The Price of Contextualization

January 7, 2011 — Leave a comment

Something occurred to me the other day about contextualization. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s just a fancy way of talking about how you culturally frame the message of either the gospel, or theology in general, in order to make it more easily understood to a particular audience.

The concept (or the articulation of it at least) originated in discussions of missiology (the science of missions). The issue is, of course, obvious to anyone looking to do cross-cultural missions. How can you best communicate Christ to another culture that did not grow up in and are not familiar with? The answer is that you contextualize it in language and idiom that those people will understand. To do that you have know 3 things: your own cultural context, the message you are trying to communicate, and the target culture you are trying to communicate to.

Now, there are a lot of issues at stake here and there are problems right from the onset. For instance, can you even think outside of your own cultural categories? We sometimes pretend as if it is possible to express truth in a transcultural way, and sometimes talk about parts of the Bible that are not culturally affected. But a very basic level, everything is contextualized. Most notably, God himself comes to us contextualized. As Calvin notes, He “lisps” and talks to us much like we would talk to small child so we can begin to understand Him in some way. Christ contextualized himself as a human being and we just celebrated that fact a couple of weeks ago with Christmas.

So where am I going with all of this?

At a macro level God contextualized himself to universal human culture. At the micro level we contextualize the message to individual human cultures. The issue for any communicator of the gospel then is how deep do you contextualize your message?

To see the issue, here’s an example. In Matt Chandler’s sermon from the Sunday before Christmas he mentions in passing how families in Israel during the sojourn in Egypt were having lots of kids and were “like a reality show on TLC,” alluding of course to TLC’s penchant for chronicling the life and times of families with lots of kids. Now, he didn’t have to stop and explain this like I just did. Every one more or less (as judged by the chuckles) got what he meant. He helped everyone see the bigger families in Israel by contextualizing it in our modern culture.

So here’s the rub. By doing that and illuminating part of the message for us, it is less illuminating for future generations. Now, in Matt’s sermon, I don’t really think it is a big deal. Really I think this sort of thing is good for pastors to do for their individual congregations. But on a larger level, and maybe I’m just thinking of writing, the more contextualized and relevant you try to make your message, the more obscure and irrelevant you are making it for the future. While it may seem cool to have books littered with savvy pop culture references, doing so almost guarantees no one will read your material 100 years from now.

And that is the price of contextualization. The more highly contextualized you make it, the greater the connection with the current culture but the harder it is to connect to future cultures. If you’re only concerned with the here and now, by all means go as deep as possible. But if you’re concerned for communicating the message of Christianity to the generations that will come the future, it’s worth finding a way to contextualize but not marginalize what you have to say.


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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

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