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Contextualization—A Necessity, Not an Option

In 1998 I attended a one-day training program in Beijing involving a well-known international evangelist and a group of 30 Chinese Christian leaders. By this time I had been studying and working in different parts of China for the better part of a decade, but had only been settled more permanently in country for about a year.

During the morning training session I sat in the audience while a young local woman struggled to translate for the famous evangelist. I say struggle, for the speaker that day was communicating in English using passionate language and vivid illustrations that were deeply meaningful for him. The linguistic imagery that so moved the speaker was confusing if not incomprehensible to this young Chinese college student, and so many of the examples he used were literally foreign to her experience. I winced as the translator fumbled for meaning, abandoning or drastically revising large parts of the speaker’s message as she passed it on to the students. Whatever communication was taking place it was not effective.

Towards the end of the lunch break the coordinator of the training session approached me and asked if I would step in and translate for the rest of the afternoon. I was understandably hesitant after my observation of the morning session, but since the previously arranged translator for the next session had failed to show, it was either me or nothing. I reluctantly agreed, thinking that at least I understood what the evangelist was trying to say.

Standing in front, I used what Mandarin language skills I had to express the speaker’s concepts as clearly as I could. But now I noticed a new problem: watching the faces of the audience from my new perspective I realized that we were still not communicating effectively. While the students continued to write diligently in their notebooks, I could see in their eyes a passivity, a lack of engagement—a clear sign that they were not interested in what was being said. After the session I mingled with the attendees, asking their impressions of the day. Nearly all of those I spoke with admitted that the training was of little benefit to their ministries, and that they already knew most of what was presented. And so, the topic chosen by the trainer as well as his basic points (which I understood in English and could generally explain in Chinese) were inappropriate for the local trainees: it was stuff that they did not need training in.

While there are lessons here related to the technical process of translation, I still look back to that training seminar as a powerful reminder of the importance—the necessity—of contextualization. As I personally experienced that day, the language with which we deliver our content needs to be contextualized. Requiring more than just a direct word-for-word dictionary translation, truly effective cross-cultural communication demands facility in the images and experiences of the relevant cultures as well. At the same time, our content must also be contextualized. If we wish to participate cross-culturally in God’s work of transformation, then we must allow the specific context of our host culture to determine the kinds of contributions we make. And these two adjustments mark only the beginning: truly effective cross-cultural ministry requires us to contextualize nearly everything.

The spring issue of ChinaSource Quarterly focuses our attention on this very important subject. For expatriates in particular, Jackson Wu’s interview “A Pastoral Perspective on Contextualization” provides valuable information about our role in the contextualization process for China, while Ella’s “Advance and Retreat” highlights some of the challenges Chinese citizens can face trying to minister in different regions within their own country.

The helpful list of “Resources for Further Reading” points the way for a richer understanding of our need personally to engage more deeply with both the local context and the various issues involved in developing an explicitly Chinese theology that addresses more completely that local ministry context.

Whether you are learning about China from afar, newly arrived in country, or an old China hand, all who work cross-culturally require constant encouragement to persevere in the never-ending task of contextualization. Collectively, the different articles in this latest issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly remind us that every aspect of ministry demands sensitivity towards context.

Image credit: Silvia Sala via Flickr.

Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China.View Full Bio

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