Adventures with Larry & Caleb: What Are the Key Things That Help You in Contextualizing the Gospel?

Upstream co-founders, Larry McCrary and Caleb Crider, are living in very different places: for Larry, Madrid, Spain; for Caleb, Richmond, Virginia. Along with their families they’re not just teaching Tradecraft missionary skills, they’re also applying them. So we wanted to tap into their unique experiences and at the same time parallel their local and global perspectives. So “Adventures with Larry and Caleb” will be an ongoing series throughout the year where we ask them one mission-related question at a time. Here’s the question for this week:

What Are the Key Things That Help You in Contextualizing the Gospel?

Larry McCrary

Contextualization is the translation of the gospel from one culture to another. Caleb Crider wrote, "It isn’t enough to simply disseminate the information of the gospel; we must also demonstrate what salvation in Christ alone means for those to whom we have been sent” (Tradecraft, 148). For the sake of mission, contextualization means adjusting how we communicate the gospel so that people do not need to join a new culture in order to hear and understand the message.

This brings to mind one of our Jet Set vision trips. We went to two different cities in two separate countries. One was English-speaking and the second spoke another language. One of the trip participants, a pastor, had a major “aha” moment while in the English-speaking country. He had initially thought it could be enough to simply "preach the gospel" there because, thanks to the common language, they would understand the message. However, as he dove deeper into the city and its people, he realized that the cultural differences were massive. They were so different, in fact, that trying to plant a church there would require major cultural exegesis. That alone would allow him to understand the context well enough to proclaim the gospel in way that people could understand it. He recognized there had to be some degree of contextualization, even if the language was the same.

We see this a lot in Europe. Americans naturally consider many European nations to be Western near-cultures. In light of that assumption we think that the gospel would need little contextualization in Europe. Yet almost everyone who comes to serve here learns some really hard lessons – including me.

I live in a Catholic country. You see large and small cathedrals in every neighborhood. You experience the processionals around Holy Week. You have Catholic holidays. You hear the church bells. When I first arrived many years ago, I remember going to Catholic services so I could learn more about my city’s people and their religion. I learned quickly that – though there are many practicing Catholics – that number is decreasing under the advance of postmodern and secular thought. Nevertheless, even with the dip in numbers of practicing Catholics, there is still a rich heritage that overlays the culture with a religious veneer. To be a good missionary, I had to understand this and discover bridges to the gospel. Bridges are cultural aspects inherent to the people that relate directly to the gospel narrative in some way.

I try to keep this in mind as much as possible, especially while having conversations with not-yet-believers. I have found certain symbols and traditions they’ve known since childhood that give me an open door to talking about Christ. When relating within the familiarity of their worldview, it rarely comes across as awkward or abrasive when I bring up spiritual things.

I have also learned to exercise caution and not simply share the gospel out of my own religious upbringing in the states. I have become more and more aware of the things I brought in my “suitcase” that are uniquely North American versions of church and Christianity. I have to identify those and either rework or set them aside. It drives me to look to the Bible for ways that Jesus contextualized himself and his message.

I have found over the years that I tend to try planting the church before I actually plant the gospel. My concentration on the church leads me be overly concerned about the church service, which leads to neglecting the chief importance of contextualizing the gospel. Yet it is out of the receiving of the gospel that indigenous disciples can be made who then help plant healthy, indigenous churches.

Caleb Crider

When it comes to mission, contextualization is widely misunderstood. For some, contextualization is a bad word. For them, it implies a watering-down of the hard teachings of Jesus and the “missionalization” of whatever pet project one might want to focus on. 

Contextualization is the tension in which a missionary finds himself: holding tightly to the universal, unchanging gospel of Jesus while maintaining a deep understanding of cultural realities (such as language, identity, and culture) with the other. This, as you might imagine, can be a tricky thing. Many Christians are so focused on right doctrine that they fail to adequately translate that truth so that it may be understood to the hearer. On the other hand, some Christians seem to prioritize culture above the gospel, changing the message in the name of cultural appropriateness and losing Christ in the process.

As a practitioner of contextualization, I find two things to be true: I must be faithful to study God’s Word regularly and I must be an active student of the cultures in which I minister. 

All of God’s people should read the Bible every day. Unfortunately, many Christians don’t read their Bibles. Of course, this means that when questions arise, most of us don’t have the foundation of truth which helps us stand against the lies of the enemy. The only way to know the mind of Christ is to devote ourselves to the reading of His Word. For me, this means reading beyond sermon preparation, and family Bible study. I’ve got to meditate on the Scripture and hide His Word in my heart so that I won’t sin against Him.  

To help me accomplish this, I’ve come to love the YouVersion Bible App. This tool gives me access to multiple translations of scripture, Bible study tools, and reference tools. It also provides me with a reasonable plan so I know what to read each day. My favorite tool that YouVersion offers is the ability to easily create a sharable .jpg of a select passage laid out over an interesting background. My family prints these and uses them to help us memorize Bible verses. 

On the other side of contextualization, we must be active students of culture. This is easier said than done; our culture is particularly designed not to be studied, but to be consumed. It’s very difficult to wade into art, business, or politics without being wooed into idolatrous consumption of the lifestyles and products that accompany them. Immersing ourselves into worldly culture is spiritually dangerous work (which is why many Christians are tempted to disengage and attempt to isolate themselves from the world’s influence altogether). 

In order to do this well, I try to be careful to look for certain wells of cultural information and insight. I regularly listen to NPR for current events and a variety of cultural interest pieces. I keep up with cable news and whatever popular television that influences the people around me. I’m active on Twitter (and lurk on Facebook) in order to see what’s being talked about. I listen to whatever music is trending in order to be part of the social conversation that occurs around it. I spend as much time as I can listening to people who do not know Christ in order to understand the questions they’re answering. I believe this puts me in a very good position to show them how Jesus is the answer to those questions. 

Contextualization isn’t a tight rope to walk; there isn’t a slippery slope on either side. Instead, it’s the practice of remaining intentionally involved in active study of both the Scriptures and of culture. Fortunately, there is grace all along the way. We serve a God who is not bound by our limitations of understanding. He goes with us and empowers us to be His witnesses wherever we’ve been sent.