“There can never be a culture-free gospel,” explains Lesslie Newbigin.
Is that true?
Contextualizing the gospel in every culture is necessary to help the gospel flourish in every culture. Many Christians, including myself, are agreeing with Newbigin’s sentiment and we are beginning to understand the relevance of contextualizing the gospel to Western culture.
But contextualization is complicated and comes with baggage. How can we do it well, when the idols and prejudices of our respective cultures inevitably seep into the church and consequently affect our views and beliefs?
One way to overcome this hurdle is through humble dialogue. Michael Goheen suggests a threefold dialogue for discerning these blinders in his book, Introducing Christian Mission Today. By understanding the threefold dialogue, we can better continue the conversation about the need for contextualization.
But, before we get to that, what do I even mean when I say “contextualization”?
A case for contextualization
Contextualization can be understood as communicating the gospel in a way that makes sense to the people in a particular place. Even though the truths of the gospel transcend culture, how we communicate it matters. Each culture has been created by God and has its own strengths and brokenness. Each culture needs to be redeemed by the gospel and when we frame the gospel within the context of that particular culture, it can help the hearers understand it more fully. For example, we would not explain the gospel in an South-Asian community the same way you would to a primarily European community, due to differences in culture that don’t translate well, like language, history, values, and historical experiences.
Even Peter contextualizes the gospel in Acts 2:14-41 when he speaks to the primarily Jewish people at Pentecost. He frames the truth about Jesus in light of their Jewish culture and biblical history and patriarchs. As the Spirit spoke through his words and worked in the hearts of the people, 3000 people decided to follow Jesus.
Similarly, the apostle Paul contextualized the gospel to a non-Jewish cultural audience when he wrote to the church in Corinth in the book of Corinthians. He shares the same essential gospel message in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 as Peter in Acts 2:23-24, and 32-38: That Jesus lived on earth in accordance with the Father’s plan, and was crucified and killed by men, that he was buried and raised by God with many witnesses. And that people must respond to the person of Jesus by turning from their sin and placing their faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins. Yet, how Paul and Peter frame the gospel message is very different because of the cultural context of the listener. For example, Paul omits references to Jewish history and culture because they would have meant nothing to a non-Jewish audience. The truth remains the same, while the method of communication adapts. This is contextualization.
The Threefold Dialogue
Goheen explains this practically as he calls for the inclusion of diversity in dialogue. He says, “The only way we can avoid syncretism and relativism is in dialogue with the whole church around the Scriptures.” His point here is that dialogue cannot be limited to our local churches, or to the body of Christ in a single culture, because the presuppositions, prejudices, and idols of our cultures will impact our views. We need a broader dialogue so we can distinguish between the church and culture in order to analyze our situation critically. The broader dialogue, called the threefold dialogue, consists of … well, three folds.
The first fold of dialogue is that it must be cross-confessional. This involves open and humble discussion between (and within) the different Christian traditions so that we may hear their perspectives, learn from them, and apply what we learn to our own context. Let’s look at our Catholic brothers and sisters for advice. The Second Vatican Council invited leaders from Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches to participate in discussion. Admittedly, they were invited as observers and could not vote. But this shows a step towards union instead of further division. Even though I am Protestant, I was encouraged to hear about this as it shows a bridging of relations between different Christian traditions. Sometimes I think that Protestants forget that Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are Christian as well.
The second fold is cross-cultural dialogue. This is a conversation between churches in different parts of the world. We need this communication because other cultures are often more aware of our prejudices and idols, as we are so often aware of theirs. This is evident with churches from outside the West who help us to learn about the communal nature of humans in contrast to the individualism that is pervasive in our culture. Yet, we learn with them as we struggle through contextualizing their communal focus into our society.
The third fold of dialogue is cross-historical. This involves looking at how Christians in the past have struggled through situations in their cultures and times. Their practices and beliefs in those moments can offer a lot of hope to the Western church in the present. An example of this would be Franciscan teachings on environmental stewardship, which involves responsible resource management, and avoiding waste and unnecessary purchases. This has so many applications for a society so heavily focused on consumerism. Additionally, Christians today need to remember that there have been 2000 years since the time of Jesus, and we are not the only Christians since the time of the apostles. We have spiritual mentors in history that have so much to teach us. All we need to do is listen.
This threefold dialogue has numerous implications and I have merely touched on afraction of the value of communication. However, is this enough communication?
One More Fold: Inter-Religious Dialogue
As much as I agree with Goheen and have been greatly inspired by his model, I cannot help but look at modern Western culture and think that it is missing something, maybe a garnish in the form of inter-religious dialogue.
This is necessary in an increasingly globalized society, and especially in our Western culture, in order to clarify our own beliefs and allow us to better understand and engage with the beliefs of other faiths in a missional way. We may then be able to share our faith as not just another option among the multitude, but as the radical world changing truth that it is . Dialogue with other religions will help the church to critically analyze our situation and approach as they already have critical distance from us. So, we can learn more about areas where we fall short while at the same time giving us an opportunity to strengthen our beliefs and missionally engage with other religions. I am reminded of Paul in Athens in Acts 17 when he was debating with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. I anticipate that this type of dialogue in the modern Western world is needed and will produce similar reactions when we tell others about Jesus and the resurrection: some will walk away and other will want to hear more.
We may even have to admit that we might be wrong about some things, but there can be no mission without dialogue and there can be no dialogue without humility.
The Key to Faithful Contextualization
I think a fourfold dialogue is necessary if we truly want to learn how to contextualize our faith well. However, two things need to be remembered when considering contextualization.
Firstly, we need to have humility. There will be times when we brush up against new ideas, some good and some bad, and are encouraged to change. We need to be humble to listen to others in dialogues rather than being quick to condemn and judge. We may even have to admit that we are wrong, but there can be no mission without dialogue and there can be no dialogue without humility.
Lastly, we need to remember that we do not do this on our own strength, but it is the Spirit of God that leads us. Newbigin says, “It is His (that is the Spirit) work – and He is quite capable of it – to take the weakness and foolishness of the cross, mirrored in the life of the community, and make it the witness that turns the world upside down and refutes its most fundamental notions.”
The Spirit is the one who has and will continue propel the church forward and he will make us aware of our blind spots and prejudices through dialogue. This is not a be-all, end-all silver bullet answer to sharing the gospel well, but I hope it inspires you to continue the conversation on contextualization, and participate in healthy, humble dialogue wherever God calls you.
Goheen, Michael. Introducing Christian Mission Today: Scripture, History and Issues. Downers Globe, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Newbigin, Lesslie. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986.
Newbigin, Lesslie. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978.