Contextualisation Part 1

Lesson Materials

In this session, David looks at differences in culture from a Western Perspective. Sharing stories from his own travels and others, David illustrates how culture is every part of our lives through how we dress, how we interact with others and more.


TEACHING ON CULTURE | Session 7  - Contextualisation Part 1


1/ Introduction


    • Key quotations:
      • “In order for the Christian message to be meaningful to people it must come to them in language and categories that make sense within their particular culture and life situation. It must be contextualised. Contextualisation has to do with how the gospel revealed in Scripture authentically comes to life in each new cultural, social, religious and historical setting… Every church in every particular place and time must learn to do theology in a way that makes sense to its audience while challenging it at the deepest level… [1]
      •  “Before Cornelius could be converted, Peter had to be converted. Of course, he knew to gospel would go to the nations (Luke 24:45-47). But he assumed that the Gentiles would first have to become like the Jews. Jews becoming like Gentiles was unthinkable. Whose conversion involves the greatest struggle? Peter, the Christian, who argues with God three times, saying ‘Surely not, Lord!’ or , by contrast, a whole room full of Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit as soon as they hear the message and offering themselves up for baptism. Peter, representing the majority Christian culture, is most resistant to change. And this change, when it happens, results in criticism from his peers (Acts 11:1-3). Peter’s prejudices were laid out on the sheet that was lowered from heaven. What would be laid out on your sheet?” [2]
    • It is a primary issue that the Holy Spirit is saying to the church at large and we need to make major leaps on understanding in order to bring a gospel presentation, a radical discipleship and a contextualised church into places we are called to reach.  (Including UK!)


2/ Some Principles


I. Contextualisation involves thoroughly understanding the perspective of your hearers and the questions they are asking.


This means it is not just understanding Scripture but understanding the situation of those you are reaching and finding how Scripture answers their questions; not just how it has answered yours.  Therefore we have to study the worldview of those we are reaching as well as the worldview of the Bible – otherwise:

A) “Bible within a Bible

B) We fail to challenge the real strongholds in the culture raised up against God

C) We fail to see our own cultural practices (and even strongholds) are being taught mingled in with Scripture.

D) We don’t appreciate the diversity of those we are reaching in multicultural situations.



II. Contextualisation is in the Bible itself – it is not just how we apply Scripture to different cultures today.


Acts 17:22-31


We have 4 examples of sermons from Paul to unbelievers in Acts:

    • To Jews.  (Acts 13) – a summarised version of the Old Testament and how it is fulfilled and reinterpreted in the light of Christ.
    • To pagan peasant community.  (Acts 14) – miracles plus a God of nature who gives the harvest now revealed in Christ.  “…we have here not only an example of language related difficulties, but also a failure to take into account cultural differences (the Lystrans’ beliefs in classical legends).  Both factors were at the heart of the rather significant misunderstanding.  Once the apostles realised what was happening, they responded with a contextualised message (Acts 14:15-17). [3]
    • To Athens.  (Acts 17)
    • His own account of what he preached in Ephesus (Acts 20).


In each, we have:


    • God’s overall plan and purpose now to put everything right through Christ.
    • A call for repentance to live differently because of what God has done.  However they are expressed very differently, two e.gs.:
    • In Athens, Paul:
        • Quotes from a poet – a reference which in original context referred to Zeus.
        • Though disturbed by idolatry, challenges it but indirectly by referring to the fact that God is greater and can’t be reduced to something made with hands (the Jews had to be challenged re the Temple in a totally different non-idolatrous context).  This could be referring to the fact that normally in introducing a new god (as Paul was accused of), you would purchase land and build a temple – Paul has no need to do this.
        • Through the reference to the unknown god refers to a heritage story amongst the Athenians.  It uses Athenian poets and heritage story as leading to Christ.
        • He is uncompromising but spoken in concepts they could understand.
        • Even the language adopted in the New Testament e.g. ‘theos’ from God – Pagan names in our cultures.


    • In Ephesus – a massive worldview change, through teaching of the whole plan of God described in session 1 and setting free from demons but “What we also learn, most interestingly, is that Paul had not engaged in specific defamation of Artemis/Diana – the patron goddess of Ephesus.  This is not even a claim Paul makes for himself but is stated in his defence by the city clerk to pacify the riot fomented against Paul and his friends: ‘They have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess’ (Acts 19:37).  Clearly Paul’s evangelism was uncompromisingly effective but it was not calculatingly offensive.”  Christopher Wright.  That is true contextualised preaching – change the worldview without unnecessary offence beyond the “offence of the cross”.



III. Contextualisation is necessary to bring every nation to the obedience of faith, Rom 11:5, this involves:

    • Not burdening them with religious practices or style that would exclude.
    • In Galatia, when bringing them back to grace, Paul uses several familiar cultural motifs e.g. “evil eye” 3:1, the “pedagogue” 3:24, 4:1-2, adoption 4:5



IV. Contextualisation of Leadership

    • Very difficult to discern leadership cross culturally because looking for different things.  
    • Some of our leadership teaching e.g. team – plurity important in N.T. but we can use e.g. Western example of teamwork and impose them on  a culture that does not have certain elements in its background and style becomes what we try and impose rather than value.
    • Yet Jesus said and Peter stressed not to “lord it over” – not to be as Gentiles – so value of not domineering, dictatorial yet equally unhelpful if it is only managerial and strategic and not fathering influence. 



V. What is missional in style is culturally dependent.



VI. Bringing to “obedience of faith” – must be in the context of the culture and understanding and not imposed as a style.  Churches will “look” very different but genuinely have the same values.  It challenges what is wrong in the culture and glorifies God through what is lovely in the culture.



VII. Contextualised Church

    • Must not look like a strange outside imposition but a way of dressing, sitting, gathering, musical style etc that would not be too unfamiliar.
    • Always ask the question – “is the model of church we are building easily reproducible in the cultural context we are working? – problem sometimes with churches started by expats.
    • Some things are a process towards Kingdom values, and depend on different contexts even in one.


3/ Some Further Definitions


“Contextualisation is the effort to understand and take seriously the specific context of each human group and person on its own terms and in all its dimensions – cultural, religious, social, political, economic – and to discern what the gospel says to people in that context”. [4]


“Christian contextualisation can be thought of as the attempt to communicate the message of the person, work, Word and will of God in a way that is faithful to God’s revelation, especially as it is put forth in the teachings of Holy Scripture, and that is meaningful to respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts.  Contextualisation is both verbal and non-verbal and has to do with theologising, Bible translation, interpretation and application; incarnational lifestyle; evangelism; Christian instruction; church planting and growth; church organisation; worship style – indeed with all of those activities involved in carrying out the Great Commission.”


“Cultural diversity was built into the Christian faith… in Acts 15, which declared that the new Gentile Christians didn’t have to enter Jewish culture… The converts had to work out… a Hellenistic way of being a Christian.  There is no ‘Christian culture’ the way there is an ‘Islamic culture’ which you can recognise from Pakistan to Tunisia to Morocco.”  Andrew Walls.




© David Devenish

Contextualisation Part 1 - Teaching on Culture - Session 7 - Bournemouth - March 2015

[1] Dean Flemming, “Contextualisation in the New Testament”, pg 13-14

[2] Tim Chester, “Unreached”, pg 40-41

[3] David J Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, “Contextualisation”, p9

[4] (OM’s book of standard definitions).