Why contextualize? That truth may be understood and take root

by Corrie McCann, International Director, WWMT

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. 

Asking questions of the culture also impacts the ways we approach the training experience in the region. For example, we honor breaks for chai (local tea), as that is an extremely important part of the culture. The Middle East is an oral culture, so we have found that drama and narration of biblical scenes work well. Since shame is so strong within the culture, we encourage participants to respond in groups of two for more vulnerable questions, prior to speaking in front of the group.


As relationships often trump the value of punctuality, we ask the training participants to develop guidelines as to how the group will relate with one another, including their preparation level and punctuality expectations. Honoring key cultural values and learning processes prepares the way for the biblical messages of scripture to be heard. 

Second, we explore how teams of nationals and ministry workers in a given country can collaborate to adapt curriculum so that it is relevant to the culture.


An East African team, consisting of nationals and ministry workers who have completed our core ministry training, are now working together to form a contextual version of our popular Developing a Discerning Heart course. The mix of nationals and expatriate workers is beneficial. Nationals know their culture deeply and can offer illustrations, stories and idioms that are meaningful within the culture. Ministry workers have the advantage of coming from outside the culture, and therefore may notice local values that the national is too close to the culture to see. 


The East African team replaced some stories with all-African stories in our contextual version. For example, in the original version of DDH, we discussed the concept of underlying beliefs that are like an iceberg, in that they lie below the surface and impact our choices. This team decided a more fitting example would be a hippo. Everyone in Africa knows you can only see the nose of a hippo above the water, but that hippo’s body is a huge mass below the surface that can be quite threatening. Rather than using the illustration of a puzzle to speak of the jumbled pieces of our lives that form a story, they chose to use yarn, a much more common item in Africa. The resulting contextualized training, developed through a team approach, is currently being field-tested in Zambia. Recently, one Zambian woman taking the new contextualized course laughed and cried as she related with the African story saying, "Lusa's story is MY story, and now God is showing me new things about my identity in Christ!"


The more our illustrations, our stories and our approach to others is tailored toward how people in a certain culture think and what they deem important, the more God is able to target hearts and minds with truth and bring about heart transformation.


Remember David, the shepherd boy, who heard stories of the great Goliath taunting his people and his God? When David received permission from King Saul to take on Goliath, the leaders tried to dress him in military equipment, according to their context and traditions. David was not used to military dress. It was clunky and clumsy and likely would have produced an additional defeat for Israel. David knew his context was shepherding. He needed to dress and use the weapons he was trained to use in his context. With skillful precision and the might of God working on his behalf, one small stone transformed the entire battle. The Israelites rushed in and were able to defeat the Philistines and the Lord was glorified.


Similarly, we must not act as the militia did with David, applying our own cultural understanding for the needs that emerge in each culture. Like David, each culture has a context where its own methodologies and resources are effective. As students of the culture, in collaboration with our national brothers and sisters, we allow the cultural context to shape our understanding of which biblical truths are needed for a given situation, opening the opportunity for God’s word to shape the individuals within the culture. 


The truths of scripture, and God as the unchanging agent of change, remain the same throughout the world and in the diverse communities in which we live. Through asking questions of the culture and forming collaborative teams, we study the cultures around us and form the message of scriptures in ways that can be clearly heard, understood and take root in the hearts of our neighbors.


Our illustrations, stories and approach to a people group will demonstrate that we have taken time and effort to understand their values and to be able to approach them in a way that will allow God’s truth to take root in their hearts and minds. McDonald’s has become known throughout the world as a venue that provides food significant to the culture. Instead of the golden arches across the globe, picture Christ-followers who have discovered and received the word of God in a way that transforms their hearts and their cultures. That is the goal for which we labor. 


“He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.” (Col. 1:28)

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