ChinaSource Perspective

Contextualization Mediates History and Meaning

Further Reflections


As Wendel Sun writes in this issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, most Christians serving cross-culturally have a strong desire to faithfully and meaningfully communicate the gospel. To accurately convey the truth of the gospel in terms that are understandable in the target culture, one needs a deep understanding both of Scripture and of the culture in which one is working.

Culture is shaped by history. The Scriptures that convey the gospel have a particular historical context. Likewise, our understanding of the gospel is, in turn, shaped by our own culture and history.

In Danny Hsu’s article on contextualization and contemporary Chinese culture, he points out that merely understanding the historical antecedents of Chinese culture is insufficient for effectively communicating in today’s cultural context. This context comprises elements both of China’s Confucian tradition as well as the forces of modernization shaping urban China. Filial piety, for example, may still be a strongly held value, but its practical application in today’s culture looks very different from what it did in previous generations.

Similarly, in her reading of Chinese science fiction literature, Carrie Anne Hudson cautions against making too literal a connection between the themes in the stories and specific social or political events in contemporary China. The themes may provide clues into the values and aspirations imbedded in the culture, but we should not jump to conclusions about how they play out today.

Instead, as Hsu writes, the “messy reality” that the Chinese worldview is shaped by a plurality of cultural forces, both historical and contemporary, requires flexibility in understanding how historical values such as harmony, filial piety, guanxi, and “face” are interpreted on the ground in China today.

We need to also recognize that the history of the gospel itself—and how it has been transmitted through the generations—colors the reception of our message within the culture. When interviewed for this issue, Pastor Peter comments that Christianity is commonly viewed as a Western cultural incursion, both due to how it came to China as well as its ignorance of traditional Chinese practices. The resulting cultural clash causes Chinese to “lose face” and to see Christianity as a threat.

Ultimately, the veracity of the message will be judged by the quality of its messengers. Danny Hsu notes, “the West’s religious experience often places great emphasis on correct thinking (orthodoxy), yet China’s religious experience has placed great importance on correct practice (orthopraxy). In Confucianism, the ideal man presupposes that we only become fully human through our interactions with one another.”

Relating the biblical concept of union with Christ to the Chinese concept of guanxi, Wendel Sun asserts that the traditional goal of harmonious society finds fulfillment in the church. Here the historical divisions are broken down in favor of a collective identity defined by the relationship between Christ and the members of his body, the church. In this new relationship, there is no room for factions or fighting. All work together for the good of the body.

Contextualization goes beyond sound theology and deep cultural understanding. Christ physically entered the context of an alien culture in order to communicate God’s love. He calls and equips his followers to do the same.

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio