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Why contextualize? That truth may be understood and take root

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

by Corrie M., International Director, Entrust Equipping Women

McDonald's dessert in Japan

If you have been to McDonald’s in Italy, Chile or Egypt, you have noticed intriguing differences in the menu. In Italy, you may feel as though you have stepped into a chic coffee shop, replete with an espresso bar and assortment of pastries. In Chile, the popular fried and filled pastry, the empanada, is a desired item. In Egypt, you might enjoy a McArabia Pita, filled with meats other than the haram (forbidden) pork, which is considered unclean in that part of the world.

If you wandered into any McDonald’s across the globe or simply Googled the menu in each country, you would see that the menu reflects the values in each culture. Why does McDonald’s take the time to study the values that make each culture unique? While it is certainly market driven, the fact is, McDonald’s cuisine would simply not be received if they did not take the time to understand cultural values. 

If taking time to understand cultural values is important for physical cuisine to be received and take root culturally, think how much more significant it is when applied to spiritual nourishment. Church planter and missiologist Ed Stetzer says we must “enable insofar as it is humanly possible, an understanding of what it means that Jesus Christ and the Word is authentically experienced in each and every situation.” That process is called contextualization. Christ and his word are unchanging, yet the way they are understood and applied may look different in each culture.  

Let’s consider an example.

While doing a Bible conference in a village near Vladimir, Russia, an American pastor talked about how God provides for our needs. He passionately shared how his family needed a second car so his wife could take the kids to events during the day. He went on to say that through prayer, they had seen God’s faithful provision. At some point, during the talk, a discussion erupted in Russian among some in the congregation about this pastor’s illustration. They were upset that the pastor was leading the congregation to expect material excess from God. This was a village where very few even owned one vehicle, let alone two.

The pastor’s lack of sensitivity to the cultural realities in his illustration caused his listeners to miss the point of his talk entirely. The principle of God’s faithfulness as a provider was biblical, but the suggestion that a second car was a need, was not palatable to this group of individuals. If this pastor had taken time to study the culture or even to ask a local person to review his message, he may have found an illustration that resonated deeply with the hearts of this group. 

While we may expect those in another country to think differently than we do, we do not have to go too far outside our homes to encounter people whose understandings vary from our own. From views on modesty to family life to the role of government, our neighbors may see the world very differently than we do. A further complication is that groups of individuals may have the same goal, but remarkably diverse beliefs about achieving that goal.

Most people throughout the world view the current pandemic as a negative event and desire to see an end to the widespread suffering. We see, however, vastly differing views on how to obtain that goal. Countries like Sweden have largely continued with business as usual, believing that shutting down the economy would be even more detrimental than allowing the pandemic to take its course. Other countries have taken the approach of setting legislation requiring all individuals to quarantine at home; people are fined large sums of money if they exit their homes for frivolous reasons.  

Even Christians are widely divided on whether we should be wearing face masks. Some view it as a way to protect others and love the most vulnerable. Other Christians believe that not wearing face masks is a part of their freedoms and that the government has no right to dictate those freedoms. If we assumed that we had the same beliefs because we shared the same goal, our assumption would be completely misguided. 

Our beliefs and ideas on how life works influence the way we seek solutions. Contextualization is not just for Christ-followers working internationally. It is necessary for all of us as we interact with our neighbors and communities. We need to be students of the culture in which we find ourselves, to bring the gospel in a way that is understood and can take root. A Fuller seminary professor and Entrust team leader in Asia encourages us to “bridge cultural differences in the way we communicate, the way we evaluate our values and behaviors, and the way we align our cultures with kingdom principles.”

What are some ways Entrust seeks to bridge cultural differences as we equip leaders cross-culturally?

First, we ask key questions of those working within the culture.

When we received an invitation to bring Entrust trainings to the Middle East in 2017, a group from Entrust visited there, sharing a long weekend with some key leaders. We asked a lot of questions to determine both the resources and needs within the culture, as well as the key pressures and realities facing that culture. One of those questions was, “What does a Christ-follower need to know, be and do in this culture?”

Some of their answers might surprise you. We learned it is essential for a new disciple to learn how to hear the Holy Spirit. While this is important for any believer, it’s seen as especially important in the Middle East because the believer who lacks discernment could put the whole community of believers at risk. Other key pieces that emerged are the societal and familial pressure against conversions to Christianity, the value of shame and honor within the culture, and the fatalistic attitudes towards change. Slowly, a picture of the culture emerged that allowed us – the nationals and our group — to see some of the key needs in this community. Asking those questions allowed us to think about biblical principles that address the key questions and needs in that culture.