by Steven, serving with Entrust in Russia
Contextualization is an attempt to present an idea, such as the gospel, in such a way that it is more easily understood and accepted in a particular context or culture. In my experience in the former Soviet Union, evangelicals often make two mistakes relating to contextualization. First, in an era of the internet and jet travel, movement of information is so quick that often the message bearer doesn’t take the time to think contextually, or even learn what this means. He or she blazes into a new culture and preaches the “Western Solution” that worked in their particular context. Afterwards, the national leaders are left to interpret the message for their context.
The second common error is committed by well-studied and well-intentioned students and mission organizations that study culture and develop a culturally related plan as they sit in classrooms or boardrooms in their home country. The problem with this is that a contextualized approach to ministry needs to be done in context. Each context, which is often smaller than a country or a people group, has its own specific history and its own current felt needs that determine what will speak to them. Thus, to preach or teach contextually one actually needs to come and live in the particular context.
In much of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, God opened people’s hearts to such an extent that they would accept almost any manner of preaching. Even though “mistakes” were made in the presentation, God caused the growth. (1 Cor 3:6-7) However, since then, it has become harder to find an attentive ear or interested soul. In an attempt to contextualize in the early 2000s, my wife and I observed and prayed about what needs and open doors existed in our context that would give our church more access to the community’s heart. In addition, we looked at our skills, gift and interests to see what would match up with the doors God was opening. This latter step is often overlooked but is essential for longevity, genuineness and enjoyment. For us the match was “family ministries.”
As we held our early “test” seminars on marriage and on raising small kids, and when the divorce rate was over 80%, we realized that people were looking for help in making their families work and that there were few local resources available. We also realized that as we talked about conflict resolution in marriage relationships, that it was easy to talk about the need for forgiveness and a better relationship with our heavenly Father. Individuals, who are usually wary to talk about “religion,” are open to talk with friends who have helped them build a better relationship with their children or spouse. Over our 15 years of teaching and counseling on family, we have regularly walked through doors that only God could have opened, furthering our belief that we are “contextualized” in a way that the Lord desires and he provided.
In an effort to be honest and transparent, I would like to share the following. Over the years, my wife and I have been able to share a little of the gospel to thousands and the complete gospel with hundreds thanks to a contextualized approach focused on the family. However, we have not seen many come to Christ. At times, this disappoints us. Yet, as I read 1 Cor. 3:5, I am convinced that we have been faithful “as the Lord gave opportunity.” Maybe that is what contextualization is: thoughtfully and prayerfully taking the opportunities that the Lord gives in a certain context. Then we trust God who causes the growth.
This article first appeared in the summer 2018 Engage.