For most of her life growing up in Kansas, Dorothy didn’t notice. Nobody else did. It was just normal.
Yes, I am talking about no-place-like-home, red-shoe-wearing Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. The movie’s most vivid detail for me has always been the drastic change from bland, colorless Kansas to the kaleidoscopic world of Oz.
I can only imagine what was going through Dorothy’s mind as she explored this vibrantly colored dreamland. While she returned to Kansas with a much greater appreciation for home, you have to wonder how Oz changed Dorothy’s perspective. Knowing of this other wondrous place and then being plopped back into her old, drab grey world, I’m guessing it changed how she saw her house, her family, her dog—pretty much everything.
In a lot of ways, that’s how I feel about culture. Growing up in a White suburb, I never really questioned whether the way my family and community did things was universal. Nobody else did. It was just normal.
But then I got older. I saw new places, met new people, heard more stories. Like Dorothy, I began to realize how much my culture affects the way I see everything. And it’s multi-faceted. It feels like the implications of my cultural lens just keep going deeper and deeper.
Most recently, I’ve come across the idea of contextualization. It all started when I spoke to Rashawn, an InterVarsity Campus Staff Minister in New Mexico (keep following this series, and you’ll get to hear from him!). He mentioned contextualization and briefly explained it. Those few minutes sparked many more questions and much more research. Though there’s still more reflection and learning to be done, here are a few things I’ve come to grasp so far.
What is contextualization?
People like Ed Stetzer in this article—with a lot more wisdom and degrees than me—have already invested plenty of time and energy defining contextualization in terms of how it relates to the gospel and faith. One of the simplest, clearest definitions I’ve found comes from Tim Keller in this video: “[Contextualization is] giving the Bible’s answer . . . to the questions that people at their place and time are asking in language and forms that are comprehensible. And by giving people the gospel with arguments and appeals that have a force that they feel. Whether or not they agree with them, they still see it as compelling.”
So ultimately whenever someone comes to faith, whether through The Big Story or a Billy Graham Crusade, the gospel was presented to him or her within a certain cultural context in a compelling, coherent way. Once again, like Dorothy returning to Kansas, grasping that my culture has shaped how I encounter God has been eye-opening. It means that millions of people around the world have come to know Jesus through a drastically different context than mine.
At first glimpse, this made me uneasy. Many passages of Scripture warn us to guard against the world’s influence. Isn’t that what contextualization is, letting culture shape the gospel?
But after more research and reflection, I came to realize that Scripture sets the precedent for contextualization. Acts 17:22–31 presents a classic example of this when Paul visits Athens. In sharing the gospel here, he doesn’t draw upon Old Testament prophecies about Jesus or recent events in Jerusalem. Instead Paul refers to an altar in the Athenian temple and a Greek philosopher. Throughout this passage, Paul’s description of God stays true to the rest of Scripture; he’s not trying to present a different God than he does to the Jews. No, he’s simply sharing God in a way the Athenians can more readily understand. This is contextualization at its core.
Another example of this can be found in Psalm 33:2 when the psalmist says, “Praise the LORD with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.” Why those instruments? Why not “Praise the LORD with a sick dubstep beat and bagpipes”? It seems pretty obvious. The instruments the psalmist mentions were accessible and culturally relevant. Once again, this shows that contextualization isn’t about trying to change who God is. It’s helping people relate to God in their particular cultural context.
Contextualization isn’t something that just happened during Bible times either. Walk into a dozen different churches this weekend, and you’ll see contextualization at work in the worship, the metaphors used during the sermons, even the style of the services.
Worship proves to be a rich example of contextualization in general. Richard Twiss’s book, Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, clued me in on the beautiful, original Native worship music that blends sincere praise of Creator with authentic cultural expressions. And like the rapper The Ambassador puts it in “My Clothes, My Hair”: “Why do some people assume that God’s iPod / Got no tunes that got the ‘boom-bap’ / He’s with White, with Black, with Lat / With Asian with Rock, Country, Jazz, with Rap.”
Even the beloved series The Chronicles of Narnia is a prime example of contextualization as C. S. Lewis shares the stories of the Bible in a way that children in Western cultures would understand.
Why does contextualization matter?
The short answer: Do we want to see people accept the gospel? Then it should be framed in a way that they can truly understand, in a way that shows that the gospel is actually good news for them.
Beyond this, contextualization can bring glory to God. As we discover the connections between a particular culture and the gospel, it shows that God transcends culture. He’s bigger; he’s greater; he’s more beautiful than any one culture can truly understand. In fact, contextualization highlights one reason why there are different cultures and ethnicities—we need each other to gain a more complete sense of who God is.
Contextualization also is a means of separating the pure message of God sending his Son down into the world to die for our sins from all the historical and cultural implications that can come when someone hears the words “Christianity” or “the gospel.” For many people, this is very good news.
Just as one example, Twiss’s book shows how the concept of contextualization has revitalized the faith of many Native Christians. Since the days of colonial America, many Natives were essentially forced to believe that they couldn’t come to Jesus before first giving up their culture and becoming westernized. Though taking on different shapes and methods, there’s evidence that this mentality still persists to some degree.
But what happens when Native brothers and sisters in Christ contextualize, when they pursue Jesus through their centuries-old heritage and traditions? Twiss shares many powerful stories, like one man’s first time worshiping in traditional Native style:
There was an opportunity for me to sit at the powwow drum with a group of people. The first time I hit the drum, I actually felt like my sternum broke. . . . And as I sang with the group of people there, I felt like Creator was dealing with and ministering to me personally. . . . I really felt a freedom that I had never had before. (p. 123)
That’s just one example of the potential that contextualization has to revive and inspire people. Instead of feeling like their culture—a fundamental part of who they are—was a mistake or something to be thrown away completely, they discover that culture can be a God-given gift, a refreshing way to deeply pursue Jesus.
Are there dangers to contextualization?
When it’s done right, contextualization is beautiful and God-honoring. But like so many things when they’re mishandled, contextualization can become dangerous.
Ed Stetzer outlines two practices we need to watch out for. The first is obscurantism—when we start thinking peripheral things, such as worship styles, are essential to the gospel. The other is syncretism or blending cultural beliefs with the gospel that ultimately changes the message about who Jesus is and what he did for us.
Cautious person that I am, my gut instinct when I hear about these dangers is to say, “Fine, I just won’t contextualize. It’s not worth the risk.”
But like The Gospel Coalition’s Juan Sánchez points out, there’s a problem with that approach. Whether we like it or not, whether we’re aware that we’re doing it or not, we’re contextualizing the gospel already. Either we’ll keep subconsciously contextualizing the gospel—and potentially, unknowingly distort its message with our culture’s influence—or we’ll consciously, carefully seek to contextualize the good news in a God-honoring way. That’s what at stake here.
So, as we contextualize, we must hold tightly to God’s Word. The message must remain the same. Contextualizing is more about the presentation, the vehicle through which that message is communicated. We must also humbly seek the Spirit and pray against these potential dangers. And we need to do this in community, seeking out wise, mature followers of Christ.
When we contextualize well, it can make all the difference, like Dorothy’s first step into Oz. We can go from a drab monochromatic set of practices to something rich and vibrant, refreshing and vivid.
I encourage you to join us for this blog series on contextualization as together we see vivid examples of God-honoring contextualization at work.
Nathan Peterson is a writer on InterVarsity's Communications Team in Madison, Wisconsin. He formerly was the Urbana 18 writer. When he’s not at work, you can find him working on his book, at the gym, or watching movies at home.
My everyday life carries the thumbprints of the generational traumas, sins, and blessings of our collective stories. The lessons I’ve learned from the matriarchs of my family and our immigration stories shape how I engage with Scripture and the gospel. And as a multicultural, multiethnic, and multiracial woman, I know that stepping into Oklahoma means bringing my family’s stories and lives with me.