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The Challenge of Contextualization

Another Perspective

The spring 2018 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly looked at the challenge of contextualization, which is commonly seen in terms of communicating the gospel in a manner relevant to a particular cultural context.

As they navigate an uncertain future, Christians in China face a deeper challenge. It is not merely a matter of communicating through words a message that resonates with existing cultural ideas, but of communicating with their lives the truth of the gospel in a manner that impacts the lives of those around them.

For the past decade believers in China have been on the cutting edge as they have pioneered new expressions of their faith in an atmosphere of expanding social openness. Christian publishing, a vibrant online presence, public worship in newly available urban spaces, experiments in homegrown Christian education, and—in some quarters—formalized denominational structures are all examples of believers constructing new ways of living out their faith in community.

Now, in an atmosphere of increased social tightening, some younger Christians are asking whether these expressions of the church might actually stand in the way of an effectively contextualized message that resonates with today’s urban Chinese.

One pastor who has served among students and academics for more than a decade remarked recently that he sees the status quo as isolating the church. He cited churches’ restrictions on the role of women, and requirements that women submit to husbands even in abusive relationships, as examples of how the church is out of step with society. Fledgling efforts at Christian education, he said, have resulted in substandard schools that may actually do more harm than good by taking children out of the state-run system but offering no clear path toward higher education.

This pastor lamented that, 20 years ago, many intellectuals were hopeful that Christianity might bring about improvements in personal relationships and in society. Today, however, many view the church as anti-intellectual, inwardly focused, and culturally backward. Some are increasingly drawn to the Catholic faith, which they see as more faithful to the teachings of Christ and as having a greater concern for society.

Another Way Forward

Echoing these concerns about the church’s tendency to focus more on its own needs than those of society, another believer in her early 30s expressed hope that the current restrictive atmosphere could actually provide the impetus for a more effective witness.

Many stand-alone urban congregations have plans to split into small groups in the event they are no longer allowed to continue their public worship. Should this become necessary, however, she cautioned against simply recreating the church’s usual worship activities in small gatherings. Doing so could create a nuisance and irritate the neighbors in the buildings where they are meeting, perpetuating the impression that Christians are more interested in preserving their own space than caring for those around them.

Rather than taking as their starting point their own requirements as a church, she advised that they instead exegete the specific needs of people in their immediate community. Based on what they find, they should then orient their activities toward addressing those needs as a means of contextualizing the gospel message in their local environment.

This sister believes increased government pressure could actually push believers in the unregistered church to consider a new approach to contextualization. Their response may be key in defining the church’s future relationship to the larger society.

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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

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