Growing up in Canada, (an intentionally bi-lingual country), I would read the cereal boxes every morning in both French and English. I would learn what French words meant in a French built around the vocabulary of breakfast cereal. It was an entry point into a whole entire world of French if I would just follow its discipleship (which regrettably I never really did). I still remember more French from the cereal boxes than I do from the endless all comprehensive French classes I had from third grade on because there the French was decontextualized. There’s a lesson here in the how’s and why’s of contextualizing the gospel. It illustrates that contextualizing the gospel is about finding an entrance point and being confident that any given entrance point into the true gospel will lead to the whole of the gospel if one follows Christ into discipleship. Breakfast cereal could have led me into becoming a brilliant frenchman if only I had been a better disciple.
In the history of Christianity, we have often narrowed the gospel to one formulae/entrance point frozen within in a culture that we have been previously raised in and become comfortable in. We then canonize this one entrance point and leave it there. And really, no further discipleship is required.
For example, the four spiritual laws and justification by faith was the gospel form for the Reformation born out of the Catholic malaise of 14th century Europe. The Reformation/Evangelicalism canonized this form of the gospel. The social gospel, which preaches God in Christ is restoring the social realities in which we live, was the realization of various protestant movements in the midst of the industrialization of the West. Protestant mainline church canonized this one. The defeat of the powers, perhaps demons, in Christ’s victory has been prevalent in certain parts of the world Christianity. Some say the overcoming of addictions is part of this gospel emphasis. Here the emphasis has been on excorcism or deliverance. Physical healing has been the discovery of some charismatic movements. Pentecostalism has sometimes canonized this entrance point (with speaking intongues). The ordering of our lives to the worship and glory of God has been another facet of gospel in some high church movements. Here we proclaim beauty and glory of God over the confusion of our orientations and desires that we have been thrown into via the world’s hedonized media culture. High churches have called us to this entrance point.
Each one of these is a valid expression of the gospel. More importantly however is that each one (and many more) provides a valid entry point to the Kingdom that if followed can lead to the whole of the gospel being fleshed out in the whole of life as God by the Spirit leads to the restoration of all things in,through and around our lives before He comes. Often, however these churches never lead to that ongoing discipleship. They get stuck at the entrance point.
The entry point is not merely a moment of translation because translating risks “translating” my cultural priorities to another culture. Translation often does not see the potential that there may be nothing in this culture that translates my cultural experience of the gospel. Neither is it merely a moment for assimilation because assimilation always assumes that “the gospel” is already there and that assumption may or may not be true. Instead, contextualizing the gospel says the gospel is all-encompassing and there is not one aspect of life that the gospel does not touch and transform. There may be overlap (translation) and there may be places God is already working (pre-veniently or just in common). But we cannot assume either. We must therefore inhabit our places patiently allowing for that point of contact to be revealed to “us” (and I mean by “us” not just me but those we are together with) in living life together with people. In listening, conversation, the Holy Spirit reveals “the question,” “the point of lack,” “the hurt crying out for hope” from which the gospel is proclaimed (and not necessarily by words). Contextualization is the process of inhabiting long enough so as to be presented with the entry point.
Yoder puts this notion of contextualization in this way in his marvelous compendium Theology of Mission:
Because I know we will get to everything, I don’t need to know ahead of time in what sequence we will deal with that. So I will simply start with my neighbor. What is his or her problem? What agenda do we have in common? What do we want to do together in the world? And we will trust that all items will come out in the proper order. Personal conversion might be the last thing to arise or it might come up third. We will not know ahead of time at what point something that separates us will call the other to accept our faith or will call us to accept their faith. Does it help or hinder to know ahead of time where that will be, so that we are always behind the scenes steering toward that?(p. 307)
On twitter a couple weeks ago I paraphrased Yoder saying
“If salvation encompasses both personal and corporate as one whole, wherever we pick up the discussion leads eventually to the whole thing.”
If salvation in Christ encompasses all of human reality (which it does according to Eph 1:17-23) then no matter where we start with the gospel’s offer of hope to someone, that one point will lead to the whole of the gospel’s flourishing in that person’s life, his/her community’s life, indeed that person’s neighborhood life.
The nature of contextualizing the gospel therefore is not simply a matter of translation, or assimilation but finding the entrance point (together by the Spirit) that leads to the whole.
Does this clarify the issues at work in contextualizing the gospel? Does this help you avoid the traps of thinking purely in terms of translation or assimilation?