What is Contextualization?

Picture taken from the Wikipedia article  “New Orleans”

Picture taken from the Wikipedia article “New Orleans”

From studying the Bible to thinking through what it looks like to be a Christian in your workplace, contextualization has become a central task in faithfully operating under a biblically holistic worldview. Yet, many in the Church today struggle with exactly what contextualization is and how they are to go about practicing it. Is there more to living contextually than just dressing like those who live in your neighborhood? Does living in light of your particular context mean that unbelievers will admire or even respect you?

Contextualization is Not Accomadation

In order to understand the manner of solid contextualization, we must first recognize its purpose. Understanding and adapting to one’s context is not about accommodation but rather full Gospel demonstration. Whereas the former strives to not be offensive in any way, the latter attempts to not be offensive in any way other than the Gospel. Timothy Keller, a pastor in New York City, describes this distinction well:

Contextualization is not – as is often argued – “giving people what they want to hear.” Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.

Contextualization Allows for Clear Gospel Proclamation

Here, Keller defines contextualization as more than simply changing your style of clothing or even the way you speak. While these things are, in fact, contextual and useful in breaking down cultural barriers with other people, they only appeal to the surface of an individual. Deep, meaningful contextualization seeks to understand the way another person or group of people thinks, feels, and acts and then proclaims the Gospel responsively. It requires asking what the “cultural narrative” is at your workplace and neighborhood. What are your culture’s greatest victories? What are their greatest failures? What is their story? As you understand the hopes and dreams, challenges and idols of those around you, you will be better equipped to speak and live in such a way that fully demonstrates the relevance and validity of the Gospel to everyday life.

Over the next couple weeks, we will continue to examine this topic of contextualization, looking at both its biblical basis as well as how to practically engage your particular culture with the gospel.

This is the first in a 3-part series on Contextualization. Check out parts 2 and 3:

The Biblical Case for Contextualization

How to Practice Contextualization in Everyday Life