The challenge of the contextualisation of the gospel is not be feared. In fact it is one of the greatest gifts we have. The Christian faith demands to be contextualised, and is made capable of such contextualisation because of the dynamic at work at its heart. From the outset, God contextualised his approach to humankind, through language and imagery, personal encounter and revelation.
The incarnation of Jesus is of course the epitome of contextualisation. Jesus enters our world, on our terms, alongside us in all things. Well, not exactly all things – for his sinlessness reminds us that contextualisation is not the same of identification, for the presence of God will always challenge people and cultures to recognise their need to be transformed into the likeness of God and his Kingdom.
The goal of contextualisation therefore is to enable Jesus, as far as it is possible, to be authentically experienced in every human situation. That human situation comprises the worldview of the person or community. So, for example Jesus was embraced as a rabbi by many of the Jewish people, and amongst them were those who suspected he was the long-promised Messiah. Their Jewish worldview meant they were open to such a person entering their world.
Women experienced Jesus as distinctly counter-cultural, and they welcomed that. And so did all manner of outcast and sinners. But amongst those for whom that culture had been favourable, many felt threatened. Rich people walked away downcast because they did not accept the Lordship of Christ. Other rich people, amongst them women, supported the ministry of Jesus.
Worldview, or context, is everything. Announcing Jesus as the Messiah to a bunch of Harley-Davidson bikers is likely to have little impact. But a prisoner might need to hear the gospel as that which forgives and gives a second chance. Nations that are powerful need to hear of the dangers of hubris, while the downtrodden will hear good news about the God of small things.
So, in one sense there is no such thing as a simple gospel. The gospel is a fluid thing, subversive, changing shape, finding its way into cracks and crevices and from there, challenging and embracing in sometimes equal measure. The gospel will embrace aspects of culture not embodied in the gospel imported from elsewhere, but it will also challenge that same culture where the Lordship of Christ is ignored or undervalued.
The messenger therefore needs to recognise that the baggage they carry is more than the simple gospel. Their ‘shaped-by-my-culture’ understanding of the gospel can, if we’re not careful, deny new insights that might emerge from other cultures have not yet seen.
This post by David Kerrigan first appeared in BMS’s Catalyst Magazine.