communicators. This is to forget that the source documents from which we derive our biblical understanding were shaped in the Ancient Near East.
Maybe a little bit of humility and flexibility on this issue will help us listen with care and speak with sensitivity?