When we are looking to be contextual, what are we actually aiming to do? I was chatting with a friend about this the other day. How would I define contextualisation? I think I would be aiming for this:
Contextualisation is an attempt to present the gospel in a way that is appropriate to my context – seeking to remove unnecessary barriers to both evangelism and discipleship – so that the gospel is heard, applied and understood in a way that makes sense to the people you are reaching.
That, in a nutshell, is what I am aiming to do when I seek to contextualise.
We are not trying, in any way, to change the gospel. The message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to scripture alone, to the glory of God alone shouldn’t change. We want to present these truths to people and help them understand them in a way that makes sense to them. That means we have to think about lots of potential barriers that might stop us getting a hearing in the first place as well as the barriers that might exist as we are trying to explain the gospel to them and its implications for them as believers.
Things get harder still when you are in a multicultural setting. It is one thing to make the gospel understood in a monocultural place full of people who think and act just like me. It is harder to make the gospel understood in a monocultural place full of people who are nothing like me. It is harder again to make the gospel understood by everyone, and seek to address relevant barriers, in a multicultural setting where there are only two cultures represented. It is harder again to do that in a multicultural setting where several different cultures are together in one place.
If you have British working and middle class people, middle-eastern and African people, Eastern European and American people all in the same room, seeking to address the cultural barriers that might exist may seem impossible. It is not as if all the countries represented by those areas mentioned are all the same either. Iraqis and Saudi Arabians, Senegalese and Ethiopian do not all think alike. Even within each of those countries there are similar cultural differences that find expression regionally, in terms of money, in terms of social status, in terms of family or tribal links. We make a big mistake if we try to treat all Iranians as though they are a homogenous unit.
In the end, what serves one culture will inevitably have implications for what serves another. What works for one set of people may be the very thing that doesn’t work so well for an entirely different set of people. And the greater the number of different cultures you have represented in the room, the more likely it is that you will walk into these issues as you seek to meet the needs and reduce the barriers of any one group you inevitably impact any number of others in potentially negative ways.
It is one thing to go to China, like Hudson Taylor did, and adopt the style of dress of the people you are reaching. But it is altogether different to go to a church with Chinese, English, Pakistani, Nigerian and other nationalities present. Whose style of dress do you adopt then? It is similarly one thing to go to a deprived area and try to look and act more like the locals, but when the locality is a mix of different cultures, whilst we might not want any particular culture to dominate, it is hard to contextualise in that sort of way.
In the end, we want people who have become believers from different cultures to express their Christianity in ways that are culturally appropriate. Paul was quite clear that Jews who become Christians should not be forced to be Christian in a way that kills their Jewishness. Gentiles, likewise, are not supposed to become Christians and start acting like Jews. They should be able to express their Christianity in culturally appropriate ways. And so we make a multicultural church genuinely multicultural by allowing each person, from whatever culture they are from, express themselves in ways that are culturally appropriate to them. But that includes allowing the white middle class Brits to express their white middle class culture in ways that are appropriate to them whilst allowing the Bajan folks and the Eastern Europeans to express themselves in culturally appropriate ways too. The aim isn’t to force everyone to be like me; we are aiming for everyone to be like Jesus and express his character in ways that are normal in their culture.
Exactly how you do that is going to depend on your particular context. And that is why making hard and fast rules about it is difficult. But we’re aiming to makes the gospel understandable to people in ways that are culturally appropriate and we’re seeking to help them love the Lord Jesus and allow their expression of their love for him reflect their own culture.