THOUGHTS FROM DAVID GOODMAN
by CEO David Goodman
It puzzled me.
A yellow can with wilted dandelion flowers adorning a rustic wooden pulpit in that remote African church. There is nothing like the rich rhythmic sound of Africans singing praise to God, but I found those flowers a total distraction and I would soon be preaching on the other side of that wilted bouquet.
I leaned over and asked my host, sitting beside me, about the flowers and she laughed as she told me that the earliest missionaries to this part of Kenya taught the Africans that there should always be flowers at a church service. She later elaborated: African culture has no esthetic for flowers. Husbands don’t send their wives a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day. Nor do people place flowers on their dining room tables. I am certain missionaries explained it was a way of honoring God, but, to this day, the gesture meant nothing in African context. Yet still they continue to do it, because they know they “should.”
Context is the accumulation of life experiences that define how each of us interprets what we perceive in the world and how we are motivated by those perceptions. Contextualization is the discipline of presenting an idea understood in our context so it will be accurately received in someone else’s context. The only way we have any idea of our success at contextualization is by asking the hearer, “What did you understand me to be saying?” At best it is a dynamic conversation as our respective contexts constantly evolve. For example, when an adolescent boy takes down the “no girls allowed” sign from the clubhouse he built in the back yard and starts inviting certain girls in, what changed? Context. If he gets married, the process of contextualization will become even more challenging as two people’s worlds come together, as husband and wife work to define what their joint context will become.
Cross-cultural ministries often talk about contextualization, but rarely explain what the word means. Let’s revisit the wilted flowers on an African pulpit. Contextualization means we first analyze the significance of a bouquet of flowers at the front of a sanctuary in the West. We see it as God-honoring, much like my wife buying fresh flowers when guests are coming to our home. It shows honor and hospitality.
What is viewed as God-honoring in African culture? Something more to do with music and dance, which African churches do very well. No surprise that the flowers became a meaningless tradition. However, the fact that those churches thrive to this day means the missionaries got much more right than they got wrong.
Communicating from one culture to another is an inexact science. Sometimes there is no contextual counterpart. Consider an Inuit boy explaining to his counterpart from an Amazon rain forest village what it was like living in an igloo. Lack of context can limit understanding. Add to that the challenge of creating training for a target group of pastors in a particular region. We must consider the problems facing a country as well as their historical and present realities.
History’s most extraordinary effort at contextualization was God the Father sending his Son to take on human form. Jesus spent a full nine months in the womb without becoming any less than God, to be born a fully human child. Not only did four authors, each from a distinctly different context, record his life and ministry for us, the rest of the New Testament fleshes out how Jesus’ message should be lived out by the visible “body of Christ” on earth, otherwise known as the Church.
God continues to send Christ-like emissaries to every world context, to do what Jesus did and draw people to himself. When Entrust staff members go to a different culture, they work with local people to understand what Christ will look like in that context, speaking that language, living in that culture, inhabiting their hearts and lives. The calling of every Christ-follower is to be a “contextualizer,” to continue what Jesus began when he took on human form, to show our neighbors what Christ looks like in their own cultural context. When Christ lives in us, we become what people in our families, neighborhoods and workplaces see and understand about God and our Savior, Jesus Christ, officially appointed as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20).
That is the exciting work Entrust does. In each distinctive cultural setting, we flesh out what a Christ-follower looks like and then we determine the particular tools a pastor needs to raise up the sort of disciple who can then make other disciples. It can be a prodigious challenge, but when you see the impact Christ has through believers who are the visible representation of Jesus Christ in their communities, it is perhaps the most rewarding experience possible. ■
This article appears in the summer 2018 edition of Engage.