CONTEXTUALIZATION IN EVANGELISTIC CONVERSATION
Douglas L. Rutt©2005
The Department of World Mission of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, under the banner Ablaze!, has set the laudable goal of presenting the gospel to one-hundred million unreached and uncommitted people by the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation (2017). It is recognized, of course, that to present the gospel is not merely to transmit the message to the greatest number of people, but to proclaim it in such a way that it is clear, comprehensible and applicable to the life of the hearer. The goal of any attempt to give Christian witness is to faithfully proclaim the gospel in all of its truth and power.
The Christian who desires to present the gospel faithfully, then, first will pay careful attention to the process of coming to an accurate understanding of the word of God. This process is called exegesis, i.e., to analyze and interpret, in this case, God’s word. In involves a careful reading of and reflection on the text of Scripture to determine what the text meant in its original setting. It includes an understanding of the historical and social situation of the text, as well as an examination of the grammatical structures employed by the inspired writers. Therefore, sound exegesis, the “systematic process by which a person arrives at a reasonable and coherent sense of the meaning and message of a biblical passage,” is the starting point for accurate communication of God’s truth.
The Context of Gospel Communication
The correct interpretation of the message of God’s word, however, is only a part—albeit a fundamentally important part—of the task of faithful gospel communication. It must also be remembered that when the gospel is proclaimed it is proclaimed to people in specific contexts or situations. An important part of the context within which someone lives is culture. Culture, as Paul Hiebert describes it, is “the more or less integrated systems of ideas, feelings, and values and their associated patterns of behavior and products shared by a group of people who organize and regulate what they think, feel, and do.” Culture is what makes transference of meaning possible, for it involves the agreed upon ways in which meaning is produced, whether that be the verbal or non-verbal cues. A child, for example, learns language (verbal and non-verbal) within the context of his or her culture.
The concern over questions of “contextualization” has been a part of the Christian church since its beginning, even though the word itself was not used. It is a perennial challenge that Christians have had to face every time they have attempted to communicate the gospel, especially to people of other cultures and languages. Even the incarnation, in a certain sense, can be seen as an example of contextualization. God did not become man in a generic sense, but rather our Lord Jesus Christ was born into a historic context, in a certain place, in a certain time, into a specific culture, with its own language and customs, among people who lived according to a certain lifestyle, who also had their own challenges, needs, problems and sins. And our Lord, in his interactions with the people of Palestine at that time in history, communicated the “good news of the kingdom” making use of examples and analogies from that particular culture. It is the primordial example of contextualization.
Soon it was necessary, however, for the church to break out of the Jewish culture and enter into the Greco-Roman world of the gentiles. One example of the kinds of challenges the church had to confront is found in Acts chapter fifteen, where it was necessary to look for the best way to incorporate the gentiles into the church, discerning between essentials and non-essentials in the faith, and doing so in a way that would not cause the weak in the faith to stumble.
Rudolf Blank, in his book Teología y Misión en América Latina, speaks of two distinct approaches to the challenge of communicating the Christian message to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, employed by the missionaries who accompanied the conquistadores some fifteen centuries later. One methodology he called “tabla rasa.” Those who came to the Americas with this mentality had little respect for the indigenous cultures, ideas and religious beliefs. The only way to implant Christianity in the “New World” was to totally obliterate any and every vestige of the traditional local religion in order to start from zero in the hearts of the indigenous peoples. The conquerors were quite optimistic about the effectiveness of this methodology, even though today it is evident that it led to much syncretism, a mixing of the traditional religious beliefs and practices with Christianity. It is not that easy to do away with people’s deeply seated worldview beliefs and assumptions, even though outward artifacts and vocabulary may have changed.
The other methodology Blank calls “providential preparation.” According to this approach, every culture has at least some residue of the Truth. The work of the missionary is to look for similarities in the religious beliefs and practices of the indigenous peoples that can be used as “points of contact” with the teachings of Christianity. Blank mentions the Augustinian Bartholomew Diaz as an example of this approach, who “instead of prohibiting the rites and dances of the natives, permitted these ceremonies to be offered to the Eucharist instead of the sun. Native disguises and music were utilized in the celebration of Catholic festivals such as the Festival of Corpus Christi.”
The danger of syncretism is present also in this approach if carried out uncritically. The line between making use of harmless cultural practices, on the one hand, and accommodating the message of the gospel to the point of distortion, on the other, can easily be crossed if one does not have an understanding of all the extralinguistic communication that can take place through the uncritical use of ancient traditional customs. In recent times, one missionary working in Chile, for example, in an attempt to “contextualize” the worship service, suggested that a liturgy be developed using Chilean “cueca” music. The Chilean Christians were scandalized by the thought, however. Cueca music goes with a traditional Chilean dance that has significant sensuous, and even sexual, connotations. The music style quite possibly would have spoken much louder than the words of the text!
The struggle to proclaim God’s word in an understandable and relevant way is on-going, however, and the history of the Christian church abounds with examples of how evangelists and missionaries grappled with the challenge of speaking the gospel faithfully across cultural boundaries.
Context Is More Than Culture
Contextualization, however, is not a matter of culture alone, for contextualization denotes the complex task of taking the entire context seriously. Context is much larger than culture alone. Culture is merely a subset, albeit an important one, of context. Charles Kraft has defined context as “the structured and structuring matrix within which and according to the rules of which information is organized into messages that may then be reliably encoded, transmitted, and decoded to provide people with meanings.” Context includes all the various factors that impact the life, thought processes, emotions, feelings, expectations and even physical reactions of an individual to a given utterance. It includes matters such as physical surroundings, social setting and relationships, the experience of present interactions or previous high-impact interactions, emotional state, spiritual state, various distractions, culture, language (e.g. formal or informal), etc.
Some of what is context is intralinguistic, such as the language, vocabulary and intonation that are employed. But a significant part of context is extralinguistic. The extralinguistic context refers to all those factors that influence understanding that are not related to language per se, but have a considerable impact on meaning and understanding nonetheless.
Not only do our words communicate, but context also communicates meaning. That is why it is important to take it seriously as part of the total communicational or proclamational endeavor. Failure to do so can produce serious miscommunication. Consider, for example, the five contexts for possibly speaking the gospel mentioned by Charles Kraft in his book Communication Theory for Christian Witness:
1. A sermon during a worship service on Sunday morning.
2. A night-club.
3. Hiding out in the corner of an urban apartment in the midst of a violent riot taking place outside.
4. The living room of a suburban family on a typical evening.
5. On the television.
In the case of each situation (or context) mentioned above, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that one would shape the message according to the context. That is because not only do the words of the speaker communicate, but also the context communicates, and it communicates powerfully. It would be quite out of place to begin proclaiming the gospel in setting three above, as you and your friends were huddled on the floor scared stiff by the very real possibility of imminent harm or even death, by saying:
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen! The text upon which I will base what I want to say to this evening is Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Christians in Rome, the eighth chapter, where the Apostle writes . . . .”
Although the above introduction would be perfectly normal, even expected, in the church service, in the setting of imminent danger it would be considered to be so “out of context” that your hearers would probably think that you have lost your mind! It is essential, therefore, in any attempt to communicate the gospel, to consider how the message must be shaped by the context. Some situations linguists call “high context,” because the context, as in the case of the dangerous situation, communicates a great deal. It is not necessary to introduce your topic (the gospel) with a long, elaborate, precisely worded introduction, because the person to whom you are speaking already knows, based on the context, that whatever you say is most likely going to be something of urgency and vital importance. You don’t need to go into long, detailed, complex arguments, analogies and illustrations in order to make your point. You would get right to the point: “John, let us repent of our sins and trust in God’s mercy. He has shown his love for us by giving his son, Jesus Christ, for us.”
A situation is “high context” or “low context” based on the quantity of information it contributes to communication. Generally, if it is a high context situation, the context communicates more and the speaker can and should compress his message. On the other hand, if a situation is “low context,” it is usually necessary to unpack and expand upon the message you are trying to communicate. Often during an average Sunday church service the preacher must provide a relatively great deal of information, and put much thought into how he is going to proclaim the gospel in such a way that it fits into the mental matrix of his congregation and challenges those hearing his sermon to examine themselves, repent of their sins, and trust in Jesus Christ. In order to make his point he may need to explain many things, and use analogies and illustrations to concretize his message. On the other hand, on a Sunday after a tragedy such as 9/11, the tsunami, or some other event in the congregation, community or world that has captured the attention of his hearers, the context is so powerful and the people are waiting so expectantly for an explanation and comfort that the preacher can be much more direct, specific and compact.
In each of the five contexts one would need to adjust the way in which the message is communicated according to the context, whether it is a high context or low context situation, and the congruence between the context and the message. For example, in the case of a night club the law and gospel would need to be carefully presented according to that setting because the context is incongruent with the message. It would be quite easy to communicate condescension and self-righteousness rather than love, because the context could influence what your hearer makes of what you are saying.
Internal Contextual Factors
However, context is not only the external circumstances surrounding one’s attempt to speak the gospel: It also includes internal factors within the hearer, such as her emotional or spiritual state. When people are confronted with the tragedies of life, for example, the crucial question for which they seek an answer is “why?” Why did this happen to those innocent people? Why did this happen to me? Why is there so much violence and suffering in the world? Why did God permit that to happen? Robert Kolb has rightfully pointed out that the first step toward contextualization in evangelistic conversation is not simply blurting out the theologically correct explanation, but rather one’s response to such questions demands an attempt to answer another question: Why does this person want to know?
At the most fundamental level, contextualization in evangelistic conversation is a matter of trying to discover whether the person hearing the gospel is secure in her sins or broken because of them. Does she need to be led to an understanding of the seriousness of her sinfulness by the law, or is she broken and in need of the consolation, comfort and assurance of God’s love found in the gospel. Of course the whole process of discovery and presentation often takes time, dialogue and the ability to understand human psychology and emotion. Francis Schaeffer, it is widely reported, has said that if he had one hour to speak the gospel to a stranger, he would spend forty-five minutes listening, and only fifteen minutes speaking. In its most basic form that is what faithfulness in Christian witness demands—taking seriously the need to understand the context of those who would hear the gospel.
It is said that in order to become a great chess player, you must learn to think like your opponent. It is not enough to know only what the opponent thinks, but how he thinks. Contextualization in evangelistic conversation, therefore, is about taking the time and making the effort to learn how the person to whom you want to speak the gospel thinks and why. For that to happen, you have to be able to “put yourself in the shoes” of the other, to understand the contextual factors—including, but not limited to, culture—that are influencing his or her understanding of the gospel.
It is not always readily apparent whether a person is secure or broken. Those who are broken are often very good at masking it behind a façade of self-assurance and arrogance. Communication and comprehension is often hampered by “noise”; those physiological, psychological or emotional distractions that keep us from understanding each other. Communication is not a very exact science, and misunderstanding of what someone is really trying to say is common. The whole matter becomes even more complicated when we are attempting to communicate with someone whose culture and/or “heart language” is different from our own. A myriad of barriers present themselves.
And yet, we are called to proclaim the gospel in its truth and power. Understood properly, the process of Gospel communication can be called “contextualization.” It simply means putting the message of the gospel into a form that is comprehensible and applicable to the context of the hearer. In a very real sense we can say that contextualization is the essence of the task that we have—the essence of the mission of the church.
Contextualization and the Spirit of God
Fortunately we are not left to ourselves when we speak the gospel, for the Spirit of God works powerfully to turn unwilling hearts into willing hearts. The task of proclaiming the gospel accurately and faithfully can seem overwhelming when one considers the complexity of the contextual factors that affect communication. It is never something that is done with total precision. As James Voelz has pointed out, when we are involved in an evangelistic conversation we do not have complete control over what sense the person we are speaking with will make out of our words. It is essential, therefore, to remember that ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who will create faith through our proclamation, as ineloquent and inadequate as our words may be. That does not give us license, however, for laziness or carelessness as we seek to proclaim God's word faithfully.
That is why, also, it must be the word of God that sets the agenda for evangelistic conversation, not the context. Contextualization can be misused to justify a reshaping of the gospel message according to what would be palatable to the hearers. That is not the understanding of contextualization advocated by this essay; rather, it is a matter of doing the hard but necessary work of understanding not only the text, but also the context. By understanding both the text and the context, those who desire to speak the gospel to a neighbor, friend, loved one or colleague, can do so faithfully, as described by the Apostle Peter: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” In as much as you can grasp the context of evangelistic conversation, you also will be able to faithfully speak the word of life to others, and do so with gentleness, respect and winsomeness.
Ascough, Richard. “Guide to Biblical Exegesis,” Queen’s University, http://post.queensu.ca/~rsa/Exegesis_Guide.htm (accessed July 22, 2005).
Blank, Rudolf. Teología y Misión en América Latina. Saint Louis: Concordia, 1996.
Hiebert, Paul G. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Baker: Grand Rapids, 1985.
Kolb, Robert. Speaking the Gospel Today: A Theology for Evangelism, Revised Edition. Concordia: Saint Louis, 1995.
Kraft, Charles H. Christianity in Culture: A Study in Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Revised 25th Anniversary Edition. Orbis: Maryknoll, New York, 2005.
_______. Communication Theory for Christian Witness. Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1983.
Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. “What is Ablaze?,” http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=5248 (accessed July 22, 2005).
Robins, R. H. General Linguistics: An Introductory Survey, Fourth Edition, (Longman: New York, 1989), 28.
Rutt, Douglas L. “Ritual and Animism: Liturgical Symbols and Ritual in Animistic Context—What Do They Mean?” Missio Apostolica V (May 1997): 4-18.
Thwaites, Tony, Lloyd Davis, and Warwick Mules. Introducing Cultural and Media Studies: A Semiotic Approach. Palgrave: New York, 2004.
Voelz, James W. “Receptor-Oriented Interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.” In Receptor-Oriented Gospel Communication: Making the Gospel User-Friendly, ed. Eugene W. Bunkowske and Richard French. Concordia Theological Seminary: Fort Wayne, 1989.
The Lutheran Church—Missiouri Synod, “What is Ablaze?” http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=5248 (accessed July 22, 2005). Visit the website http://www.lcms.org/pages/default.asp?NavID=5247 for more information on the Ablaze! movement, its goals and strategies.
 Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Baker: Grand Rapids, 1985), 30.
 Tony Thwaites, Lloyd Davis, and Warwick Mules, Introducing Cultural and Media Studies: A Semiotic Approach (Palgrave: New York, 2004), 9-10.
 Non-verbal communication is often much more powerful than verbal communication. This can cause serious problems when someone learning to communicate in a new language pays close attention to words, but not to other channels of communication. For example, the agreed upon conventions of one culture may dictate that a firm handshake communicates friendliness and warmth: In another it may communicate aggressiveness or even hostility.
 Acts 15:1-33
 Rudolf Blank, Teología y Misión en América Latina (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1996), 35-37.
 For more on the interaction between meaning and liturgical symbolism and ritual, see Douglas L. Rutt, “Ritual and Animism: Liturgical Symbols and Ritual in Animistic Context—What Do They Mean?” Missio Apostolica V (May 1997): 4-18.
 Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture: A Study in Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Revised 25th Anniversary Edition, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2005), 105.
 R. H. Robins, General Linguistics: An Introductory Survey, Fourth Edition, (Longman: New York, 1989), 28.
 Charles H. Kraft, Communication Theory for Christian Witness (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1983), 175-6.
 Robert Kolb, Speaking the Gospel Today: A Theology for Evangelism, Revised Edition (Concordia: Saint Louis, 1995), 11.
 James W. Voelz, “Receptor-Oriented Interpretation of the Holy Scriptures,” in Receptor-Oriented Gospel Communication: Making the Gospel User-Friendly, ed. Eugene W. Bunkowske and Richard French (Concordia Theological Seminary: Fort Wayne, 1989), 53.
 1 Peter 3:15.