Some thoughts on a big word, “Contextualization”

1you-can-contextualize-the-gospel-in-the-language-of-honor-and-shame-19-638When I was in Japan a few years back, I had an opportunity and honor to imbed myself into the culture. While I was there I lived with a Japanese family…I didn’t spend much time at all visiting the sites of Japan…I simply lived with the family, ate with them, worship with them…lived a normal, Japanese life (albeit as best I could for only 2 weeks). I would have done some things differently if I had been a tourist…I would have been in the country to see what I could see. As a tourist, if I met a local person or family, that would have been a benefit…but not the goal.

Being imbedded is different from being a tourist. A tourist is someone who skims for the sake of personal entertainment. Now, don’t get me wrong…there’s nothing wrong with being a tourist. But everyone has to admit, when you are a tourist you are interested in getting a feel of a specific place or site…you want to see what you want to see and move on. You might take a picture but you won’t walk away with any in-depth knowledge or affinity or identification with where you visit.

Contextualization is more about being imbedded than being a tourist…for many of us, we don’t understand life outside of our personal experience or context. We see life pretty much through the lens of who we are and what we have experienced in the sum total of our lives. To “contextualize” means that you enter the world of another…you start to care about their lives…you come to understand what makes them “tick”…you stop the tourist life and become a resident.

That’s why this is an important topic in terms of life living for Jesus. If we are just “passing through” this world, then why care? Why build relationships? Why do any of the things we do as a faith community with a passion and/or vision for God presence/power to impact people’s lives? Those who don’t “contextualize” build bunkers and fortresses to keep the rest of the world out and wait until the battle is over. Unfortunately, that’s not been the way God has acted in history. God is not a detached God…He has infiltrated human life at every intersection. In fact, one of if not the most powerful and history-shaking aspects of God’s work in the world is undoubtedly the incarnation – and please understand, the incarnation is all about contextualization – for the ultimate expression of contextualization is “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).

Here’s a couple of questions – Is this world YOUR home? Are you a tourist or are you a resident? Are you at home or are you just “passing through”? What are the implications of your answers? Where does a follower of Jesus belong? Church or Culture?

If our belonging is in the Church, culture can be seen as the “enemy or adversary” and that which we need a subculture formed to protect us! If our belonging is in the Culture, then the Church has a redemptive presence in the midst of real life and then gathers one aspect of its identity in becoming a necessary support for followers of Jesus in discipling and equipping for life and ministry…a subculture might come into existence but only as a provider of life resources.

Let me put it this way – is there such a thing as a Gospel or Good News without a sense of it being connected to reality and the real world? If you think about it – you will answer as I have – NO! The good news of God is that God came to this world…that He not only interacted with the world but that He “imbedded” Himself in the world through Jesus and the incarnation. The Good News of God must always “wear the clothes” of culture because it is experienced by people who are enculturated, it is lived out by people who are enculturated, and witnessed by others who are enculturated, through the medium of culture. Confused? Don’t be! God’s story is a story of His work IN human history…He doesn’t send detached missives from eternity…He doesn’t sit on some celestial cloud and hope we discover Him…He is not separated from the human experience…God is intricately imbedded into this life…besides the incarnation, God still fills our lives, relationally engages us in numerous ways and desires to live this life in and through us. It would not be a stretch to say, “no incarnation, no imbedded God = no good news/Gospel.”

“You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” 2 Corinthians 3:2-3

Followers of Jesus are called by Jesus to “Go…into the world” (Matthew 28:18). We are not supposed to watch the game because you ARE the game. The fact is, there is no game, no life without you…another word for this action in the follower of Jesus’ life is to be indigenous or an infiltrator.

Contextualizing the love and passion of Jesus isn’t something that is optional for all of us…the Spirit of God lives in and through us. Christ is alive as He is alive in and through you. Contextualization is a purposeful and deliberate action of a person who loves Jesus. We are a light IN the world…the salt rubbed into the fabric of real life. Here’s an image that is helpful…where do you expect to see a lion? A zoo, right? If you saw a lion in the fresh vegetable section of the grocery store that would be surprising wouldn’t it? In fact, a lion in a grocery store would be dangerous. That is why for followers of Jesus we are called to be imbedded into the world…when people who don’t follow Jesus know that all Christians are in “church”, they can marginalize the faith community and feel justifiably safe. But when Christians are “out of the box”, contextualized, imbedded in real life that is inherently dangerous.

Question – what does all that mean? What does all this mean to you?

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