In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul speaks to the Church in Corinth and says this:
“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 as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) 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 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Paul wanted to make Jesus known to everyone around him. After all, it’s what Jesus called us to do in the Great Commission.
But what Paul recognized is that the people around him may connect with the gospel in different ways. Considering the variety of life experiences and cultural perspectives that surrounded him, Paul worked to move towards people, relating to them as much as possible – but not sacrificing the gospel message – so that more people could be won for the kingdom.
This is the very heart behind the contextualization of the gospel.
When we make an effort to put the gospel into someone’s own context, we break barriers, close cultural gaps, increase accessibility and in turn, give more people the opportunity to know Jesus.
Contextualization is a critical part of sharing the gospel cross-culturally. And thankfully, it’s been modeled to us throughout Scripture and throughout the history of the church.
Elizabeth Schenkel, an executive film producer with Jesus Film Project®, says that in her opinion, the first example of Christian contextualization we can look to is Jesus Himself.
“He came from heaven to earth – the largest cultural gap ever. He skillfully utilized familiar themes: agricultural themes, fishing themes, military themes. He studied His context for 30 years before opening His mouth. And then He had it. He knocked it out of the park.”
In fact, those who study Scripture nowadays often must work to understand the context Jesus was speaking in. From speaking about fishing to mustard seeds to wineskins, Jesus often taught using topics that were familiar to the people around Him and the context in which they lived.
Later on, Paul used a similar strategy in his own ministry, leaning on the contexts of the people around him. He referenced local architecture and even quotes from ungodly Greek poets (Acts 17:28), making connections that would help others relate to what he was sharing.
The examples of Jesus and Paul show us how to be learners of the world around us so we can be more effective ministers to the world around us.
Missionary Hudson Taylor lived by these examples in his work overseas in the 1800s. He entered into a new context with a true spirit of learning, even adopting the traditional style of clothing worn in the region and studying the local language. His heart for contextualization and thoughtful care for the culture of East Asia propelled ministry forward in the years thereafter.
Schenkel says, “On missions, we have to go as students. As listeners. We humble ourselves and we ask for help. We don’t go charging in thinking we have all the answers because we don’t.”
This mindset is critical to remember, as there are so many ways we may unknowingly bring our own cultural backgrounds and assumptions as we minister in other cultures. And as Christians, it can be especially challenging when we know we have a life-altering message to share. But we can’t skip the step of learning about the people we’re attempting to reach, people with unique experiences and cultural backgrounds, people made and loved by God.
Josh Newell, executive director of Jesus Film Project, says this:
“The global mission field is full of audiences that have distinct cares and beliefs – and global proclaimers of Jesus need to not only understand those cares and beliefs but speak in such a way that introduces the King in ways audiences can hear.”
Today, as we reach people in new, digital ways, the work of contextualization is as important as ever. At Jesus Film Project, we continue to use film to reach people with the story of Jesus in a medium they’re familiar with. Our work to meet people in the context of their heart language continues on too, with almost 1,900 language versions of the JESUS film now available.
Over our 40 years of ministry, we’ve seen millions touched as they hear the words of Jesus in the language they think, dream, and pray in. It’s the power of contextualization observed that motivates us to keep finding new and relevant ways to share the gospel.
Some of our newest efforts include animated films to connect with the next generation, films designed to show Christ’s care for women, short films made friendly for social media, and films that answer key questions about Christianity from other religious backgrounds.
We’ve also embraced outreach strategies that allow our staff to do ministry in familiar, comfortable environments for the people we’re building relationships with.
One of our mission trip leaders recalls a time she was visiting a country with a highly atheist spiritual climate. People were uninterested in hearing about the gospel, and certainly wouldn’t attend an outreach in a church building. So alongside local ministers, the team hosted an event in a local coffee shop, a space that felt like neutral ground.
The team was able to make meaningful connections and even meet up with some of the attendees in the days following the event for spiritual conversations. Strategies like these can seem out of the box but have proven effective in places around the globe.
Of course, partnership will continue to be central to the work of contextualization as well, relying on the knowledge and instincts of those who know a culture better than we do. It’s through trusting relationships within the body of Christ and a dependence on God that we can strive to see every tribe, tongue, and nation reached with the gospel message.
At the heart of it all, Schenkel describes the importance of asking the simple question, “What would serve this person who doesn’t yet know Christ?”
Newell says, “It takes time and discernment, but the love demonstrated by understanding an audience and speaking directly to them is the way of Jesus.”
The work of contextualization continues. As we follow in this way of Jesus, we remember the words He spoke in the Great Commission: “Go into all the earth and preach the gospel to all creation.” These words drive us forward, so that everyone, everywhere, has the opportunity to know Jesus.
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