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Home School Of Preaching Contextualization of the Gospel

Contextualization of the Gospel

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Contextualization of the Gospel

Jeff Vanderstelt


Contextualization is adapting the declaration and demonstration of the
gospel in culturally adaptable forms, holding to the essence of the
gospel at the same time.

“I see contextualization is adapting my communication of the gospel without
changing its essential character.”1
Tim Keller


Consider Jesus…The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…
* The true God and the essence of the gospel took on bodily form
* He came into a particular culture in a particular time in a
* particular form
* He was a male, a Jew, a part of the working class
* He spent 30 years living in and learning the culture before he
started his public ministry
Then before he turned the mission over to his disciples he said, “As
the Father has sent me, I am sending you.2”

Examples of Contextualization from Paul in Acts
* Acts 13:13-52 – In a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch to those who believed in the God of the Bible
* Acts 14:8-20 – In Lystra with a pagan, blue-collar crowd Authority
» Synagogue – Scripture and John the Baptist
» Pagans – General Revelation – Creation
» Synagogue – He ignores doctrine of God and goes straight to Christ
» Pagans – He works with the very concept of God (In Acts 17
as well)
» Synagogue – You need Christ to justify you (you’re not good enough)
» Pagans – Turn from worthless idols that don’t really provide for you or give you joy
In Common
» God is good and powerful (13:16-22; 14:17)
» They are trying to save themselves and it won’t work (13:39; 14:15)
» God has broken into history to accomplish our salvation – they don’t need to earn it
* Acts 16:1-5 - Paul's circumcision of Timothy so as not to offend those he was trying to reach (This is good example in light of the fact that Paul so vehemently opposed mandatory circumcision previously)

Mission implies Contextualization

There is no such thing as a non-contextualized Christianity. The minute
you decide to minister the gospel you begin to ‘incarnate’, like Jesus
did. And we, like he did, come bringing the gospel cloaked in our
specific make-up, experiences, backgrounds, values and view
points…basically we bring our SPECIFIC gospel informed culture into a
culture. Therefore, the very forms that we ministry with and the
practices that we engage in will have a Biblical form or shape AND a
cultural form or shape.

“Mission is the mother of theology”3
Martin Kahler

Each time we give form or shape to the gospel, we are demonstrating our
theology in a particular way in a particular context. This means we are
always doing contextualization – intentionally or unintentionally –
because we are always demonstrating what we believe about God

“True theology is the attempt on the part of the church to explain and
interpret the meaning of the gospel for its own life and to answer questions
raised by the Christian faith, using the thought, values, and categories of
truth which are authentic to that place and time.”4
Dean S. Gilliand


To effectively contextualized the gospel in a particular culture then


1. Personal

» You are bringing your own culture
» You must become aware of who you are and how your unique makeup shapes the declaration and demonstration of the gospel
» Pay close attention to your personal preferences as you make
decisions about how to engage the culture
» You also come with a gospel distortion (Truth or Grace emphasis) – this means you will need to continue to be transform by the gospel (see Newbigin Gauntlet)

» Let others speak into your life regarding how you are
perceived by those you are seeking to engage – this requires

2. Church Culture
» The people who have formed the local expression of the Church you lead or participate in also have a culture
» Are you aware of its uniqueness and how it differs or is similar to your culture?
» What practices or forms have you adopted that were once timely and culturally appropriate, but are now ineffective?
» Do you know the difference between the essentials and unessentials?
» What is the perception in the community of your Church culture?
» Again listen well in regards to how you are being perceived

3. Community Culture

» The larger community/city you live in has a culture that permeates
» There are also a large diversity of cultures within it
» Part of the job of the missionary is to discern what unique cultures you are being sent to first – this may be determined by who God has granted you favor with or like (i.e. the women praying by the river in Acts 16 )

This does not mean we are to limit our reach to only one
particular culture – the kingdom of God is not displayed
through homogeneity, but through the diversity of cultures
being redeemed
» Get to know the people within your city – neighbors, city
officials, leaders in business, education, arts…find out who
the influencers are and why
» Get to know the story/stories of your city – What has shaped
it over the years? What are its wounds? What are it’s strengths?


We need to exegete…culture in the same way that missionaries have been so good
at doing with diverse tribal culture of previously unreached people. We need to
exegete…the themes of Rolling Stones…, Dennis Rodman, Madonna, (and) David
Letterman…We need to comprehend that the Spirit of the Living God is at work in
these cultural expressions, preparing the hearts of men and women to receive
the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have to find, in good missionary fashion, those
motifs and themes that connect with the truths of the gospel. We need to learn
how to proclaim, “That which you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.”
This is the missionary vision at its best.5
Craig Van Gelder

Your goal is to understand the meanings of cultural patterns, rhythms
and systems. You want to learn the story and how the gospel completes
the narrative of the culture.

Questions to ask in this process:
* What are the emotional needs of the elderly, families, teens, singles, men, women, children?
* What are the social, economic or educational needs of the same?
* What are the flaws and difficulties with the systems of the
* community?
* What is their worldview?
* What redemptive analogies best fit this culture?
* What does this culture understand about the basic components of
* the gospel story?
* What questions are being asked in the culture that point to their need for the gospel?

You will have to do more than just demographic studies. You have
to dig deeper into your community and become a part of it yourself –
this means stepping into the rhythms of your culture on a regular basis


As you are transformed by the gospel and sent into your culture, your
job is to bring the embodiment of the gospel to you culture in forms
that are adapted to address the gospel “holes” in their stories so as
to show them that their story can only be completed through the person
and work of Jesus Christ.

Adapting a theology of mission from missiologist Leslie Newbigin,
George Hunsberber, develops 3 relationships that must occur between the
church, gospel and culture:

Redemption Transformation
Axis Axis


Contextualization includes Proclamation and Demonstration

1. Proclamation
God’s Story – connect the text or topic within the overarching story.

Ed Clowney points out that if we ever tell a particular Bible story without putting it into the overall main Bible story (about Christ), we actually change the meaning of the particular event for us. It becomes a moralistic exhortation to 'try harder' rather than a call. There is, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what he has done?

Method: Link God’s Story to the People’s Story
– How do the gospel
themes address your culture's hopes, fears, tensions? (1) Begin with
familiar and show how the gospel confirms what is strong and good in
the culture. Know the people's story extremely well. Show your
sympathy with it. (2) But use the gospel to challenge and destabilize
common cultural assumptions at points that they are weak
or inadequate. (3) Finally, comfort and galvanize with the promises
of the gospel. Show them that they can't finish their own story
without God in Christ.
(Taken from Tim Keller’s article on being context sensitive7)

2. Demonstration

It’s interesting to note that in the Acts 16 passage only one of the
three representative conversions took place through preaching. The
other two are through a power encounter and the quality of godly
character observed in community.

Maybe this is why Peter encourages the believers to “Always be
prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the
reason for the hope that you have.”8

Before and after this Peter is encouraging the believers to live
lives that are full of good deeds and effectively display Christ
through actions.

Good Deeds: The Active Medium of the Gospel – The good news that
Jesus came to preach had physically observable results (healings,
miracles, loving the outcasts, etc…)
What would good news look like to your community? What are the
‘signs of the kingdom’ in your culture?

A New Humanity: The Visible Presence – The outcome of the gospel is
a people who live together in new ways (eating together, praying
together, bearing each other’s burdens, sharing all they have with
one another etc…)

What forms of visible expression does the church need to embody
together to display the new humanity God is creating in this

Contextualization must continue to be informed by the Gospel and
Mission of God so that we don’t over adapt to our culture around us,
buying into it’s idols, and we don’t under adapt to the culture, buying
into the idols of our own Christian culture.

Contextualization [is] a delicate enterprise if ever there was one…the
evangelist and mission strategist stand on a razor’s edge, aware that to fall
off on either side has terrible consequences…Fall to the right and you end in
obscurantism, so attached to your conventional ways of practicing and teaching
the faith that you veil its truth and power from those who are trying to see it
through very different eyes. Slip to the left and you tumble into syncretism,
so vulnerable to the impact of paganism in its multiplicity of forms that you
compromise the uniqueness of Christ and concoct “another gospel which is not a
Dean S. Gilliand

Questions to ask

1. What are the barriers to the gospel in your culture?
2. What forms might the Church take in your culture to better embody
the Gospel?
3. What do we have in common and how might our particular uniqueness
lead us to adopt different forms?
4. What have you learned about contextualizing the gospel that you
could share with others?


John 20:21
3 Martin Kahler as quoted in McKaughan, O’Brien, and O’Brien, Choosing a Future for U.S. Missions, 21.
4 Dean S. Gilliand, “Contextual Theology as Incarnation Mission,” in the The World Among Us, p10-11
5 Craig Van Gelder, ed., Confident Witness – Changing World (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1999), 14-15
6 George R. Hunsberger, “The Newbigin Gauntlet,” in The Church between Gospel and Culture,
1 Peter 3:15
9 Dean S. Gilliand, “Contextual Theology as Incarnation Mission,” in the The World Among Us (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1989), vii.

Additional Resources for Demographic/Cultural Research:


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