This week, John Leonard takes on the topic of contextualization—but not the controversial way it’s often used with worship. Rather, he’s talking about two different approaches to sharing the gospel…and yes, he wants to shatter a common picture of evangelism again!
I love my sweat suit. No matter how much weight I gain or lose, it fits. My wife and daughters can wear it. It fits almost everyone. Those who practice traditional evangelism believe that the gospel should be like my sweat suit. It should fit everyone. And in a sense this is true: Jesus Christ meets the deepest needs of every one of us. Therefore, the gospel is for everyone; one size fits all. But to truly share your faith is more like tailoring a custom-fit suit, designed just for the person you’re addressing. Because we still live in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, we have been taught the values of standardization, systemization, and mass production. These values are great when you’re making cars because mass production makes goods available and cheap so that more people can afford them. However, we should be careful how we use these values with people. It can be dehumanizing to treat people in a mechanized fashion. Yet, we do it all the time. Worse yet, we use mass-production techniques when we share our faith, employing a one-size-fits-all approach or reducing Christ’s message to four or five “laws.”
For these reasons, most people cannot share the gospel from the Gospels. Instead, they go to Paul’s letters to understand the teachings of Jesus. Jesus’s teaching seems confusing. He says different things to different people, and he uses stories that we don’t fully understand. If only our Lord had come up with a standard presentation that had a few points, then we all would know what the gospel is.
The shaping of the gospel so that it directly addresses and perfectly fits the person you’re speaking to is called contextualization. Why is this important? It is the difference between a personal handwritten letter and spam e-mail. It is the difference between going to see someone in person and sending them an electronic phone call, where you record a message and it electronically calls hundreds of people and plays your message. I’m insulted when I get those kinds of calls. I got one this week where the recording began, “Hi, I’m Pastor __________. I know you’re busy . . .” I hung up. Through this automated process, he was telling me he was too busy to call me personally. Modern media can potentially reach enormous numbers of people, but it is more important that we learn from the way our Lord evangelized, face to face.
How the message is shared should express the love that the actual message declares…
The gospel is a message of God’s love for his people, and the way it is communicated must be consistent with its character. The way you contextualize the message not only should communicate that God cares for the person you’re speaking to, but that you care as well. The only way to effectively shape the gospel to fit the individual is to listen deeply to what the person is saying to you, then take what they’ve told you and wrap it up in a response that was made precisely for them, and only them. This is what Jesus does in the Gospels, and it is how he wants us to share the gospel as well.
Contextualization is an art, a science, and a spiritual mystery all in one. The easy part is that you don’t have to speak until you clearly see how the gospel applies to that person’s needs. In traditional evangelism you are taught not to let the other person speak because they can take you off-message and keep you from getting through the entire presentation. Your goal is to get them to understand. With a real approach to presenting the gospel, you want to listen as much as possible because the other person is giving you clues as to how you should shape the gospel. If communicating the gospel is like tailoring a custom-fit suit, you have to keep taking measurements until you know everything you need to know. Only then do you ask that person to try the suit on.
If it isn’t clear how you are to respond, keep asking questions until the light comes on in your head and you see how you should frame the message. In traditional evangelism it is believed that we should keep talking until the light comes on in the listener’s head, but contextualization requires us to do the hard work of effectively communicating the gospel specifically to that other person.
Questions for Thought or Discussion:
1. After reading this excerpt, can you explain to someone (or out loud) in what way the gospel is “one size fits all” and in what ways it is not? If you can, it will help with why contextualization is not a bad thing in this context when we know it can be a buzzword and unhelpful in other contexts and discussions.
2. What would you need to do to be better prepared to share the gospel in a way that meets the person in their current life situation rather than having a bullet point presentation of the gospel that you try to communicate?