In a generic sense, contextualization refers to considering the context, that is, the situation, environment, time, and culture in which an event takes place. Within the church, contextualization usually refers to the process of speaking God’s Word to a group of people in a way which considers and adapts to their context. A great example of comes from St. Jerome and Dr. Luther. Each saw that the Bible of his day was in a language that only few understood, so he produced a translation in the language of the people. In St. Jerome’s context, then, Latin was more appropriate than Greek as the language of Scripture being read to the people. Centuries later, Luther produced a translation in German since so few people in the German lands knew Latin well enough to understand it read in church. This is a pastoral consideration, and a salutary one. Practical considerations might also be contextual; here an example might be that where sermons just three or four generations ago could run an hour, a long sermon now might be 25 minutes in places — mostly due to the ability of Western ears to listen intently for such a long time.
But contextualization goes way beyond just the language used. Especially in connection with missions and evangelism, it can refer to the consideration of all kinds of things. Perhaps the people are not well educated. Perhaps this is a native people with no concept of property rights. Perhaps this is an American people whose attention spans no longer then eight minutes. Perhaps this is a people who have been taught that guilt and shame are unhealthy pathologies rather than a natural result of sin. What does this mean for how the church presents God’s Word to the people? This is no merely academic question; it’s imminently practical for the entire church. At what point does the salutary desire for the people to receive the Gospel clearly give way to compromise? If translation into English is helpful, what about using fewer biblical idioms and inserting modern ones? What about ecclesiastical vocabulary? Should we ditch church jargon because many don’t understand the words? And what about using cultural concepts to teach the Christian faith?
Sometimes, contextualization is great. For example, take the fish above. He knows his context. Hunters know context, too, and for the same reason as the fish — they want to look like their surroundings. That is to say, they look so much like their surroundings that they are indistinguishable from them. Great if you’re a prey fish trying to avoid being eaten. Great if you’re trying not to be seen by fleet-footed elk.
This, then, is how contextualization can go wrong in the church. Sure, it’s important for the Christian preacher to speak in a way that people can understand. Sure, it’s important for Christians not to become in themselves a stumbling block. However, it must never be forgotten that the Church has a message that this dying world largely doesn’t want to hear. The Church has a culture which stands apart from and is set apart from (the theological term here is holy) the cultures around us. That doesn’t mean you necessarily stand on the street corner dressed like an extra from Revenge of the Nerds and scream “Repent!” to hapless passers-by, but it definitely does mean that from time to time you must be intentionally set against your own culture and context for the sake of the Gospel.
Take St. John the Baptist. No hipster glasses, no expensive coffee. No vocabulary full of cool buzzwords, no affected sermon delivery with that agonizing rising tone at the end of each sentence and that belabored squint that marks all the bestselling church gurus of today. A stinky garment, a foul diet, and a message of repentance to prepare the way of the Lord. Guy couldn’t keep his mouth shut, either. When preaching against Herod’s sin, he found himself executed.
Could have John have better exegeted his context? What if he had just put on normal clothes and spent time around his people? Maybe he could have picked his battles. Here lay the danger of contextualization: It can become a ready excuse not to do the hard work of confessing the faith and speaking the truth of God’s Word to sinners who don’t want to hear it.