By: Ng Shaowen
I had the privilege to attend “Gospel in the City”, an event organized by Redemption Hill Church in Singapore in collaboration with Redeemer City to City (read more @ http://redeemercitytocity.com/our-story.jsp) – basically an international Gospel movement towards Gospel-centric church planting and ministry in urban cities in our world today. This session was entitled “Gospel Contexualisation”. It was led by Rev. Peter Wang, Senior Pastor of Grace Redeemer Church in New Jersey. Sorry if it’s a lil’ wordy – there was a lot of information shared.
So you may be asking, what exactly is gospel contextualisation? Well, for starters, contextualisation is not giving people what they want to hear. An example may be, because Jesus said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”, we end up preaching that if you want something (eg. Lamborghini), just have faith and you will definitely get it. Rather, contextualisation is about presenting the Gospel: 1) With regards to questions about life that people are asking 2) In language and forms they can comprehend 3) Through appeals and arguments with force.
The term “contextualisation” became popular in the recent decade, especially after The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, held in Cape Town (2010). However, it must be said that the idea and generic usage of contextualisation has been used throughout all of history. Though gospel contexualisation may be widely used and accepted, there are many dangers to contextualising the gospel. One can either go too far (be ultra-liberal) or be too rigid (too conservative) when handling and dealing with Scripture. Rev Wang, though, highlighted the unavoidability of contextualisation. For instance, even the translation of the Bible from Hebrew-Aramaic-Greek to other languages (English, for eg.) is an attempt of contextualisation – bringing the Word of God in a language accessible to the reader.
What are the foundations to contextualising the Gospel then?
1) Building a two-way bridge
He explained that contextualisation bring biblical truth ‘over the bridge’ and expresses it in terms that are coherent to a particular culture. However, it is not about a regurgitation of information to the recipient. The message will only be effective if we allow traffic back the other way ,i.e allowing the recipient to express what he/she understood in his/her particular context. This will avoid intellectual arrogance and not drive the individual away from Jesus (even though the content may be Christ-centered). Contexualisation needs to be done whilst maintaing a high view of Scripture so as to avoid cultural relativism (Gospel avoids culture altogether) and cultural relativism (Gospel totally dictated by culture).
2) Deal with culture biblically
He stated the example of 1 Cor 9 on being flexible toward culture. 1 Cor 9:19-23 is Paul’s discourse on how, although he was free because of the gospel, he willingly “bound” himself to the people he was serving, being “all things to all people, so that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22). Rev Wang pointed that serving people well through solid Gospel contextualisation will prevent us from being the scandal of whichever culture we belong to, and yet allow the scandal of the Gospel to shine right through to everyone. He also brought out the example of Romans 1-2 to bring forth the mixed nature of culture. Paul was addressing everyone under the Roman Empire – Jew or Gentile – and systemically addressing each people group’s unrighteousness apart from Christ. This showed Paul’s willingness in acknowledging and dealing with issues of both sets of people.
Gospel contextualisation may come in different ways and means, as he pointed out to us.
1) 1 Cor 1 shows Paul engaging and confronting the culture. The Corinthian church, as Paul pointed out, was divided because the Corinthians were divided in the following of the different apostles. He engaged them by pointing out the simple fact that their conversion to Christianity was by no means due to their “leader”, and confronted them with the “baseline of faith”. That “baseline” is the gospel – Christ crucified, the power and wisdom of God, was an attempt to remove that division due to their pride.
2) The Book of Acts portrays to us the preaching of Paul (Acts 9,13,14,17,18,19,28) to different groups – Jews, Greeks and Gentiles – and yet at a level easily understood to the people group. A famous example may be the “unknown God” sermon in Acts 17, where he hybridises Gospel truths into commonly held beliefs by the religious Greeks.
3) The Bible as a whole uses motivations to appeal to its readers and listeners. Judgment, guilt, appreciation, satisfaction, help, love, wisdom are just some of the emotions reflected in the Bible that help people relate.
How to do contextualisation then?
He suggested a “Drilling and Blasting” method. We must enter the culture (drill) and confront it head on (blast). We cannot keep drilling – or we will be sucked in by culture, and we cannot keep blasting on the surface – it won’t make any long-term impact.
1) Entering the culture (Adapting or “Drilling”)
Francis Schaeffer once said, “We must learn the questions of our generation.” Rev Wang suggested that we do not avoid culture totally, but begin to pick up to read/watch subjects/programmes that is part of popular culture in order to relate better. Through all these, we also can discern the belief-system or the world-view of the current culture and have an idea of what are the:
1) ‘A’ doctrines – Beliefs of the culture that roughly correspond to some biblical truth. (eg. Not murdering people for fun)
2) ‘B’ doctrines – Beliefs that are circulating called ‘defeater’ beliefs, which make people not believe in the Bible’s claims and find them offensive. (eg. There is only one God)
With that in mind, we can go into contextualised gospel communication which adapts to the culture in the way it persuades, appeals and resaons with people. We can reason conceptually (emphasising on analysis and logic), intuitionally (emphasising on insight and experience, stories and narratives) or concrete-relationally (emphasising on relationships, practice and community).
2) Challenging the Culture (Confronting or “Blasting”)
This can only be done if we enter into culture, if not there wouldn’t be any chance to gain any hearing. One approach is to ‘float’ ‘B’ doctrines on ‘A’ doctrines, but we have to be careful because some ‘A’ doctrines make a lot of sense to the culture, while ‘B’ doctrines may be very offensive. A few pressure points of our society at the current moment are sin as idolatry, commodification of sex & gender-related issues and humans rights & equality.
3) Appealing to the Culture (Consolation)
Finally, after the blast, if successful, the “balm of Gilead” or the blood of Christ must applied. We must console people after destabilising their belief system, and point them to the only point of stabilisation – Jesus Christ. This is very much like what our Lord Jesus did in Luke 24, patiently pointing His disciples to Himself through the Scriptures. Our Lord Jesus substituted Himself for us on the Cross – and that will be the unifying theme that runs through all of the Bible.
To be honest – this is hugely technical and sounds like a whole load of irrelevance UNTIL the Holy Spirit showed me that Jesus was the master of contextualisation. He used parables to explain to his disciples and used day-to-day events to bring people to Himself. In an act of ultimate contextualisation, God sent His Son, incarnate, for us, to live, serve and die. I have been hugely guilty of intellectual arrogance, and the session was really convicting, and served as an enormous reminder to me that the Gospel is not about intentionally and systemically breaking down belief systems – it is about meeting people halfway, and bringing them to Jesus, with the power of the Holy Spirit. That, then, is true and faithful Gospel Contextualisation, whether to the believer or unbeliever.