Faithful Contextualization in Missions

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Editorial Comment: This post is the fifth of 10 articles explaining Reaching & Teaching’s 10 Missiological Distinctives.


We believe God’s Word and Christ’s lordship connect with and confront all human cultures; we seek to communicate the gospel in contextually appropriate ways and in diverse languages without fundamentally altering its content.

Contextualization is essential for missions. When we take the message of Christ to a different culture, we must learn its language, values, and patterns of life. As missionaries, we translate our speech and adapt our behavior to make God’s Word understandable and accessible.

The goal of contextualization is to remove barriers to the gospel through clear communication (Col. 4:4). That doesn’t mean our purpose is to remove the offense of Christ. Missionaries must not revise or manipulate the unchangeable and transcultural truth of Scripture in order to make the gospel more palatable. Instead, like the Apostle Paul, we aim for an “open statement of the truth” (2 Cor. 4:2).

In contemporary missions practice and strategy, the faithful communication of the biblical message can be threatened by both over-contextualization and under-contextualization, resulting in either compromise or incoherence. To avoid these errors, we should strive to present the gospel in a way that both connects with and confronts every human culture.

Missionary Adaptation

At its heart, contextualization is the work of communicating God’s Word in a way that’s clear and compelling. The most common way to do this is by connecting with and confronting the beliefs, values, and assumptions of the local culture. While the term “contextualization” emerged as recently as the 1970s, the concept is rooted in Scripture. Perhaps the clearest biblical basis for contextualization is 1 Corinthians 9:19–23. There, Paul explains that he becomes like Jews to win Jews and like Gentiles (those not under the law) to win Gentiles.

As is clear from this passage, Paul is willing to adapt his behavior based on his circumstances. He does this with a clear purpose: so that he “might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). In other words, he’s able to change his lifestyle depending on the surrounding culture (whether among Jews or Greeks) to increase the effectiveness of his ministry in that community.

Gospel work is not static. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all method for Christian ministry. Yes, the Bible presents us with universal truths and transcultural standards. Yet there are many areas where Scripture gives us the freedom and flexibility to adapt, where it’s perfectly appropriate for the missionary to accommodate to the surrounding culture.

In the case of Paul’s ministry, we can observe how he was willing to adapt as a missionary in order to see the gospel spread among diverse peoples. For example, he would never require Gentiles to practice Jewish rites of worship. However, Paul himself could follow Jewish customs (Acts 21:23–26) and even encourage his missionary coworkers to do the same (Acts 16:3) to avoid undue offense in a Jewish context. Nevertheless, if observing Jewish food laws, holy days, or circumcision was ever equated with the gospel or seen as necessary for Gentiles to acquire status in Christ’s kingdom, Paul would denounce their practice in the strongest of terms (Gal. 5:2).

Cross-Cultural Witness

However, there’s more to contextualization than simply modifying one’s behavior; missionaries must also adapt their witness. In the apostolic example in the book of Acts, we’re given a clear picture of what contextualized evangelism looks like.

When speaking to Jews, the apostles and their associates present the gospel in a way that relies heavily on the history of Israel and the Hebrew Scriptures (Acts 2; 7; 13). Whether it’s Peter, Stephen, or Paul, they connect with their Jewish audience through their shared history and culture. More specifically, they seek to demonstrate that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and God’s promises. They also confront the Jews for rejecting their Messiah much like they rejected God’s prophets. Therefore, they call on their kinsman to repent and be saved.

When speaking to Gentiles, the apostles take a different approach (Acts 10; 17). They often acknowledge points of contact with local beliefs or customs. But then they transition to introduce God as the good Creator and gracious Sustainer of all peoples. They speak of Jesus: his wonderful life, his amazing miracles, and ultimately his powerful resurrection from the dead. They present him as the Lord of all who demands their worship and who will come to judge the living and the dead. Therefore, they call Gentiles to turn from idols to serve the living God.

What these observations reveal is that our communication of the gospel itself can and must be contextualized. The message of Christ is transcultural and translatable. We can and should adapt it according to our audience—even adjusting our presentation from person to person. Jesus’s interactions with Nicodemus (John 3) and the woman from Samaria (John 4) are another simple example of this.

Connect and Confront

While we could trace the apostles’ different approaches to evangelism based on their context, one of the consistent features of their method is worth mentioning. The apostles (and Jesus, for that matter) seek both to connect with and confront their hearers. They find a point of contact—such as a shared belief or value or desire—and use it to appeal to their audience. Next, they challenge the errors, inconsistencies, and idolatries within those cultural frameworks.

Because of our shared humanity, as well as general revelation and common grace, we believe the gospel connects with every human culture. According to Paul, all non-Christians have a knowledge of God through creation and conscience (Rom. 1–2). But they respond to that knowledge by suppressing it and exchanging the truth for a lie. The various religions of the world are in essence an idolatrous refashioning of God’s revelation.[1]

Another way of saying that is, at their core, all religions contain some truth. But that truth is distorted. Their systems of belief are typically built on desires that are God-given and good, but they seek to fulfill them in wrong ways. This suggests that the gospel can tap into the beliefs of a given culture while also tearing down its idols. It simultaneously fulfills and subverts the values and longings of any and every culture.

We can see this phenomenon perhaps most clearly in the Corinthian correspondence, where Paul explains how the gospel operates within Jewish and Greek cultures respectively. Jews seek signs. They want demonstrations of power. Meanwhile, Greeks seek wisdom. They want demonstrations of intellect (1 Cor. 1:22–23). And the gospel of Christ crucified confronts both. To the Jews, the cross looks like weakness. To the Gentiles, it looks like foolishness.

However, the gospel does more than undermine the value structures of those societies. It simultaneously fulfills their longings. To Jews and Greeks who are called by God, the weak cross becomes the power of God, and the foolish cross becomes the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 2:24). As it turns out, the gospel upends the cultural assumptions that made it seem implausible in the first place, and then supplies the very things those cultures pursued, namely power and wisdom.

Clear and Compelling

For the missionary, the goal is to know the host culture well enough—understanding its heart language and heart idolatries—to communicate the gospel compellingly. In most places around the world, this requires an intense focus on learning the local language, including thought patterns, idiomatic expressions, and communication styles. More than anything else, language acquisition is the path to cultural and relational fluency.

As a missions organization, we prioritize understanding and speaking in the vernacular of the locals. This means some of our missionaries will be able to operate in their first language. Most will need to learn a second language. Meanwhile, some will acquire a national or trade language (such as Russian or French) on the path to learning a third language—the heart language of the people among whom they live and work.

Learning to speak clearly in the local language is a significant step toward contextualization. However, the ultimate goal is cultural fluency that allows the missionary to present Christ in a compelling manner. Ideally, a missionary will eventually be able, like the apostle Paul, to explain God’s Word persuasively by quoting local sources, citing cultural proverbs, and employing contextualized illustrations.

This kind of cultural fluency is important for more than just evangelism; it informs ongoing discipleship. A cursory glance at Paul’s letters shows he was familiar with his readers’ real-life experiences in agriculture, industry, domestic life, civil government, sports, and the military. For example, Paul could take a social phenomenon like a Roman military procession and use it to illustrate his teaching (2 Cor. 2:14). In that specific analogy, he connects with the Corinthians’ cultural love of power, then turns their desire on its head, showing how Christ leads his people to victory through suffering.[2] Like his evangelistic method, Paul’s contextualized discipleship simultaneously fulfills and subverts the Corinthians’ cultural desires.

Why Contextualize?

By contextualizing our communication this way, whether in evangelism or discipleship, we make the Christian message relatable, understandable, and accessible to new cultures. We help people realize that Christianity isn’t native to any one people or place. Our God isn’t a territorial deity, and Christianity isn’t a Jewish—and certainly not an American—religion. Through faithful contextualization, we show that the gospel is both global and local.

But if we fail to contextualize sufficiently, or under-contextualize, we run the risk of people rejecting the gospel simply because they don’t understand it, or because they don’t see how it answers the burning questions of their culture. In such cases, it’s possible that some would take the name “Christian” or accept baptism without truly knowing what that means, resulting in a cultural religion with no connection to the true gospel. Historically, this has been a problem in places such as Latin America.

Meanwhile, if we appeal to the culture without addressing its idolatries, or over-contextualize, we run the risk of a more overt syncretism. We can adapt God’s Word so much that we lose its essential message and meaning. In such cases, the DNA of Christianity can be fundamentally altered. While expressions of Christian faith may make inroads into a new culture, they will be powerless to transform the people and practices within that culture. The worship of Christ may be seen as nothing more than an optional or beneficial add-on to the worship of other gods.

Ironically, both over-contextualizing and under-contextualizing can lead to theological syncretism. And perhaps most concerning of all, these forms of syncretism can immunize individuals and communities against genuine Christianity for generations. People may assume they know the gospel—or even that they’re Christians—when they’ve never been confronted with the Word of God nor been truly converted to Christ. Yes, they may have incorporated some residue of Christianity into their existing beliefs, but they’ve never come under the lordship of Christ.

This is why we believe contextualization is so important. Rightly done, it elevates Christ and his transcultural message. Contextualization also humbles the missionary as we adapt our communication and behavior, which in turn honors the diverse peoples and cultures we’re trying to reach. Ultimately, we believe faithful contextualization is crucial because it makes the gospel of Christ clear and compelling to those who need to hear and, by God’s grace, leads to true and lasting gospel transformation in a local culture.

[1] I’m indebted to Daniel Strange for this idea, as well as that of “subversive fulfillment.” See Daniel Strange, Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).

[2] See Scott Hafemann, 2 Corinthians: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 106–12.

Elliot Clark

Elliot Clark has served in cross-cultural ministry since 2009, first as a church planter in Central Asia, and then as a teacher equipping international church leaders. In 2023, he joined Reaching & Teaching. He is the author of Evangelism as Exiles (TGC, 2019) and Mission Affirmed (Crossway, 2022).

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