In Barbara Kingsolver’s book, the Poisonwood Bible, we meet a missionary family that has recently moved to Africa to preach the Gospel. This family comes with a strict southern Baptist father, Nathan, who aims to plant a church and convert the African people.
What is striking about this story, certainly at the beginning, is how adverse the father is to understanding the African culture and the stories of the African people. He came with a plan, western ideals and a bible ready to preach without listening. It led him to a time of confusion, frustration and bitterness toward the people he was trying to win to the gospel.
If there was ever an anti-contextualisation story or “what not to do when planting a church”, then this is one of them and a warning for all of us as we seek to share the good news.
What is Contextualisation?
It is helpful to get some clarity on what contextualisation is and I think Tim Keller sums it up nicely:
“Contextualization is not giving people what they want. It is giving God’s answers (which they probably do not want) to the questions they are asking and in forms they can comprehend.”
The key part of this is answering questions or giving God’s answers “in forms they can comprehend”. This can be seen to mean taking the Gospel message and communicating it in ways that our city understands. But before that even happens, before we even start to open our mouths, contextualisation must start with a step further back to a point where we need to observe the culture and listen to what our city is saying.
Chuck Colson speaks of this as entering into people’s “stories”:
“We must enter into the stories of the surrounding culture, which takes real listening. We connect with the literature, music, theater, arts, and issues that express the existing culture’s hopes, dreams, and fears. This builds a bridge by which we can show how the Gospel can enter and transform those stories.”
This is an Acts 17 moment:
“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16 ESV)
As Paul stands around in Athens, he sees the idols of the city. In effect, he observes the stories of the culture, what they believe, what they worship, what they fear and what they love. Then, throughout Acts 17, we see Paul preach the gospel using those stories, poets and ideals that connect with the Athenian people (the unknown god, Aratus’s poem “Phainomena” etc). As Paul says later to the Corinthians that he has become “all things to all people”:
“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23 ESV)
He emerges himself into that culture, able to connect with people on a deeper level and able to communicate in a way where he is understood. People can look at Paul and say “he is one of us” or “he understands us“.
Does our city say the same about our church?
So then, the question that drips from this is;
How can we do the same in our city?
How can we listen and then preach the gospel a way that it is understood?
I think we are urged to stand with Paul and observe the stories and idols of our culture – not just thinking that we know what they are (because we live in this culture) but really seeing, asking questions and listening. This means two things.
Firstly, it means going to the places where people worship and observing the idols and stories.
Secondly it means engaging and communing with people who hold to and live in those stories.
Watch out for Part 2 as I look at temples of worship and engaging with people and stories.