Contextualization is a hot issue in the evangelical world. Simply put, contextualization refers to the process and practice of expressing the gospel and living out the life of the church, in a new cultural context. In this regard, contextualization is something all of us do.
Contextualization is Inevitable
We do not live in the cultural world of the Bible. The worldview of the people around us is very different from the worldview of first-century Palestine. We ourselves grew up as part of an environment that bears little resemblance to the environment of Jesus and the Apostles. The people around us are asking different questions and thinking in different categories. Even in issues of style and appearance, our churches do not look, sound, or feel like the churches of the New Testament.
Our buildings look nothing like the first-century houses (Romans 16:3–5) or public buildings (Acts 5:12, 19:9) where the early church met, and our technology would be incomprehensible to them. The music we sing is based on a different tonal system than first-century Middle Eastern music, and all of it would sound strange to the apostles. (From their point of view, everything we sing is contemporary Christian music!) None of our typical church programs—Sunday School, Awanas, or youth group, just to name a few—existed in the early church.
We worship in contextualized churches, whether we realize it or not.
Biblical Examples of Contextualization
Acts 15 is an example of the early church wrestling with the cultural shift from a Jewish setting to the Hellenistic environment of the larger ancient world. The Holy Spirit led them to decide which things were non-negotiable and which things could be adapted.
Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul describes his contextualization strategy. He gives up his freedoms in Christ in order to let nothing non-essential stand in the way of the spread of the gospel. This kind of contextualization is good and necessary.
A Spectrum of Contextualization
There is a broad spectrum of practices that are used in contextualization. When missiologists talk about sharing the gospel and planting churches in a new cultural context, they use a scale to describe various approaches that have been taken over the years. This is known as the C Scale, and it runs from C1 to C6.
C1 refers to no adaptation at all. When missionaries go to a new cultural setting, reproduce everything they did in their home culture, and worship in their own language, this is C1 contextualization. An example would be the Gothic Anglican churches using the English Book of Common Prayer in South Asia (remnants of British colonial rule in that part of the world). Or we could point to English language international churches in many countries.
C2 is like C1, except that the local language is used rather than the language of the missionary. Much of the missionary activity of the past fell in the C2 category. Consider, for example, those who translated our hymnals into other languages, or those who set up graded choir programs and other features of American church life in mission churches.
Form and Appearance
C3 contextualization is willing to change aspects of form and appearance that are not perceived to have spiritual significance. So, for example, a C3 church in a Muslim setting would meet in a building that conformed to local architectural styles (if it had a building at all). The worshippers might sit on the floor, and men and women might sit on different sides of the room. Worshippers would remove their shoes before entering. The music would be local in style and tonality. These are just a few examples of adaptations that would fall in the C3 category.
Adaptation of Local Religious Practices
C4 contextualization goes a step further and seeks to incorporate local religious practice into its expression of Christianity by infusing new meaning into these non-Christian practices. One example would be to replace local pagan holiday celebrations with a Christian celebration. Another example would be to take the Islamic prayer ritual and substitute Christian content for the original Islamic wording, all while retaining the Islamic pattern of kneeling, bowing, and standing. C4 contextualization remains explicitly Christian in identity while taking on some outward elements of the local religious tradition.
Staying Inside the Old Religion
C5 contextualization, on the other hand, seeks to express Christian faith entirely inside the community and identity of another religion. (Hence, this approach is often known as an “Insider Movement.”) As an example, a Muslim who comes to faith in Jesus might be urged to continue to identify as a Muslim, to go to Friday prayers at the mosque, and to observe the Five Pillars of Islam and the basic requirements of Islamic law. They would (in some ways) still regard Islam as a divinely inspired religion, Muhammad as a prophet, and the Qur’an as a divinely inspired book. However, all of it would need to be completed by faith in Jesus.
C6 contextualization is not actually a form of contextualization at all. It refers to those who profess faith in Jesus but remain secret believers.
Deciding on the Best Approach
How do we decide which approach we should take? Based on the teaching of Scripture, here are five principles to help you decide.
1. Prohibited Worship
Nowhere in the Bible is non-biblical religion treated as an acceptable avenue for expressing biblical faith. God strictly forbids engaging in non-biblical religion (Exodus 20:3-6) or even worshiping him in unauthorized ways (Leviticus 10:1–3). When the Bible refers to non-biblical religion, it either mocks it unmercifully (Isaiah 44:9–20) or calls it demonic (1 Corinthians 10:14–22). Many conservative evangelical mission agencies, including the International Mission Board, have officially declared Insider Movement contextualization to be unbiblical and out of bounds.
2. Prescribed Worship
Much of the Old Testament focuses on God’s requirement that he be worshiped exclusively in the ways he has prescribed (Exodus 20:22–26, 25:9–31:11; Leviticus 10:1–3; Jeremiah 32:35). Even Samaritan worship of the true God in the wrong place and the wrong way was condemned (2 Kings 17:24–41; John 4:19–24). It is never wise or safe to worship God using practices or forms he himself has not prescribed.
3. Giving Up Spiritually Neutral Rights
For the apostle Paul, contextualization meant giving up his rights to legitimate things in order to avoid putting any stumbling blocks in the way of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:1–23). These things included what he ate or drank, whether or not he was married, and even whether he received financial support from the churches he planted. When he was with Gentiles, he gave up his right to assert his Jewish cultural heritage and lived like a Gentile. He did all of this so that the focus would be on the offense of the cross and not on any spiritually neutral aspect of his lifestyle.
4. The Offense of the Cross
The cross is offensive (1 Corinthians 1:18-26). It is supposed to be. The point of contextualization is not to make the gospel comfortable. A comfortable gospel is not the biblical gospel. The point of contextualization is to make the gospel clear. It should strip away any unnecessary distractions of foreignness to put the focus where it belongs—on Christ crucified and risen.
5. Scriptural Boundaries
There are boundaries to contextualization. The apostles never incorporated popular immorality or idolatrous practices into the churches they planted. They did not allow conventional wisdom or the philosophy of the day to distort their biblical worldview. Where the Bible gave them a command or a prohibition, the matter was settled. The cause of contextualization never overrode Scripture.
Biblically Faithful and Missiologically Fruitful
With these principles in mind, C3 contextualization is most clearly in line with biblical practice. Committed evangelical missionaries are divided over various C4 practices, but many would affirm that some measure of adaptation might fall within biblical lines.
The gospel needs to be proclaimed in the language the people understand, and our presentations of it need to address the worldview issues that hinder people from understanding it clearly. At the same time, we are never free to water down or soften the gospel message to avoid offending people. We can neither add to it nor subtract from it to make it more acceptable to any cultural context.
The church should do the things Scripture tells it to do, and it should adopt the structures Scripture prescribes for it. At the same time, it is totally free to utilize styles of music, architecture, seating, dress, or anything else that is spiritually neutral, to be consistent with the local culture. This is biblically faithful, missiologically fruitful contextualization.