Have you noticed the cultural changes that have come about over recent years? I am approaching my 60th year as I write this. As I look back over my life I realise that there have been vast transformations to the way that people live today. Added to that, the church is changing as well. Some of it is good and some of it could be considered to be the opposite. The Apostle Paul demonstrated that he was well aware of cultural differences when he spoke to the philosophers of his day.
As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. Acts 17: 2-3
As the way of life continues to change, we need to be mindful of the ways that we communicate the Gospel so that it is effective. I am not saying that we alter the message so that it becomes easier to hear because it is more acceptable and palatable. I am making the important point that we need to be more culturally relevant and contextualise what we are communicating.
A simple way of explaining culture would be to say that it is, “The way of life of a group of people”.
Key point: There are cultural differences right on our doorstep, in the towns and cities where we live
You probably have met people who go on holidays to different countries explaining that they would like to experience a different culture. There will of course, be many differences between a western country compared to places like Africa and the Far East for example. I believe that we need to remember is the fact that there are cultural differences right on our doorstep in the towns and cities where we live.
The trend in recent years, when discussing methods of evangelism has been to consider the roles of modernity and post-modernity in society. In other words how modern culture has changed over the years and its effect on people hearing, understanding and appropriating the Gospel message.
In my role as a teacher of adults over the years, I became aware that younger people viewed the world and tended to think quite differently from the way that I did. Very often they would have a completely different outlook on life with more liberal views and a very different use of language. Besides that, today people are more aware of religious differences as well as having more modern views on marriage, gender and much more.
The fact is though, that all people need Jesus. “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” Acts 4: 12
It makes good sense then to consider the way that we share the message of the Gospel so that people are more willing to listen. We can open the door for doing that on a one to one basis, by building relationships and bridges so that we can share our faith with people who have developed trust and faith in us.
When opportunities do arise and we are able to talk about Jesus, it is worth considering contextualising the message we share so that the Gospel can do its work.
Contextualisation is a way to tailor the presentation of the Gospel message to the wider sociological context in order to achieve a greater understanding and, therefore, a greater acceptance of it. In other words, to consider how other people live so that we can communicate in a way that is relevant and understandable.
For example, I could stand on a street corner with a microphone in an area that is culturally different from my own shouting, “Jesus can sort your life out. He loves you and He wants to live in your hearts. He really does”!
As believers, we know that all of that is true. Jesus can get our lives into order when we accept Him, and we understand that He definitely desires to come into our hearts. We also know without a doubt that He loves us because He took our place on the cross when He died to make a way for us to have eternal life with Him.
Making the statement about Jesus sorting out our lives in the way I have said, would probably mean that it would go right over many people’s heads because it is quite possible that they had never heard the Gospel before, or even be aware of who Jesus is. So it is vital that we not only think about what we say, as well as how we say it so that we can reach people who need Jesus.
Today some churches refuse to adapt music or programs to their surrounding cultures. The Gospel truth always remains, but very often it is fixed in a rigid framework that hardly allows any room to contextualise. At the other end of the scale, there can be over adaptation where the message is presented in ways that are more easily understood by the people who are listening, but the truth is sometimes compromised. Without a doubt, the latter is dangerous.
It is evident then that we need to find a balance. We must be able to present the message in ways that are easily understood while ensuring that the truth remains distinct from untruth. It is essential that the truth of the Gospel must always remain while aiming to share it in a culturally relevant manner, making no attempt to “sanitise or sweeten” the message of the cross in order to avoid offending people. “But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” 1 Corinthians 1.23
Scripture shows us that Daniel and his three friends were fully immersed in the Babylonian culture. However, they did not give in to any influences that could have drawn them away from their God. They were willing to engage, which earned them an audience with the Babylonian king. We know that their refusal to compromise truth eventually led to the king’s acknowledgement of God.
When Paul spoke to the people in Athens in Acts 17, he made use of the Athenian style of argument and speaking as well as using their own writers to make his point. In other words, Paul understood Greek culture and contextualised the Gospel in order to share it effectively.
Take a moment and consider how you share the Gospel. Do you need to be more aware of culture and contextualising?