Contextualization and Church Planting

In this article I intend to approach contextualization by a theological perspective, showing its aims and limitations, its relevance and dangers. We shall see the relevance of missionary anthropology and finally present some biblical criteria for contextualization. In the following chapters we will continue to think about biblical models of contextualization and some guidance on how to contextualize the message.

Hesselgrave states that contextualization is the communication of the message, the work, the Word and desire of God in a faithful form to His Revelation, in a relevant manner and applicable way. Saying this he states the challenge to the Church of Christ: communicate the Gospel in a theologically faithful way and, at the same time, humanly intelligible and relevant for distinct contexts, whether cultural or existential. Perhaps this is the greatest challenge for studying and understanding the theology of contextualization.

Historically, the absence of a biblical theology of contextualization has created two disastrous consequences for the world missionary movement: religious syncretism and evangelical nominalism.  Because of poor or weak biblical understanding it leaves human questions open, encouraging a search for answers in traditional religions, or philosophical systems, creating syncretism.  So, a new converted Brazilian Indian, for example, is able to worship God, preach His Word and apply it at home, but if he does not understand the biblical principles of following the Lord, he can, in a moment of illness in the family, seek for a local medicine man who will offer solutions based on the traditional religion.  This weak biblical understanding can also create people interested in the Gospel, but without real conversion or interest in the Lord.

I believe no universal principle can be well communicated to a group without being contextualized.  Jesus, without doubt, was the greatest model of contextualizing the message.  To the Jews he spoke within the Jewish universe mentioning the tax collectors, hypocrisy of public worship and marriage festivals.  He spoke of fishermen and agriculturists. He mentioned well know elements such as fields, bread, flour and salt.  He referred to Jerusalem various times and invoked the example of the patriarchs very often. The main content of the message was put in an understandable and relevant format for the listener.  It had a great impact in human society and history. At the same time it was faithful to the Scriptures, the revelation of God, rooted in a biblical theology.

Before we develop the subject of contextualization in a more objective form, I would like to explain the relevance of contextualization in the presentation of the Gospel using Matthew 24:14.
The relevance of contextualization in CP

In the context of Matthew 24, Jesus gathers with His disciples, a little before He ascended to heaven, and answers their question about the signs before His coming. After speaking about the more cosmological evidence (wars and rumors of wars) and ecclesiological signs (persecution and false prophets) Jesus gave a purely missiological evidence saying that ‘the Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world, as a testimony to all nations. Then shall come the end.’

The Greek expression for ‘will be preached’   has the root kerygma, an intelligible proclamation [ in this case, ]of the Gospel, and makes a parallel with martyria  (testimony) that evokes a more personal behavior, a way to live according to the teaching of Jesus. This ‘kerygmatic’ action points to the fact that the Gospel will be preached in a comprehensible form.  The ‘world’ here in the text is a translation of oikoumene that means ‘the inhabited world.’ The textual idea, therefore, is not geographical or territorial, but demographic  (where there are people) showing that this Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached kergymatically (intelligibly) in all the inhabited earth.

The way this will happen according to the text is through the testimony to all nations.  

The root of ‘testimony’ here is ‘martyria’ which teaches us that this proclamation (‘kerygmatic’ action of the Gospel) will happen through the testimony of the Church: those who have the character of Christ.

 It means that only the saved will preach this Gospel of the Kingdom for salvation of all nations. Finally the verse ends saying all nations (ethnesin, from ethnia) will be reached, i.e., all social segments culturally and linguistically defined.

We could paraphrase this verse 14 by saying ‘the Gospel of the Kingdom will be proclaimed in an intelligible and understandable form for the entire habited world by means of the ‘martyric’ testimony - the life of the Christ-centered Church -  to all defined ethnic groups.’ The phrase that says ‘then will come the end’ has ‘end’ (telos) pointing to the return of the Lord Jesus, linked usually to His parousia, to His return.

I would like to call your attention to a biblical principle of communication.  Jesus teaches us several times that the transmission of the knowledge of the Gospel will not be an action done without the communicative participation of the Church.  This participation involves two basic actions:  The life (witness) of the Church, as well as the action of proclamation.

Therefore this communication of the Gospel in a cross-cultural perspective needs a work of ‘translation’ in two specific areas: language and the culture.  Languages use different codes to make possible the communication and the same happens with the cultures.  When it is explained to an Inuit (or Eskimo) that the blood of Jesus makes us white as snow, he will immediately ask which type of whiten as, according to his vision adapted to live with snow and ice for thousands of years, there are thirteen types of ‘white’. To ignore such a cultural aspect will end up with a shallow, confused and twisted preaching of the Word of God.

Some textual principles can help us in this introduction, thinking on Matthew 24:14.  We perceive that the transmission of an intelligible message in its own language and context, and therefore contextualized, is the presupposition for the fulfillment of the great commission, seeing that we must live Jesus, but also proclaim Him in a comprehensible way. Only the Church of the redeemed will fulfill this task.  It means that Christianity will not evangelize the world, but the redeemed Church will: those who have experienced the new life in Christ.

Keeping these concepts in mind, they allow me to mention some presuppositions that I shall use to write this chapter.

1. The Word is supra-cultural and a temporal, therefore viable and communicable for every person, in all cultures, and in all generations.  We believe, therefore, that the Word defines mankind and not the contrary.

2. To contextualize the Gospel is not to rewrite it or mould it according to an anthropological observation of society, but translate and communicate it linguistically and culturally in such way everyone might understand the historical and biblical Christ.

3. To present Christ is the greatest purpose of contextualization. The Church must avoid presenting Jesus Christ as only the solution for the questions that the missionary ask asks – a solution that is only for one social segment, or an alien message to the target people.

The concept of contextualization invokes all sorts of feelings and arguments.  On one hand we find the defense of its relevance with the cultural base and the general principles of communication. It is believed in general that without contextualization there cannot be true communication. On the other hand we find its dangers when contextualization is divorced from an essential biblical theology to orientate and evaluate it.

This is especially true bearing in mind the actual term ‘contextualization’ that has been abundantly used in the past by Kraft from the point of view of the relativism of Kierkegaard, founded in a liberal theology that does not believe in the Word of God in a dogmatic form, but an adapted way.  They believed that the Word of God is applied only in similar contexts to its revelation, therefore it is not supracultural or a temporal. Our proposal is that we understand that contextualization is not only possible from a biblical point of view, but necessary for the faithful transmission of biblical concepts.

It is necessary, therefore, to evaluate our theological presuppositions in order to guide our missionary work.  Martin Luther, believing in the integrity of the biblical truth, explained the Gospel so that it might be communicable in the language of the people, with its cultural symbols defined.  However, it must be a scriptural Gospel and without diluting the truth.  Many times he taught Melanchthon saying: ‘preach in way that they hate sin or they hate you.’  If on one hand he advocated an ecclesiological contextualization translating the Bible to the language of the people, having services with the participation of laymen, preaching the Word within the context of his time, on the other hand he made clear that the content of the Word must not be limited by fear of cultural confrontation.
Imposed, pragmatic and sociological dangers in the presuppositions of contextualization

Before we proceed I would like to speak of three fundamental dangers when we deal with contextualization within the missionary world.

The first danger, that I call imposed, has its origin in the natural human tendency to inflict on other peoples our acquired way of thinking and interpreting, a practice done on a grand scale by political movements in the past and present, as well as missionary forces that understood the meaning of the Gospel only from their own worldview, culture and language. So, the church buildings with high towers, the white tablecloth for communion, a certain height to the pulpit and facial expressions of reverence become much more than peculiarities of an specific group, but the imposed way to be a Christian.

 The consequences of an imposed exposition of the Gospel have been many, but most commonly we encounter either nominalism, or syncretism, that is almost irreversible.  David Bosch states that the value of the Gospel, and the reason to proclaim it, are totally associated with the cultural comprehension of the receiving people.  The opposite would be merely a confusing tangle of words that would not produce any socio-cultural sense. The dangerous imposed presentation of the Gospel, to which we refer, therefore, confounds the Gospel with the cultural clothing of the presenter, leading men far from Jesus, and only close to the form of Christianity in certain place.

A second danger is the pragmatic that can be seen when we assume an approach purely practical in contextualization.  Very often contextualization becomes a subject associated mainly with methodology and field methods, and consequently, what is biblical and theologically evident becomes less important than what is functional and pragmatically effective.  I am convinced that all the missiological decisions must be grounded in a good biblical-theological foundation if we desire to be in tune with the command of God (Acts 2:42-47).

Among the most contextualized missionary initiatives we find a large number of heretical movements such as the Church of the Holy Spirit in Africa, in which the founder is the self-proclaimed incarnation of the Holy Spirit of God.  From the purely pragmatic point of view, however, it is the church that contextualizes its message to be sensitive to the traditional and mystical culture. We must remember that not everything that is functional is biblical. Pragmatism leads us to values based more on the methodology of contextualization than the content to be contextualized.  The pragmatic presentation of the Gospel, therefore, favors only the communication with its obvious results and forgets to secure the content of the communicated message.

The third danger is the sociological, which is to accept contextualization as being nothing more than a chain of solutions for humans needs, in a purely humanistic approach.  This must be our growing preoccupation as we live in a post-Christian, post-modern and hedonistic context.  This occurs when missionaries take decisions that are based purely on sociological analysis and interpretation of human needs and not on the instructions of the Scriptures.  In this case the cultural subjects, instead of the Scriptures, determine the message and mould the theology to be applied to a certain group. The desire for social justice should not lead us to forget the presentation of the Gospel.

Vicedon states that only a profound biblical knowledge of the nature of the Church (Eph. 1:23) will enable missionaries to have attitudes rooted in the Missio Dei and not merely in the demands of society. The defense of a holistic Gospel and the desire to transmit a contextualized message must not be way to forget the doctrinal foundations and biblical theology.  Truly the biblical foundations are the motivating force for the holistic understanding of the Gospel, human sensibility and the clamor for practical, transforming actions in society.

Biblical theology of Contextualization

The present impasse between theology and contextualization in the world is possibly a reflection of the divorce in the teaching of missiology and theology.  For some, missiology is seen as theologically simplistic and consequently swept outside the academic centers of theological preparation in many parts of the world, or at least treated as of minor value.

We saw in the previous chapter the terrible deception that frequently produces pastors without vision, unprepared missionaries and theologians whose knowledge would be greatly used for the daily needs of a Church that is with its hands to the plough, but at times does not know how to proceed.

As I said earlier, in the absence of a theologically sound study about biblical contextualization, various sectors of the Church throughout history have been influenced by liberal theology that found in contextualization an easy avenue to present its values.

Soren Kierkegaard  with his pragmatic relativism propounded the understanding of the truth from the point of view of the individual, without absolute or dogmatic concepts.  William James in 1907 launched the base for the ‘movement of philosophical and theological contextualization’ which defended theological activity starting from socio-cultural and linguistic needs.  In the same line Rudolf Bultmann defended the philosophical contextualization of the Gospel, mythologizing everything that was not relevant to modern man in his own context.  These and other thinkers influenced the conceptual basis of contextualization developing a new presupposition: There is no dogmatic truth that is super-culturally and cosmically applicable. The truth is individual and as such must be understood and applied in accord with the receiver’s situation (2 Tm 4:2-4).

This influence divided the evangelical world for decades and even today has it effects rooted in the conceptual base of contextualization, leading some sectors to define the presentation of the Gospel only from what is culturally acceptable. In a brief discussion with a missionary team that worked among the Bassaris of Togo, I was introduced to a missionary strategy that taught Jesus as the one who had bought our salvation, but without personal sacrifice, because this would be seen by the Bassari as a sign of weakness.  This simple choice was the result of a sociological theology and is a representative of a pragmatic tendency that moulds the Word according to what is acceptable by the community.   The sad result of this initiative was the tragic misunderstanding of the Gospel message.

In a more institutional way this method was demonstrated well in the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches, in Upsala, in 1968.  There, the emphasis on the humanization of the Church permitted the development of the study of contextualization more from Anthropology than from Theology.  The conference about the ‘Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies’ in 1977 in Chaing Mai, Thailand , reinforced universalism and contextualization as a form of relativism of values.

The theological response to this subject arose, but in a broader form, only in 1974 at Lausanne  where, while recognizing cultural, linguistic and interpretative differences in the different races on earth, it affirmed that the Word is the only creative mechanism of the truth that is to be proclaimed.  About evangelism and culture the Lausanne Covenant declared that the culture of a people is both good and bad in parts:

“The development of strategies for world evangelization calls for imaginative pioneering methods. Under God, the result will be the rise of churches deeply rooted in Christ and closely related to their culture. Culture must always be tested and judged by Scripture. Because men and women are God's creatures, some of their culture is rich in beauty and goodness. Because they are fallen, all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is demonic. The gospel does not presuppose the superiority of any culture to another, but evaluates all cultures according to its own criteria of truth and righteousness, and insists on moral absolutes in every culture. Missions have all too frequently exported with the gospel an alien culture and churches have sometimes been in bondage to culture rather than to Scripture. Christ's evangelists must humbly seek to empty themselves of all but their personal authenticity in order to become the servants of others, and churches must seek to transform and enrich culture, all for the glory of God. (Mark 7:8,9,13; Gen. 4:21,22; I Cor. 9:19-23; Phil. 2:5-7; II Cor. 4:5)”  

Allow me to draw your attention to a disturbing and correct interpretation of Bruce Nicholls about the danger of syncretism and nominalism as the consequence of an existential contextualization without a theological foundation.  He says that religious syncretism is a synthesis between Christian faith and other religions, the biblical message is progressively substituted by non-Christian presuppositions and dogmas, and the Christian expressions of religious life, worship, witness and ethics conform more and more to those of the non-Christian part in the dialogue. In the end, the Christian mission is reduced to a so-called Christian presence, or at best, a social and human preoccupation. The syncretism results in the slow death of the church and the end of evangelization.  

Vicedon presents us with a number of theological guides for the process of contextualization.  Remember that, if we believe that God is the author of the Word and the Creator who knows His creation, therefore we must believe that the Gospel is directed to every man.  The minimization of the message in the face of uncomfortable issues such as adultery, for example, may drive men to church, but not to the Kingdom of God. It only presents a weakened Gospel split in the middle that works for the formation of a syncretistic group, ready to treat the rest of Scripture with the same principles of partiality.  Hibbert warns us that in the eagerness to show ourselves sympathetic to the world (as the Church in Acts 2), we forget that the biblical message will confront the cultures, will reveal sin and call for transformation through the Lamb.

Therefore the theological liberalism of Kierkegaard, Bultmann and James threatens the biblical understanding of contextualization, once it leads us to believe in a presentation of the Gospel that does not transform (because every cultural change would be negative), does not confront (because the truth is individual and not dogmatic) and does not liberate (because the liberty proposed is only social).

If we believe that God is the author of the Word, that the Gospel ‘is the Power of God for everyone who believes’ (Rom. 1:16), and that ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel’ (v.17), then we’ll concentrate with the best way to communicate this Truth, in a intelligible and applicable form, knowing it is the Truth of God that liberates everyone who believes.

Biblical presuppositions for contextualization

Writing to the Romans (1:18-27) the Apostle Paul introduces us to the concept of contextualization in opposition to enculturation. He brings to the surface crucial truths for the proclamation of the Gospel within a scriptural and revelational presupposition.  

In verse 18, Paul presents us to God angry with the human attitude and who reveals Himself against every ‘impiety’ (with which man breaks his relationship with God and His divine values) and ‘perversity’ (in which breaks is relationship with his neighbor and human values).  He presents a man corrupted by unrighteousness and the creator of his own ‘truth’.  

In verses 19 and 20, God reveals Himself through the creation and there is here a universal element: a sovereign God, creator and controller of the universe and holder of authority over the creation.  The men, referred to in verse 18, become inexcusable because God has revealed Himself in creation ‘since the beginning of the world’ both ‘his eternal power’ and ‘his very divine nature’ are being revealed.  Therefore, faced with a fallen humanity, existing in its own unrighteousness, impiety and perverse, Paul does not offer human, ecclesiastical or social solutions.  He presents us with God.  In Pauline theology the solution for mankind is not man, but it is God and His revelation.

In verses 21 to 23, man tries to manipulate God and His truth, as it says ‘did not glorify Him as God, nor gave Him thanks’.  They made altars and fabricated their gods according to their hearts, anxieties and desires; gods who are able to be manipulated and commanded are a reflection of the fallen human will.  Therefore, such men ‘become dull in their very reasons’ changing ‘the glory of incorruptible God to the physical representation of corruptible man, as well as of birds, animals and reptiles.’

Therefore mankind is not condemned for not knowing the biblical history, but for not glorifying God.  Men are not condemned for nor hearing the Word, but because of their sins.
In verses 24 to 27, such men recreated the truth in their world with the colors of sin and injustice and ‘changed the truth of God for a lie, worshipping and serving the creature instead of the Creator.’  God’s reply was His judgment upon men, and the text tells us that He handed men over ‘to uncleanness’ as wells as ‘infamous passions.’

There are some biblical elements in this precious text that help us to think on some principles of contextualization.

1. There is a universal truth:  God is sovereign and deserves all glory.  This truth is the foundation of the proclamation of the Gospel.

2. Intentional sin (perversity and impiety) separates us from God.  There is no way we can introduce God, who seeks to relate to mankind, without also exposing human sin and man’s state of complete lack of salvation.

3. We are culturally idol worshippers.  It is common for fallen man to create an idea of a god that satisfies his anxieties and does not confront him with his sin.  This attitude is found in all of human history and does not contribute to man meeting with the truth of God.

4. The message preached by Paul is contextualized by expounding God in relation to the reality of the life and fall of mankind.  If we soften the message of sin we shall contribute to a misunderstanding of the Gospel.
Biblical Models of contextualization of the message

We may see the subject of contextualization from the biblical experience of Paul in three specific moments.  We are aware that, although Paul was an apostle to the gentiles (Gal. 1:16) he was a devout Jew.  So, from his sermons and teaching we can dig out guiding principles for contextualizing the message in different situations.

It is important to say that Paul preached only “one” Gospel, the Gospel of god. It was not a different contextualized Gospel to different groups (Gl 1:6-9).

We can observe three biblical passages in the book of Acts in which Paul preaches the Gospel. First, to a group consisting only of Jews, then to Jews in the presence of gentiles sympathetic to Judaism and finally to gentiles completely unrelated to the Jewish world or to its Old Testament values.   It will be evident, I believe, that Paul never compromises the authenticity of the biblical message, but communicates it with cultural application in a way that gives good communication using the necessary elements for that.

In Acts 9:19-22 we find Paul in Damascus with the disciples proclaiming Christ in the synagogues, introducing Him as ‘the Son of God’ and ‘confounding the Jews that lived in Damascus, demonstrating that Jesus was the Christ.’  Here we find Paul immediately after being saved, expounding the Scriptures that the Jesus whom he had persecuted in the very recent past was in fact the Son of God.  The Greek expression for ‘demonstrating’ (that Jesus was the promised Messiah), in verse 22, implies a demonstration with objective, visible evidence which gives us the impression that Paul did it using the very sacred text, the Scriptures. His method of preaching followed the same dynamic that he would come to use in his entire ministry among the Jews: Demonstrating from scriptural proofs that Jesus is the awaited Messiah (At 17:1-3).  Paul knew well that if anyone who might show the Jews that a person was the Messiah, he would have to do it by using the Scriptures.  Because of this, his approach was based on the Scriptures, centralized on the promise of the Messiah and develops evidence that this was Jesus.  Paul here spoke to the sons of Israel, that were seen as the sons of the Promise  and therefore in all his preaching he used historical elements and key points in the relationship between God and His chosen people.

In Acts 13:14-16, we find Paul ‘crossing from Perga to Antioch of Pisidia, going to the synagogue on the Sabbath.’  Immediately after this he, raising his hand, started to preach Christ. In this text the group, culturally defined, is the same as before: made up of Jews.  However there was the presence of gentiles sympathetic to Judaism.  Paul begins with one of the principle facts of Jewish history, the exodus.  Then he reminds them of the history of Israel until David, at which point, he intentionally introduces the promise of the Messiah (At 13:23) and links it to Jesus.  In this case, interestingly, Paul preaches Christ as from the ‘God of Israel’, and bases it on the Old Testament to present to them the Messiah, because he knows that the gentiles present there not only know the Old Testament but also seek to follow it.  However, his preaching also has a strong moral and eschatological emphasis, distinguishes it from the first in Acts 9, which was only to the Jews, showing his sensibility for a mixed audience, but giving priority to the Jews. In verse 39, Paul uses an inclusive text (everyone that), that is a counter to  the more exclusive attitude he used for the Jews in the first scene, saying that everyone that believes would be saved. Certainly the gentiles desiring Judaism, from outside the biological history of Israel, would see themselves included: A Jewish Messiah for Jews and Gentiles.

In the third passage, in Acts 17:16-31, Paul preaches Christ to gentiles who had no knowledge of the Scriptures.  Paul is in Athens, the world center of philosophy of the time, and is led to the Areopagus by the Epicureans and Stoics.  At this moment Paul finds himself in a totally pagan environment without any Jewish presuppositions. Paul’s sermon this time does not begin with the Old Testament Scriptures or with the promise of the Messiah.  Paul preaches God to them from the evidence in creation and the unknown god, ‘because this who you worship without knowing is exactly the One I preach to you’ (Acts 17:23).  Then, he went explained the attributes of God who ‘made the world . . . He being the Lord of heaven and earth (v. 24), ‘of one only made the whole human race’ (v. 26), ‘is not far from each one of us’ (v. 27), ‘and requires men that all everywhere repent’ (v. 30), ‘by means of one man  . . . raising Him from the dead’ (v 31). Note that in the verse 24, Paul uses theos to refer to the ‘God who made the world’, being the same term used (theos) to refer to the unknown god. He is using the existing Greek term for god, to present them the revealed God of the Word, Creator of all things.  He made in his message a clear distinction between god and God.  The end of the message is the same: Jesus died and rose again.

Note that to the Jews, Paul speaks to them about the God of the Promise, Who brought them out of Egypt because they knew the God of Scripture and considered themselves sons of the promise.  They understood that God had revealed Himself to their forefathers and gave them the Scriptures.

To the second group Paul speaks to them about the God of the promises and of the history of Israel, but because there was among them gentiles, He spoke to them also of the Messiah who was to come for salvation for everyone who believes. We perceive here in this text that Paul presents to them the Gospel with strong Scriptural evidence, for the Jews, and beyond this also a strong moral and eschatological appeal for the gentiles who knew Judaism.

It the third group, completely gentile, the Messiah who was to come would not communicate any message applicable to their worldview as he was seen only as a Jewish Messiah. They did not have the Scriptures that revealed Him, nor the promises and the covenants.  They did not see themselves as sons of the promise and did not identify themselves with Abraham and Moses.  But they did see themselves as sons of creation. They had tremendous attraction for created things and a fascination for the figure of a Creator. They were hunters of answers, students of religion, any religion.  Therefore Paul preached to them the God of creation, who was before the very nature, who holds the power to make things exist, and sustains humanity and the cosmos.  He spoke to them fully about the attributes of God that He is the only, sovereign, immanent and forgiving One.  Finally he spoke to them about the center of the plan of salvation of God, presenting Him – Jesus -  as the Messiah for all humanity.
Some conclusions drawn from the model of Paul preaching the Gospel for the contextualization of the message:

1. The message, in the process of contextual communication, never must be diluted in its content.  The faithfulness to the Scriptures must be our priority like Paul who spoke of the resurrection of Christ at the Areopagus, although knowing that it would be a controversial theme for the philosophical belief.

2. The target public, their worldview, language and understanding about God are the relevant factors for the presentation of the Gospel.   Paul preaches Christ to the three groups. His sensitivity to the listener guides his approach.

3. The use of symbolic cultural terms that explain the biblical truths may be employed if they present clearly the relevance of the Gospel. Paul made use of the ‘unknown god’ starting from this socio-cultural element to explain, with clarity, the truth of the Gospel.  In other times he did it starting from creation, or from the contrast between God and the gods worshipped, and from the human tension between life and death.

4. The Gospel must be explained starting from itself and not from the culture. The content of the Gospel is not negotiable. When Paul speaks to the Jews about the Messiah and presents Jesus to them, He is there on a secure track of contextualized communication. However, his desire to create a favorable atmosphere for communication does not make him minimize the more confronting truths, that would lead him to be expelled, ignored and questioned later one.

5. The final aim of the presentation of the message is to lead man to the knowledge of Christ and not simply to communicate.  The communication of Paul prepared the hearer for the presentation of the truth, whether for the sons of the promise or the sons of creation.

6. The linguistic and cultural contextualization of the message is an instrument for good communication, which transmits the Gospel in a clear and understandable way. Paul uses it much to speak distinctly to Jews and to gentiles, slaves and freemen, masters and servants. Also Jesus, aiming to change sinners into saved, used in His sermons the lamp that illuminates, the seed in different soils, a field, a coin, the nets breaking full of fish and so on. He did it so that the essential of the Word arrives in an intelligible way to the person, society and culture that hears Him.   

7. The expected result of the contextualized presentation of the Gospel is the repentance of sins and a sincere conversion.  Any presentation of the Gospel that leads a person to feel comfortable in their sinful state is certainly inconclusive and partial.  Paul leaves this very clear when he explains to them a transforming and liberating Gospel.

Biblical Criteria for contextualization

Tippett  emphasizes that when a people begin to see Jesus as personal Savior, and not as a foreign Christ, when they react according to Christian values applied to their own culture and living by the Gospel that makes sense in worldview; when they worship the Lord in accord with the criteria that they understand, then we shall have a church among them.

Although the Gospel has the answer for the conflict of men’s heart, it is in the culture we’ll identify many of the questions. Sensuality, for example, is condemned by the Bible, but each people develop its own cultural understanding of what is or what is not sensual. In some groups in Africa women walk with their breasts uncovered without causing any embarrassment or sensual behavior in others. If it happens in America the reaction of the group would be entirely different.

We can give another example of a western urban man suffering with pneumonia. In the West the illness is treated according to the accumulated knowledge about the illness and the history of healing to prescribe the treatment.  The question that arises, therefore, is mainly how to treat it.  In North Ghana the most important question to be discussed is not how, but why? The cause of the illness is the most relevant question.  The same illness, with the same biological mechanisms, is being dealt with different cultural approaches.  

The understanding of the questions that unsettle the hearts is fundamental for the proclamation of the Gospel in a decoded and transforming form.   

If we were to shut our eyes to the need of contextualization we would compromise the content of the Gospel in its transmission.  

We must, however, perceive that contextualization does not have value in itself.  Its value is proportional to the content to be contextualized.  Nielsen states that Ubanda, one of the many Afro-Brazilian religions that blend African religion with Catholicism and Spiritism in Brazil, is a perfect form of contextualization of religious values.  Brought by the slaves and molded to European Catholicism, it supplied a personal and informal message, and created groups that developed an independent life and creates attractive spectacles for new adepts.  Therefore the question is not just how to contextualize, but especially what to contextualize.  The value is in the Gospel. Contextualization is the tool.

In the attempt to evaluate the understanding and transformation of the Gospel in a cross-cultural or distinct cultural context, there are some questions that we would try to answer facing the situation where the biblical message has already been preached:  

Do they see the Gospel as being a relevant message in their own universe?

Do they understand the Christian principles in relation to the local worldview?

Do they apply the Gospel values as the answer to their daily life conflicts?

Contextualize the Gospel is to translate it in such a way that the lordship of Christ will not be only an abstract principle or a mere imported doctrine, but a determining factor for life in all its dimensions.

For contextualization to happen it is necessary to observe some criteria for the communication of the Gospel:

1. Every communication of the Gospel must be based on biblical principles that are not negotiable by the cultural presuppositions. I understand that the Word of God is as much cross-culturally applicable as it is evident and relevant.  Therefore, it is sufficient for every man, whether urban or tribal, past or present, academic or layman.

2. The communication of the Gospel must be done starting from the observation and evaluation of the exposition of the message that is being communicated. The objective of the constant vigilance is to present the gospel in a form that can be translated culturally, making sense also for the routine of life of the one that hears it.  It is necessary to make the people perceive that God speaks their language, in their culture, in their house, day by day.

3. The rejection of the Gospel must not be seen, by itself, as the equivalent of bad contextualization.  The confrontation of the Word with the culture will occur, as also the rejection of the biblical message.

4. When we elaborate the approach in the presentation of the Gospel, it must be done from the Bible to the culture and not the contrary.

It does not matter whatever else the church planter does, he needs to proclaim the Gospel.  Social work, holistic ministry and cultural understanding will never substitute the clear communication of the Gospel, nor justify the presence of the Church.  The content of the Gospel presented in every and all CP ministry must include: a) God as Creator and Sovereign One (Eph. 1:3-6); b) Sin as the source of separation between man and God (Eph. 2:5); c) Jesus, His cross and resurrection as the historical and central plan of God for redemption of mankind (Heb. 1:1-4); d) The Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of the Promise and the One leading the Church to the final day.

Summing up, we should evaluate our evangelistic and missionary activity in the light of what is theologically grounded and not only in what is successful, whether from the point of view of the communication of the message or the formation of a local church. At the same time, it must be seen to be something applicable, relevant and reproducible to the ones who hear it.

It is well known among church planters that syncretism is a result of the absence or wrong contextualization. Among many fears, I believe church planters fear more a syncretic result than no results at all.

In the missiological sphere it is noticeable that it is a theme that produces endless debates seeking ways on how to approach it.  The question is: What to do with a syncretistic church? What attitude to take when this syncretistic church is the only one, or the most active, evangelical church in the region, people group or country? Traditionally the investment in the teaching of the Word and the attempt to train mature leaders has been the solution proposed in this kind of situations.  Personally, I believe that we must treat the Christian involved in syncretism in the same way as an unbeliever. In other words, seek to keep him near, attracted by what he knows or wants to know of the Gospel, and teach him the Word.  It is certain, however, that to re-evangelize a syncretistic church is a harder task than to plant a new church.  

Why does syncretism occur even among those who fear it? Many times missionaries need to return before ending their ministry in a group or area leaving behind unfinished teachings. Others are expelled from the country that is involved in wars, political change etc. Or perhaps there are many evangelists but a lack of teachers and trainers in the CP team. The fact is that, overall, I want to believe the reason causing an immature syncretic church is the lack of teaching. Obviously I don’t include here the growing syncretic Christianity, with pluralistic, commercialized and non-dogmatic theology.  I am speaking about serious movements, well-founded and with a good biblical theology.  In this case it is worthwhile to invest some more, to teach some more, and to develop a missionary CP team concentrating on the teaching of the Word.  A syncretistic church, as much as a pagan community, is able to be transformed by the power of the Gospel.