Contextualization makes a way for the gospel to speak to other cultures.1 It is relational—one life intersecting with another in such a way that a holy, transformative conversation supernaturally effuses. Cross-cultural workers understand that contextualization is holistic integration of the gospel message into the warp and woof of particular cultures in which Christians live.2 One issue we explore in this ChinaSource Quarterly is how women working cross-culturally in China learned the process of crossing a culture with the gospel.
To be effective church planters in the local context, all cross-cultural workers must learn the importance of culturally integrating, without misrepresenting, the gospel message. These Christian workers are characterized by mission strategists in various ways—cultural insiders, outsiders, or near-culture outsiders.3 In modern-day church planting, it is beneficial to examine the impact that cross-cultural workers, both near-culture and outsiders, bring to the mission conversation. The labels identify the relationship the worker has to the people she is serving. The labels also communicate context. For the purpose of this discussion, near-culture workers like Western Chinese or other Asian women such as Koreans, look as though they could be from China, but they have social, cultural, or linguistic differences. They have the benefit of being able to enter villages and homes without the same scrutiny outsiders might face.
Contextualization and Communication
How have women who are outsiders to a culture become effective church planters in China? Skylar Nie4 is an example of a fruitful, near-culture church planter who served among the Zhuang. She began to learn how to communicate effectively with Zhuang women. Gradually, as she observed, listened, and reached out in love, she learned how to be more contextual in her approach. Over time, an epiphany of understanding came as she spent time listening to the struggles and hopes of the women she came to serve. While she could never be an insider, she strove to become an acceptable outsider. She became a little sister to the older women and auntie to the children. It took courage and persistence to learn how to contextualize the gospel in their setting.
As she began conversing with other women in the local context, their everyday concerns, physical needs, or emotional struggles tumbled out as they talked. She found that the message of hope more naturally emerged in the process of friendship and conversation. This is the process of contextualization in its simplest form.
Contextualization and Language
Contextualization is tied to language. The language of a people is like a cultural dictionary defining and labeling relationships, geography, philosophy, natural phenomena, politics, social order, and so much more. An outsider to the culture can succeed, but it will require humility and perseverance. Rachel Wood was an outsider to Chinese culture, and she struggled to learn Chinese and a local dialect. While near-culture workers seem to be able to learn a language much faster, Rachel often bumbled through her rehearsed gospel presentations. One day, as she just sat and listened to the local women talk about children’s education, marriage, and money struggles, she realized she had many things in common with the women even though the context was different. She realized it was an honor to sit among them, to listen, learn, and begin to understand what their lives were really like. It then became easier for her to introduce the stories of the Bible into their conversations. Though Rachel learned how to relate, Skylar, being a near-culture worker, had fewer barriers to overcome.
Contextualization and Biblical Truth
We have mentioned that contextualization is relational. It is also theological. The process of entering a culture, learning the language, and building relationships is paving the way for a contextual theology. Out of meaningful cultural dialogues with Scripture, the worker, and the people, a theology begins to emerge within the context.5 Skylar and Rachel learned to keep the Bible as the primary source and to show others how to handle God’s Word and see it as a guide for life.
Typically, evangelicals view the practice of witnessing to the truth as a Bible-to-life exercise, which is how Rachel began her ministry.6 While beginning with biblical teaching and then applying it to life is perfectly warranted, at times it is risky telling people what to believe before stopping to listen to what they are experiencing and why, or hearing what they may already believe.7 A Bible-to-life approach can fail to meet people where they are and the tensions they are living with.8
While a Bible-to-life approach is important for evangelism and discipleship, sometimes a life-to-Bible approach, which is what Skylar utilized, is more effective. Consider Paul in Athens. Paul perceived that the people were religious. He first interacted with the people in their context, within their own understanding of a god or gods. He addressed the issue they presented—there is an unknown god. In a sense, he contextualized the gospel life/context to biblical truth. He moved into the Athenians space and spoke in a way they could understand.
Contextualization and Adjustment
Cultural adjustments are inevitable. Letting go of or adjusting popular methods in church planting strategies might be necessary. Christian workers who deploy as church planters are often faced with the reality that relationships are more important than methods. The bridge to the gospel is better laid with a mindset of relationship rather than one of methods. Asian cultures are typically relationally oriented, while Western cultures are often methodical. Methods may bog down. The time spent in life-on-life conversations often bears fruit. In a real sense, women deploy as relationship builders. Church planters learn that cultural success requires dying to self and to the ways that seem most natural. They cannot simply rush in and take action as the women sometimes tried to do.9 Miriam Adeney warns against making people a project. Instead, workers need to be willing to go through the death and rebirth that is part of adapting to a culture; the yield in God’s good time will be a hundredfold—brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers.10 Christ’s humility must be imprinted on the worker’s heart. Only then can she step into someone else’s space as a learner, a friend. The Holy Spirit is a constant guide providing insights into the discipleship and church-planting process.
Contextualization Is Relational and Spiritual
When we read the women’s stories in this issue of the Quarterly, we see how they intentionally moved into the space of Zhuang, Tibetan, and Chinese women. Their selfless and incarnational involvement tell a story that is like that of thousands of near-culture and outsider women who have done similar work. They persisted in fulfilling God’s call on their lives. They sometimes clumsily crossed cultures and made mistakes along the way yet all the while improving their cultural intelligence. They danced, planted, and harvested alongside local women. They squatted by streams with them and studied how to wash clothes like they did. They were present during life events such as marriages, births, sicknesses, and deaths. They sat by fires and listened to women until they began to see their context more clearly. Over time, the compelling draw of Christ’s love in action took hold. The incarnate Christ led with kindness and love, not with ropes. These women acted as Christ would have, held the local women close, and fed them with God’s word (see Hosea 11:4).
Skylar, Rachel, and other women workers like them, have experienced what it is like to rely on the Holy Spirit. Conversations among animists, for example, reveal the culture’s understanding of a god, spirits, and demons. Through Spirit-led dialogue, the truths of Scripture are shared. The workers experience what Andrew Walls describes as the Christian faith being continuously translated into vernacular culture.11 Contextualization begins as a relationship and persists into theological conversations that lay the groundwork for a local theology to emerge.
Contextualization and Incarnation
Contextualization “incarnates” the Christian faith into a particular culture.12 Jesus is our example; he moved into our context. He miraculously bridged the gulf between people and himself. He became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The Incarnate One became a servant and “…made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). Jesus was present with people and is present as his Holy Spirit orchestrates and guides cross-cultural experiences. Jesus sat down with sinners and hurting people, saying he came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Matthew 9:13). The sinless Jesus became our sin so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). He touched lepers, ate with a loathed tax collector, and forgave a woman caught in adultery. His selfless, purposeful presence in people’s lives is imprinted on today’s cross-cultural disciples.
Whether near-culture or complete outsiders, culturally attuned women, and men, have been vitally important, uniquely gifted, and powerfully effective in church planting. Skylar, Rachel, and many other women have modeled the process of crossing cultures with the story of salvation. Now God will, and is, raising up a host of Zhuang, Tibetan and Chinese women who are also obeying God’s call to go and make disciples.
- Matthew Cook, Rob Haskell, Ruth Julian, Natee Tanchanpongs, eds. Local Theology for the Global Church (William Carey Library), loc 5008 Kindle edition.
- Ibid, 93.
- A cultural insider is one who is part of that culture, an outsider is one from another, very different culture, while a near-culture outsider is also from another culture but one that is similar to the culture being entered, for example, a Korean living in China.
- Named workers are referred to by pseudonyms. You can read more about their ministries and experiences in the articles they have written for this issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly.
- John Mark Terry, ed. Missiology: An Introduction to the Foundations, History, and Strategies of World Mission, (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2015), p. 37.
- Darrell L. Bock discusses cross-cultural communication of the gospel from a Bible-to-life and life-to-Bible perspective. Cultural Intelligence: Living for God in a Diverse Pluralistic World (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2020).
- Ibid. p.91.
- Ibid, p. 98–99.
- Miriam Adeney. “Why Culture Still Matters,” International Journal of Frontier Missions, 32.2 (Summer 2015): p. 97.
- Andrew Walls, Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of the Faith, (Mary Knoll, Orbis Books, 1996), Kindle edition. (from the chapter “Humane Movement and the Missionary Movement”).
- Darrell L. Bock. Cultural Intelligence: Living for God in a Diverse Pluralistic World (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2020) p. 92.