Why Contextualize? (Parts 1 & 2) Incarnation & Evangelism

Last week, I stressed the Biblical emphasis of obedience over against pragmatism in our mission methods.  That is, we should prefer to conform to God’s will rather than pursue numerical “success” in missions.  Today, I’d like to very briefly outline several reasons why such a preference should compel us to pursue contextualization in mission.  Now, while my particular area of interest is in contextualization among Hindus, these principles are universal in application.  The question is, “Why should we pursue contextualization in mission?”  Let me provide four Biblical reasons, though only the first two today.

1.       The Imitation of Christ
As followers of Jesus, we want to be like him (Rom. 8:29, 1 John 3:2), and the simple fact is that Christ practiced contextualization in his own earthly ministry.  The prologue of John tells us that Jesus, the Word, became flesh and dwelt among us.  The incarnation of Christ consisted of God taking on human flesh, human limitations, human culture, human ethnicity, human context.  And the Lord didn’t go to every culture and every nation at every time in history.  He went to one place, one culture, at one time.  In particular, he went to the Jewish people of Galilee about 2,000 years ago.  Furthermore, he didn’t go as a foreigner.  Rather, he spoke the language, ate the food, wore the clothes, practiced the traditions and customs, knew the songs and dances, celebrated the festivals and in every way lived as a full member of that context.  To be sure, there were elements of the culture and society that Jesus challenged, but always emically – as an insider.

Mark records a revealing incident (chapter 6) in which Jesus spoke in the Nazareth synagogue.  The critical crowd that listened to him responded to Christ’s convicting speech not as though rejecting an outsider, but, on the contrary, as neighbors shocked at the seemingly audacious remarks of one of their own.  “Is not this the carpenter,” they marveled, “the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:1-3).  Clearly, the Scripture teaches us that Jesus went “all the way” in contextualizing his self, his method, and his message to his mission field.  Those of us who desire to imitate Christ in our mission praxis must take very seriously the importance of imitating His incarnation.  From this perspective then, the pursuit of contextualization becomes spiritual discipline for the missionary.

2.       The Desire to Reach the Nations

With Paul, so many of us can say that the love of Christ constrains us to engage in this ministry of reconciliation that we call world evangelism and missions.  Our hearts are broken for a lost and dying world whose only hope is the risen Christ.  Since this is the case, we must carefully listen to the Holy Spirit speaking through the Scripture on the topic of contextualization.  For it seems clear that the Bible believes that pursuing contextualization is necessary for reaching the lost.  Where do we see this?

Brian K. Petersen has detailed a number of helpful examples in his article on the subject including God’s covenant with Abraham, the use of circumcision, names of God, and references to Daniel’s cross-cultural ministry (Petersen, 2010).  Any of these, along with a number of New Testament examples could be explored in great detail for their many significant implications for this topic.  However, I want to just focus on Paul’s own explanation for why he engaged in the pursuit of contextualization in mission.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.  To the Jews I became a Jew in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law . . . that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law . . . that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.  I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.  (1 Cor. 9:19-23)

Why did Paul engage in contextualization?  Very clearly, it was his inspired opinion that doing so would result in winning more people to Christ.  Now, let me say here that it isn’t my intention to contradict last week’s warning against preferring numbers to obedience.  Note here that Paul’s ultimate motivation is to share in the blessings of the Gospel, not simply to achieve numerical success.  Having said that, there is little doubt that Paul believed that contextualization would result in a greater sharing of those blessings as more people would be won to Christ.  In actual fact, there may be something deeper going on here than the accumulation of more converts.  What is clear is that the opinion of the Bible, and thus of the Holy Spirit, is that more people will be won to Christ as His ambassadors imitate His incarnation – the self-emptying, culture-adopting, flesh-crucifying incarnation—as they engage in mission.

I’ll save the next two reasons for contextualization for next week.

Works Cited

Petersen, B. K. (2010). A Brief Investigation of Old Testament Precursors to the Pauline Missiological Model of Cultural Adaptation. Rethinking Hindu Ministry II: Papers from the Rethinking Forum , 14-27.


  1. Joshua Little10:04 PM

    This is an interesting topic - thanks for your contributions...

    I haven't read all of your posts so far, but do you ever clarify what you mean by "contextualization"?

    Inasmuch as Christ did become flesh, and Paul did become a Jew to reach the Jews (etc), then yes contextualization happens, and should be considered in missions today. But if you are taking a definition of contextualization that has historically led to syncretism, and potentially is doing so now, then the last thing we want to do is vie for it without qualification.
    The real question here is, how far do we go?

    I think you touch on this when you describe Jesus' role in culture.

    "To be sure, there were elements of the culture and society that Jesus challenged, but always emically – as an insider."

    Most of Jesus' impact on culture happened after his ascension (acts 29 and beyond), and it was such a radical, culture-shaping event that it has reached one of the greatest audiences of any culture-shaping event in history, and had more impact on culture than any other event in history. Central to that message was radical commitment to the gospel, which is why Jesus says that those who leave their houses, families or lands for the sake of the Gospel will receive blessings in this life (the fellowship with other believers) as well as persecutions (from those who reject the gospel). (Mark 10:29-31).
    But if Contextualization becomes an excuse to avoid such a radical adherence to the gospel message for the sake of avoiding persecution, or if it becomes an excuse to tone down the offensive parts of the gospel, then there is a problem.
    June 24, 2010 @ 7:22 PM

  2. Joshua, thanks so much for you comment. To be honest, after reading it I feel that God has impressed on me even more to write about this topic. I won't try to respond thoroughly here, however. It just isn't a sufficient space. Yes, I do define contextualization in a number of places. Perhaps most clearly in an earlier posting: http://tibm.org/contextualization-in-church-planting-missions-what-is-it

    I've not studied contextualization myself for a very long time, but have done so quite intensely (and as a practitioner for the past several years. In that time, I have often come across those who write about their concern with the relationship between contextualization and syncretism. What I'd like to see however is a compelling definition of syncretism (as I am often being asked for a definition of contextualization) as well as a paper that documents what is believed to be an inescapable relationship between the two.

    I believe that "how far do you go" is in fact the wrong question, because it is based on the faulty assumption that contextualization must eventually and inevitably lead to aberrant and heretical expression of Christian discipleship. It likewise assumes the legitimacy of what are considered (wrongly) to be non-contextualized expressions.

    But even if it were shown that contextualization often produces at least some heretical expressions of the Christian faith, it should not for that reason be discarded or an anyway discouraged anymore than vernacular Bible translations (a form of contextualization) should be because they have been shown to sometimes lead to heretical movements.

    Much, much more could, should, and will be said. But for now this will have to suffice.


    June 25, 2010 @ 12:44 PM

  3. Thanks for the post!

    In regards to the danger of syncretism, I see that when Paul speaks of becoming as one under the law, he speaks of keeping the traditions and customs of Judaism in order to reach the Jews. In the ministry of Paul,I find that such extreme contextualization did not lead to syncretism. Rather, throughout the book of Galatians we find him warring against syncretistic teachings of law and circumcision brought into the church not by Paul, but by the Judaizers.

    Throughout Paul's highly contextualized ministry, we find him not introducing syncretism, but fighting against it. The same can be true today.
    July 8, 2010 @ 8:59 AM

  4. Thank you, Kate, for your comment and for reading. I think I hear you suggesting that Paul's pursuit of contextualization did not lead to syncretism. By this, are you agreeing with my view that there isn't an inherent link between contextualization and syncretism?

    Introducing the Judaizers is a good point, I think. I want to submit for consideration the idea that there those who do not pursue contextualization are perhaps just as prone to syncretism as their contextualizing counterparts. That actually contextualization and syncretism have only a loose relationship. Just a thought.
    July 9, 2010 @ 9:20 AM

  5. Joshua Little10:06 PM

    sorry for the late response--

    Of course, when Paul contextualizes, he does it right.
    But evidence seems to show that some of our (evengalicals') recent attempts at contextualization have not been effective (and the measure for effectiveness, of course, is not the number of converts, but how much it was done in accordance with the bible and has God's spirit been evident).
    Obviously, there is the example of the emergent church, and mclaren and co.'s attempt to reach out to the young and hip world. Now, their movement didn't altogether fail, there were parts of the emergent church that were fine for a while. But it fundamentally led to syncretism with the pomos. didn't the new calvinists and the young, restless, and reformed group do better at presenting a robust and compellingly truthful, full account of Christianity, which drew people to it? (and not at the expense of the respective cultures of those involved - thinking of Driscoll's church here)
    Another example of possibly over-the-top contextualization is the C6 approach to muslim evanglisim. Does this apparently unbiblical approach fly under the banner of contextualization and reaching out?
    I think "how far do we go" is a legit question. But we could also say "how do we contextualize rightly?" Because, obviously, contextualization is necessary and right inasmuch as the earth is the Lords and the fullness thereof, and inasmuch has God is reconciling the nations to himself. And Paul did it. Now we just have to figure out what that means exactly, and what are the nuances of culture which we must navigate through to accept what is biblical and reject what is unbiblical.
    July 13, 2010 @ 6:42 PM