I stood out like a sore thumb. There would be no difficulty in finding Waldo or Carol in this picture. I was the ivory white girl among a choir of black Ivorians. We all dressed the same and sang the hymns in the same language. I even swayed (I thought) to the same to the music, but I could never fully fit in to my adopted culture, because I was obviously “not from these parts.”
What do you do with contextualization frustration in mission service?
The inability to fit in or become, as Paul said, “all things to all men” leads many cross-cultural workers to give up and head home. Contextualization is a huge topic in mission circles, but what if it just doesn’t work? What if I lose myself in my efforts to share the gospel to this people group? What if it just hurts too much to break through to this new culture?
When we try to bring the gospel and ourselves into a new context, we must realize there will be limits to both. Contextualizing both the message and the messenger should never change the core essence of either. I would never be a hundred percent Ivoirian, because I am a Tennessee native at the heart. I was born into a white, American, Christian, English-speaking home, and that is in my physical/social DNA so-to-speak. On top of that, add my personal faith decision to trust Christ as my Lord and Savior at the age of eight, and you have an entire life built on a spiritual foundation and Christian worldview. While my rough edges can be trimmed to live and survive in my new culture, I’m still who I am in my heart.
The same for the message of the gospel. Spoken in any language of the world, using words hearers can understand and grasp, the essence of the message remains one which will either be rejected or accepted: Jesus Christ, Son of God, came, died for our sins, rose again on the third day, and is now standing at the right hand of God. This message will always be radically new for anyone who has never heard it before, because it brings a radical change that requires a step of faith.
What is the purpose of contextualization in the first place?
Bringing context to myself and the message I bear should always be to simply open doors, build bridges, and lay the groundwork for the gospel to be heard and shared, nothing more. We can avoid frustration in our efforts to contextualize by remembering why we want to in the first place. If cooking a meal that will be acceptable to the palates of my guests also makes their ears more open to the words I’ll share about Jesus, then I learn to cook what they like. If they eat anything and everything, then it doesn’t matter. They’ll enjoy a good American hamburger (an easy fix for me) and be open to hearing how Jesus is the bread of life.
If wearing long sleeves and covering my ankles makes a Muslim husband allow me to visit his wife, then I’ll do it for the opportunity to have a relationship with this woman that may open doors to witness. However, sometimes a man is looking to immigrate and wants his wife to learn English from a real American. If that’s the case, then I speak English and find ways to share about Christ through an ESL lesson.
Becoming all things to all men, doesn’t always mean I become like them but that I meet a specific need to walk through a door to witness.
Finding balance helps us find home in service.
Efforts to contextualize to the extreme can lead to losing self and a sense of home in cross-cultural service. Think of ways you can find balance in your desire to put yourself and the message of Christ in context with your people group. I believe the thing that leads to our greatest acceptance by the people groups we serve is love. When I genuinely love them, they will easily forgive my mistakes with their language, the color of my skin, or the social faux-pas I just made. They will laugh it off as being a mistake foreigners make, but love me despite them, because I love them and am making an effort.
Cut yourself some slack and stand back to gain perspective in your desire to be all things to all men for the sake of the gospel. As radical people following a radical Savior, we will always be a little off in how we fit in. Press on, remembering Jesus was rejected by his own, but his message and life changed the world!
Grace and Peace
To find out more about contextualization, check out my latest book Not in Kansas Anymore: Finding Home in Cross-Cultural Service. It’s available in e-book and paperback formats.