30 April 2013
The gospel in context
In a world that no longer understands words such as 'sin' and 'repentance', how can we make the gospel relevant? Laurence Singlehurst takes a look at contextualisation…
Contextualisation is the process most closely associated with missionaries who,when going to a new country, have to put the Christian message into words that resonate in the culture and language. They need to connect in a way that is relevant, without watering down the content or imposing their own cultural norms.
Contextualisation is more and more on our agenda. There is a process to it that normally begins with confusion – not understanding the culture. It moves on to creativity – the learning of the language and the thinking of what might work, early models experimenting in communication and structure. Lastly, working models bring the growth of the Church.
Now we understand this process quite well in the context of going to another country but every now and then something unusual takes place. An existing culture goes through such a radical change that the existing contextualisation ceases to work.The Church is thrown into confusion and the contextualising process needs to start again.
The UK has gone through just such a cultural change in recent years. Before the Second World War we were a nation with a strong Christian moral foundation.This affected our personal and corporate morality and church attendance was really high. However, in the 1960s, a whole generation of young people embraced a new set of ideas and values. Not all bad, but certainly different. Church was seen as increasingly irrelevant. But the real change took place when the children of this 60s generation grew up, outside the context of church, outside the context of strong Christian morality and outside the context of Christian language and ideas.
Events like Spring Harvest have spread new ideas throughout the Church, seeking to express faith and belief in a contemporary fashion. This is seen in many churches through new music being added to our historical inheritance of hymns and different styles of worship, communication and structure.
Our understanding of mission and evangelism has gone through a time of huge change. In 1954, Billy Graham's language was of forgiveness and repentance and this worked. Most of his unchurched audience had been to Sunday school so the language had some familiarity and forgiveness was a relevant message. In today's world, people no longer understand the words 'sin', 'repent' and 'born again'. They are not aware they have done anything wrong so forgiveness is not a connect point. Taking somebody to a gospel meeting for a 'one-off moment' may have worked in 1954, but not today. However, we have seen an amazing contextualisation called Alpha which has created a different space to bring people to, a space where the guest is in control.They can stay or go. The thoughts are propositional. They can discuss them.
Importantly, the Church has realised that, in today's culture, actions speak louder than words. We are cynical of anybody who claims to have the truth, be they politicians or Christian leaders. We want to see the substance. Over the last 20 years,churches have realised that we must take an incarnational approach to mission; a 'go' approach, where every Christian is living out their faith in the context of community and work. Churches are reaching into their communities through social action projects.This has been best summed up in the work of Hope '08 and the current HOPE initiative which has the strapline "do more, do it together, do it in word and action".
But, despite all this contextualisation, we still have a problem. After Hope '08,churches came back and said they understood incarnation, deeds and actions but struggled with words. What can we actually say to people if we are not going to say 'sin', 'repent' and 'born again'? If forgiveness is not the key connect point, then what is? In the contextualising process we talked of early models or 'prototypes'. We know that some work and some fail. Engineers and scientists don't see failure as an enemy but as a friend. Maybe it is time to fail so we can seek new connect points in our future and find language that works.
We can learn from St Patrick who, in coming to Ireland, did not speak Latin but Irish and connected his gospel message to aspects of the culture that he understood when growing up there as a slave. It was an honour to die in battle so he used the words of Jesus: "He who loses his life will find it." And he called people to live for something bigger than them. Then he dealt with their fears by telling them that the trees and forests were made by God and were good. They were deeply involved in human sacrifice. He told them that one has died for all therefore no one else has to die. He spoke good news and he challenged them to a new life.
What positive aspirations can we link the gospel to today? In our culture people are longing for self-worth so we have a message that says everyone is significant. What fears permeate our culture? What could we say to those fears? We have seen a huge rise of selfishness, the new religion. Could we express sin in the context of selfishness? 2 Corinthians 5:15 says Christ died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him. Is the good news that we could live for something bigger than ourselves and be set free?
Or, another thought entirely. Perhaps this is a moment for us to actually talk about Jesus? Here is an experiment on a personal level. Think of a parable or a story about Jesus that you love the most and when asked about your Christian faith, tell this story. Three things will take place, one is we give people an understanding of the wonder of Jesus; two, because these stories are meaningful for us they will carry our passion and, three, telling a story helps us to change our language.
So let us learn from the contextualisation we have already seen happen in the last 30 years and face the challenge together of being able to put the gospel message into words, connect points, and metaphors that people understand.
Laurence's further thoughts on this are available in his Grove booklet The Gospel Message Today available from the Cell UK Ministries online bookshop at celluk.org.uk or by phoning 01582 463330 or email:email@example.com. He will also be speaking on this subject on Saturday, 15June, at The Oval, Harpenden. Details can be found on the website address above.
The Alliance, together with CMS, hosted a national consultation to explore the subject of contextualisation as part of our Confidence in the Gospel programme. The event, 'A Relevant Gospel' took place on 23 April and the talks, all approximately ten minutes in length are available online at eauk.org/confidence. These short films, and the accompanying discussion questions, are ideal for small groups and church leadership teams.