On the Dangers of Contextualization

Contextualization Level: Expert

Contextualization Level: Expert

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.

Contextualization Level: Amateur

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.

About Pastor Daniel Hinton

Pastor Hinton is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Lubbock, Texas. He is a graduate of the University of Arkansas, having majored in poultry science, and of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was ordained on Holy Trinity 2011. He has been married to Amanda for seventeen years, and has five daughters and one son. He grew up in the ELCA, and left in 2004 over issues of scriptural authority. It was because of a faithful Lutheran campus ministry that he was exposed to The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. He enjoys old books, teaching the faithful, and things that are beautiful.


On the Dangers of Contextualization — 3 Comments

  1. Note: speaking as an engineer, there are three things that must be in place for communication to take place between two people:
    1) a common channel between sender and receiver. This can be words on a written page, vibrations in air, or a telegraph line. If both parties can’t send and receive the messages, there’s no communications.
    2) a shared set of symbols: the alphabet, the spoken phonemes, Morse code. Both parties must attach the same word to the same set of symbols.
    3) a shared vocabulary. Vocabulary includes not just the words, but the contextual meaning and associated implications behind those words. What I mean when I say that “I saw a cow in the road” may be totally different than what a Hindu in India means by the same words.

    All communications have two sets of meanings. There is the direct meaning – the basic meaning of the words themselves., using only the dictionary definitions. Then there is the contextual meaning: the extended implications of the historical and cultural associations that the sender and receiver draw from the words. If I say “The Lord is my shepherd”, it means something rather different to a person with experience of sheep and sheep-keeping than to a city person with no experience with livestock or farming. BTW, I highly recommend “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” by W. Phillip Keller – who spent a large part of his life raising sheep in South Africa. It’s very enlightening as to the nature of sheep and what David had in mind when he wrote the words.

    There are two avenues of approach when you want to speak a message that is outside of the context of your intended receiver. One is try to adapt the message to the receiver’s context. The other is to educate the receiver and develop a common context. The second is more difficult, but the danger in the first is that it may not be possible to adapt a message without losing the important contextual meanings. I might try to explain the 23rd Psalm to a bunch of inner-city kids by trying to re-tell it using symbols that they understand, but I risk losing all of David’s nuances. Or, I can give them Keller’s book, perhaps take them to a farm, and give them some of the context necessary to understand the Psalm.

    As an aside, I would hold that actually John the Baptist was perfectly in context. The people to whom he was speaking knew the Law the the Prophets intimately and knew full well who Elijah was. I rather imagine that he was able to gain the students and audience that he did precisely because he emulated one of the great prophets in Israel’s history. Of course the end-goal of his communication was not popularity, but to pave the way for Jesus, so he accomplished his purpose quite well.

  2. @Paul of Alexandria #1
    Wrt the inner-city kids: Done very carefully, a *beginning* might be made with the 23rd Psalm by reading it in the language common to both of you (“koine” English), and then, using the inner-city kids’ frame of reference, explaining/explicating the psalm to them. In other words, you bring both “avenues” together in one shot.

    Dr. Gregory Lockwood used precisely this Scriptural image (Ps. 23 and John 10) to discuss precisely this issue, with reference to his own work in New Guinea, if I recall correctly. There were some of his colleagues who advocated re-“translating” the text to refer to pigs, which the people knew (since they didn’t know sheep). His response: Show them a picture of a sheep, and remain faithful to the original text. 🙂

  3. @Rev. David Mueller #2
    I suppose that it also depends on precisely what you are trying to get across, too. For a group of beginners, or young children, it may be sufficient to interpret the passage into local terminology. Eventually, however, you want to explain the original context to them, since that will be the only way to get across the finer points. For instance, to cite Keller, a pigherd may love his herd, but I don’t think that he’ll spend months out in the fields preparing the land and guarding them in the way that a shepherd would.

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