[Editor’s note: P2C-Students offers opportunities for young adults to go on mission trips nationally and internationally. We want all people to experience God’s heart for the world. This blog series is one way to discover more about the what, how, and why of #globalmissions.
This article was written by Justin E. Chan. He leads PRAXIS, an initiative of P2C-Students that forms missionally-engaged people. For 15 years he’s helped young adults discern faith in Jesus and integrate the gospel into their lives. Horology is a passion; missiology the focus of his graduate studies; and design shows fill his screen time.]
As a perpetual foreigner, I’ve had to learn how to communicate in a variety of cultural contexts.
I was born in Fiji to Chinese parents. We immigrated to Canada, and I was raised in a convenience store in the Fraser Valley. I went to college on Burnaby Mountain. My first ministry role was in Mennonite Winnipeg, and for the last decade I’ve been on liberal Vancouver Island.
No matter what I call local, the gospel is my secure home. I want to help all people understand the trustworthiness and relevancy of Jesus. So I’ve had to grow in my ability to contextualize the gospel.
Cultural and historical contexts influence the way people live, so naturally they affect their understanding of God and expression of faith. You do not live in a homogeneous context. Neither can you have a uniform approach to telling others about Jesus.
Contextualization tailors communication to be sensitive to a person’s context. It’s adapting the gospel so the hearer can understand it, without compromising the core of Jesus’ message.
Contextualization literally means “weaving together.” The gospel and culture can be braided together so that the message of hope is truthful and understandable. It’s all about bringing the unchanging gospel to a changing world.
Over the years of transition and adaptation, I’ve learned several lessons about contextualizing the gospel. Contextualizers begin by attempting to discern where God is at work in neighbourhoods, people groups, and someone’s individual story.
Then through actions, you’ll demonstrate to the culture the truths of Jesus in an intelligible way. At the same time, through words you’ll explain who Jesus is using the realities of someone else’s cultural context.
Contextualizing the gospel is multifaceted and challenging. But here are some basic elements.
Listening develops understanding, empathy, and trust. The gospel is a message best understood in dialogue and mutual learning.
As people share part of their stories, listen for the “soundtracks” that direct their lives.
- Who do they call themselves?
- What matters most to them?
- What are their frustrations and big questions?
Once I sat down with a student who had messaged me with questions about spirituality. Beside UVic’s Petch Fountain, I listened to them share their views on meaningfulness, their displeasure with religion, and their dreams for tomorrow. Twenty-seven minutes elapsed. “Thanks for understanding,” they sighed with relief. “I didn’t know Christians could listen.”
I chose to listen. I did not agree with everything. However, by listening well, I learned this student’s particular soundtracks: “I am unwelcome, I’m misunderstood.”
Soundtracks summarize the way someone perceives the world, which affects behavior. Learning the lyrics of others allows you to help them tune into Jesus. You’ll get to show how the gospel responds to their unique longings, hopes, and needs.
Contextualizers listen and discover someone’s soundtracks but you’ll also need to ask, “Why are these lyrics on repeat? Why does an individual gravitate to particular playlists?”
Part of listening to people includes listening to their backstories, to learn the cultural influences that have shaped their lives.
For example, I am the son of immigrant parents. As I grew up, I experienced small-town racism, limiting economics, and ethnic confusion, which forced me to be fiercely independent. I thought merit, money, and mobility could free me from my struggles. As a result, the soundtrack I had on repeat was something like, “I am what I achieve.”
However, in college academic pressure, cultural shame, and prejudice challenged my identity. The song no longer had me dancing but struggling. I could not make sense of my life.
I needed a good contextualizer to take into account this repeated soundtrack. For me the gospel is especially good news in the way it gives purpose to challenges. Through Jesus, I get to delight in learning through failures.
Our gospel message is contextual when it helps someone unfavourite an untrue track. The restoration of one’s soundtrack occurs only through the work of Jesus. He replaces our track for God’s songs of security, satisfaction and sufficiency.
Every person has a cultural bias—no one is culturally neutral. Understanding commonalities and differences prepares us to speak and live well.
Here are two of the many aspects of culture.
“Power distance” is experienced when social power is unequally distributed. In high power cultures—such as in China, Mexico, South Asia, and the Middle East—hierarchy and power inequality are considered appropriate and beneficial. Superiors take precedent and prominence, while subordinates owe loyalty and deference.
In low power distance cultures, people value equality and seek to eliminate inequalities. They value democracy and autonomy. In Canada we have a low power distance. Thus Canadians can easily forget that some people will receive the message of the gospel differently based on the perceived authority level of the contextualizer.
A majority of Western cultures hold an individualistic worldview. Each person decides their path to happiness, often without considering the impact upon others. The collectivist worldview recognizes that each person impacts everyone around them. Collectivists seek harmony.
Several years ago on campus, I enjoyed a Bible study with three Chinese graduate students. We grew together, enjoyed many meals, and studied the Scripture. Eventually, one of the guys wanted to follow Jesus. Still, because the others were not ready, he delayed his confession of faith, to avoid creating unfairness or disrupting the group’s harmony. Months later, all three were baptized. The celebration was a communal joy.
Understanding group dynamics is important. If I hadn’t been aware of these students’ need for harmony, I may have accidently pushed them away from the gospel (and their culture) by demanding they act more individually.
You’ll constantly need to seek the insights of the Holy Spirit to help you to discern where the gospel challenges, endorses, or transforms a particular culture or person.
I recall my time with Elliot, a law student. We had listened to each other, dived into each other’s backstories, and noted our cultural influences. After several months of listening to the repeated soundtracks that echoed in Elliot’s ears, I realized how the Spirit was unraveling his life. He had overcome many obstacles as a visible minority, and yet his efforts, although rewarding, left him uninspired.
I invited him to find his peace in relationship with God. He declined. We talked several more times before a holiday break. In the new year I received a text from Elliot, “I let go and let God and I feel relieved.”
I had relied on the Spirit to convey truth. I had discovered insights to contextualize well. I had offered space to listen and learn, and I had shared the biblical message of Jesus boldly and honestly. But at the end of the day, it’s God’s Spirit who guided, convicted, and transformed Elliot’s life. It’s the Father who draws people to himself. It’s Jesus who saves.
Contextualization has precedent. In the Bible, Daniel, Joseph, Esther, and Paul shared the gospel in unfamiliar cultural realities.
You’ll experience more of God’s grace. Often conveying the gospel in new ways gives new insight to you, as well as others.
It’s good news. The gospel matters for all people because Jesus is life.
When your faith is not culturally aware, you can present a significant barrier to those who might otherwise be interested. An empathetic and culturally aware Christian learns to adapt to various social, geographical, and local cultures. In the process, you’ll embody Jesus’ love to all.