It is not possible to not contextualize. Every Christian is actively contextualizing all the time, and is either doing it well or doing it badly. Gospel proclamation, church life, and theology are always contextual. As Hiebert points out, “On the one hand, the gospel belongs to no culture. It is God’s revelation of himself and his acts to all people. On the other hand, it must always be understood and expressed within human cultural forms” (Hiebert, Anthropological Insights, 30). The task of this brief blog will be to point out that Scripture provides us examples of contextualization, that contextualization is inevitable, and that in order to contextualize well, one must proclaim and embody the gospel in ways that are faithful, meaningful, and dialogical.
First, Scripture provides examples of contextualization. Because of the scope of this blog, I’ll limit myself to a few examples from the book of Acts. A quick perusal of Paul’s ministry gives abundant and incisive examples of gospel contextualization. Paul shaped his sermons and speeches according to each particular context. An examination of his sermons in Acts 13 (to a Jewish Diaspora), Acts 14 (to a crowd of rural animists), Acts 17 (to the cultural elite of the Areopagus), and his testimonies in Acts 22 (to a mob of Jewish patriots) and Acts 26 (to the elite of Syria-Palestine) reveal Paul’s deft ability to communicate the gospel faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically in a variety of settings. (Note: For further study on Pauline contextualization, see Eckhard Schnabel’s account in Paul the Missionary.)
Second, contextualization is inevitable. The call to contextualize the gospel is not limited to dramatic scenarios such as the one portrayed in Acts 17. Just as the four Gospel writers shaped their books for engaging particular communities of readers, and just as each of Paul’s sermons and speeches are fashioned according to a particular context, so our gospel communication is always accomplished within a context: the gospel is always expressed in cultural forms and cannot be otherwise. “Disciples do not follow the gospel in a vacuum but wend their Christian way through particular times and places, each with its own problems and possibilities” (Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology?, 16). Indeed, every church contextualizes by the type of building and décor it chooses and the style of music that is played. Every preacher does the same by choosing, for example, a form of rhetoric, a way of relating to others, and a manner of clothing. The question is not whether or not we are going to do it. The question facing every believer and every church is whether or not they will contextualize well. The question is not whether we will contextualize; the question is whether we will do it appropriately or not. In order to proclaim the gospel and plant churches in an appropriately contextual manner, we must proclaim and plant in three ways: faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically.
Third, therefore, we must contextualize faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically. The first of those imperatives is that we must contextualize faithfully. Biblical fidelity is imperative. We must pay careful attention to our beliefs and practices, ensuring that we express and embody the gospel in cultural forms that are faithful to the Scriptures. In being faithful to the Scriptures, we seek to interpret the Scriptures accurately before proclaiming them within a cultural context. Although some scholars view texts as vast oceans of indeterminate symbols that lack transcendent grounding, and while we acknowledge that the reader does come to a text through finite and fallible interpretive frameworks, we nonetheless argue that faithful interpretation is possible.
In addition to doing so faithfully, we must contextualize meaningfully. We must proclaim and embody the gospel in a way that is meaningful for the particular social and cultural context. James McClendon writes, “If hearers were (minimally) to understand the gospel, if there was to be uptake, the preacher must understand the culture addressed” (James McClendon, Systematic Theology, vol.1, 40). Indeed, we want the hearer to understand the words we speak and the actions we perform in the way that we intend, and we want them to be able to respond in a way that is meaningful in context. This type of proclamation takes hard work; learning a culture is more complex than learning a language because language is only one component of culture. Pastors and professors must work hard to teach their audiences not only how to read the Bible, but also how to read the culture.
Finally, we must contextualize dialogically. We must also allow the gospel to critique the culture in which it is embodied and proclaimed. There is an ever-present danger that Christian preachers, missionaries, and communities will equate the gospel with a cultural context, the consequence of which is devastating. In an attempt to communicate the gospel meaningfully within a culture, and in an attempt to affirm whatever in a culture can be affirmed, Christians may lose sight of the effects of depravity on that same culture. Therefore, we must remember that the gospel stands in judgment of all cultures, calling them to conform themselves to the image of Christ. The gospel does not condemn all of a culture, but it is always and at the same time both affirming and rejecting. If the gospel we preach does not have a prophetic edge, then we are not fully preaching the gospel.
In seeking to proclaim the gospel in a way that is meaningful, we listen to the questions that a culture asks, acknowledge the categories within which it thinks, and learn the language that it speaks. But at the same time, we recognize that without the gospel the host culture does not know all of the right questions to ask, does not have the all of the right categories within which to think, and does not possess a fully adequate vocabulary. David Clark writes, “Using a dialogical method implies we notice the danger in simply asking Scripture to answer the culture’s concerns. A dialogical approach requires that the Bible not only answer our concerns but also transform those concerns” (Clark, To Know and Love God, 115). In taking a dialogical approach the Christian who seeks to evangelize, plant churches, disciple, or pastor within a particular context will find himself in a continued dialogue with that cultural context.
In a recent essay on “Gospel & Culture,” I adapted David Clark’s dialogical framework for contextualization, applying it to the task of church planting:
Take, for example, a church planter. Those seekers with whom he converses raise questions from within their particular cultural and sub-cultural contexts. The church planter offers initial responses from the Scriptures. As these seekers come to faith in Christ, begin to obey, and keep their hearts open to God, they also allow the Scriptures to critique the cultural viewpoint from which they raised their questions. Through Bible study and prayer, they begin to form a (contextual) theology. If they are able, they discuss their theology with believers from other contexts (whether by reading historical theologians and writers, or by conversing with contemporaries who find themselves in a different cultural or sub-cultural context). Again and again, they return to the Scriptures, evaluating their emerging theological framework and praying that God will guide them into a proper interpretation, synthesis, and application of the Scriptures for their particular culture.
One notices here that both “insider” and “outsider” critiques are helpful. In the process of contextualization, participants from within a culture need to take the lead. They have both explicit and implicit (tacit) knowledge of their culture that the cultural outsider will never match. However, the cultural outsider also has the advantage of being able to see that same culture from a different vantage point. This is why Clark argues that “questions framed in the terms of non-Western cultures can help illuminate blind spots” in Western theology. Christian Scripture provides a particular set of categories, poses a particular set of questions, and provides particular answers to those questions. These categories, questions, and answers should challenge the conceptual framework of all cultures. For this reason, we endeavor to read the church fathers, the reformers, and others who preached and embodied the gospel in eras different from our own, and to read and converse with Asian, African, and Latin American Christians who proclaim and embody the gospel in socio-cultural contexts different from our own. (Bruce Ashford, Theology and Practice of Mission, 122-123)
The big point is this: we need to work hard to exegete both Scripture and culture. “In order to be competent proclaimers and performers of the gospel,” Vanhoozer writes, “Christians must learn to read the Bible and culture alike. Christians cannot afford to continue sleepwalking their way through contemporary culture, letting their lives, and especially their imaginations, become conformed to culturally devised myths, each of which promises more than it can deliver” (Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology, 35). The Christian who ignores cultural context does so to his own detriment and to the detriment of those to whom he ministers.
 Tacit knowledge differs from formal knowledge in that it is not codified and not easily shared. A person who learns to ride a bicycle, for example, has both formal and tacit knowledge of how to do so. His formal knowledge would include “one must pedal” and “one must balance.” His tacit knowledge, however, is the learned experience of how to balance, pedal, and steer. This knowledge is not easily communicated but nonetheless very important. Cultural insiders have tacit knowledge of their culture that a cultural outsider (including a bi-cultural person) might never gain. Michael Polanyi brought attention to tacit knowledge within the fields of science and philosophy, but the concept is helpful also for missiology. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1958).