Contextualization of Essential Christianity: Three Points

by Charles H. Kraft

The essence of Christianity does not lie in the religious
structures that are so obvious, but in something deeper,
which Kraft shares using three key characteristics.

Over the years, I have become more and more impressed with the uniqueness of Christianity. It is, of course, commonplace to refer to Christianity as one of the religions of the world. Whole departments in universities have been set up to study the religious dimension of human beingness; in these departments, Christianity has been seen as parallel to other religions and studied as such. This approach tends to deal with the religions as equal to each other, with all the truths claimed by adherents as relative, none to be absolutized.

I have come to believe, however, that not only does Christianity differ from the religions by virtue of the fact that it can claim absolute truth, but that it differs in its fundamental core. That is, the essence of Christianity does not lie in the religious structures that are so obvious, but in something much deeper, something infinitely more valuable. It is to the discussion of that difference and some of its ramifications that I devote this article. Essential Christianity, I propose, is based on three closely-related propositions.

1. Essential Christianity is a faith, not simply a religion.
2. Essential Christianity is a Person, not simply a system.
3. Essential Christianity is intended to be a process, not simply a product.

Note that I have said “not simply,” because in each case our faith is also a religion, a system, and a product. But it is not simply a religion, a system, or a product, as those who study it as simply one of the religions would tend to see it. These aspects or expressions of our faith are the phenomena that phenomenologists study. But unless they get well beyond these phenomena, they never get to the essence of the faith Jesus brought to us—for this essence is not in our rituals or doctrines, any of which can be practiced and believed without the faith commitment they are intended to express.

First, let me state why these three propositions are important in a discussion of contextualization. Although we define contextualization as a process by which people are able to express their faith in familiar cultural terms without the necessity of converting to another culture, we must ask ourselves, “What about Christianity makes it possible for it to be expressed in any culture without the requirement that people adopt a large amount of a foreign culture in order to properly express the new faith?”  

If people become Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims, they need to learn certain rituals, beliefs, and practices that originated in the culture of origin and have been handed down through the generations in a package. Although missionaries and others have often presented Christianity in such a package, this has been a mistake and through advocating contextualization we need to seek to correct this error.

A Faith, Not Simply a Religion
A faith is something or someone that one commits oneself to. It can be an idea such as Communism or evolution, or it can be a person such as the leader of a movement or Jesus Christ. A faith can even be an allegiance to a cultural entity such as an organization or a religion. When talking about a faith, however, it is the commitment or allegiance that is in focus, not the cultural structuring in terms of which that commitment is expressed.

To illustrate from another worldview, if Islam were presented as a faith rather than a religion, there would be a total focus on the Shahada (their statement of faith) without requiring what have come to be known as Islamic cultural requirements. The Muslim commitment, then, would be to what lies behind their statement of faith rather than to their religion; the forms developed to express that faith would vary from culture to culture. As it is, however, the religion called Islam is taken in a well-defined package from society to society with certain adaptations made in each context, but little or no contextualization.

A religion, however, is a cultural structuring. It is a step beyond the faith, an expression of the faith in ways meaningful at least to the first generation. The faith is the intended first step. But since we are cultural beings, it is part of our nature to construct cultural ways of expressing our faith—thus a religion.

A religion is a package of rituals, beliefs, and practices that, when carried to another culture, can be adapted but not contextualized. The fact that this has happened so often with missionary Christianity upsets those of us who teach that God intended the Christian faith-commitment to be expressed in any cultural forms, not simply packaged in the forms of a certain culture and exported. We believe that God intended more, and less—more culturally-appropriate faith-commitments and less foreign culture importation.  

It is unfortunate that there has been a tendency to see our own cultural expression of Christian beliefs and practices as being in competition with the religious beliefs and practices of non-Christians.  Conversion, then, means seeking to convert non-Christians to the cultural forms of our religion on the assumption that these forms—our religion—are the best of the competing religious options available.  

Because this has been a common aim of Christian witness throughout history, Christianity has been identifiable by the cultural forms in which it has been encapsulated. It is those forms that are ordinarily carried from society to society as the religion spreads. Taking the Christian religion to the peoples of other societies, then, involves the taking of our religious forms and adapting them to the culture of the receiving peoples.

Contextualization, however, is the approach recommended by the Apostle Paul in Acts 15 as not requiring that Gentiles be converted to Jewish customs in order to follow Jesus. Paul learned this approach by watching God give the Holy Spirit to Gentile converts on the basis of faith alone. Although the early Christians set out to win people on the assumption that Christianity was to involve conversion to a set of Jewish religious forms, the Holy Spirit broke their rule and endorsed Gentile cultures as adequate vehicles for Gentile interaction with God. The culture in which Jesus met his followers was not to be the cultural norm for the expression of Christianity.

The focus, then, was to be on the relationship between the converts and God, rather than on the cultural forms in terms of which that relationship is expressed. It became clear that what God wants is not a certain set of cultural forms, but a faith response that can be expressed in a multiplicity of cultural forms. The battle for Christians of the early centuries, then, was to be over whether one worshipped Caesar or Jesus—not over whether one practiced the religious forms followed by the Jewish Christians.

Religion is the expression through cultural forms of deep-level (worldview) assumptions and meanings. Religious forms are culture-specific and, if the religion has been borrowed from another cultural context, it requires certain forms of the other culture to be borrowed. Islam, for example, requires certain forms of prayer, a specific pilgrimage, an untranslatable Arabic book, even clothing styles. So does Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and what I call “culture Christianity.” These are religions.

Essential biblical Christianity, however, requires none of the original cultural forms. That is why it could be “captured” by the West and considered Western, even though its origin is not Western. Essential Christianity is an allegiance, a relationship, from which flows a series of meanings that are intended to be expressed through the cultural forms of any culture. These forms are chosen for their appropriateness to convey proper biblical meanings in the receptors’ contexts.

I believe Christianity is intended to be “a faith,” not a set of cultural forms, and is therefore different in essence from the religions.At the start, it is a faith commitment. Only then do we build a religion, a cultural expression, out of it (or accept someone else’s structuring of our faith). It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that contextualization focuses on the cultural forms that result from that faith. When we do that, we are into adaptation, not contextualization.

Because they are cultural, religions can be adapted to new cultures. Adaptation is an external thing resulting in smaller or larger changes in the forms of the religion. Christianity, however, can be contextualized, a process in which appropriate meanings may be carried by quite different forms in various cultures.

Unfortunately, due to the interference of culture Christianity, we have not seen all the possible varieties of truly contextualized Christianity. Like a religion, the usual form of initiation into Christianity is a first-century cultural form involving water. The consolidation ceremony called Communion often involves the original drink, wine (although many churches have made an adaptation by using grape juice), and bread (often substituting our kind of bread for the unleavened, Jewish bread).

True contextualization for many peoples would employ a form of initiation similar to that of their tradition. Without knowing it, then, churches that have pot luck suppers have happened on a contextualization of the Communion meal.

To highlight the differences between a religion and a faith, I offer the chart below.

Religion (Structural) A Faith (Personal)
Structural, cultural/worldview Personal/group/social
Rituals, rules Relationship
Beliefs Commitment/allegiance
Perform Obey
Adapt Contextualize
Borrow/accept/imitate (e.g., worship forms) Create/grow (e.g., new cultural forms)
“One size fits all” Cultural varieties of expression
Like a tree that must be transplanted Like a seed that gets planted
Like a loaf of bread that gets passed on Like yeast that gets put in raw dough
An institution A fellowship

When one looks at a list of contrasts such as this one and recognizes that every religion starts out as a cultural expression of a faith, the question comes to mind as to whether a given religion’s structure might be used to express the faith that supposedly lies behind another religion.

Could, for example, Christian faith be expressed in cultural forms ordinarily associated with Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism? I believe it can, and movements such as that in Bangladesh among Muslim converts that work at a C4 or C5 level and that among Hindus spoken about by Herbert Hoefer in Churchless Christianity testify to this possibility. Using the name of the cultural package to refer to the culture and Christianity to refer to the faith thus gives us combinations such as “Hindu Christianity,” “Buddhist Christianity,” or “Muslim Christianity.”

But defining essential Christianity as a faith rather than a religion is not the only thing that sets it apart from religions.

A Person, Not Simply a Structure
A study of communication theory leads us to the recognition that a person is the major part of any message he or she brings. Communication depends on relationships. As one communication specialist has stated, any given communication consists of content plus relationship. The relational part of the communication is such that it interpenetrates every part of what is said and done in communicational situations, influencing every aspect of the communication, especially the way the event is interpreted by the receptors.

This means that each of us is our message, and how we relate to those who receive messages from us is a crucial part of the message we seek to share.

How unfortunate when missionaries define their ministries in terms of words or tasks. They have been influenced by our society, including that fact that much of our theological training is word and information-oriented. They also often carry our society’s baggage when they see themselves as specialists, rather than as persons.

We weep when we hear of Bible translators, development workers, teachers, pastors, and evangelists who carry out their specialties with precious little focus on how they are relating to the people around them. Their relationships (or lack thereof) carry a very loud message about Christianity. They unintentionally say that our faith stands for a distant God, an uninvolved God, a God who speaks about or specializes in what he thinks is important, but pays little attention to what his actions communicate.

How different is Jesus, who spent thirty-three years among us communicating (contrary to the belief of the Jews of his time) that when God gets close, it’s good news rather than bad news. How different was the message of the One who gave himself to us and for us, whose whole ministry was couched in a close relationship with the twelve and many more (e.g., the women, the family of Lazarus). Even the Apostle Paul knew that he was the message when he said, “Imitate me just as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

The point is that the message, the gospel, is not about Jesus. Jesus is the message—the gospel we seek to contextualize—and we are the personal representatives of that message today. In order to contextualize Jesus, we must contextualize ourselves. This involves both being (who we are) and doing (what we do). Our being is to be like Jesus; our doing is to demonstrate God in the midst of human life.

The most effective way of communicating something is to demonstrate it. So Jesus was the demonstration of God the Father. Jesus said to Philip, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). It is interesting (and disturbing) to note that our word-oriented Bible publishers put the words of Jesus in red. But that’s not where his main message lay. Jesus actually said very little that was totally new. The newness of his messages sprang more from who said those things than from what was said. His primary message was not in his words, but in who he was (his being) and what he did (the way he demonstrated God).

His was a life message, not simply a word message. He said, “I came to bring life, abundant life” (John 10:10). Life can only be communicated through life rubbing against life to produce life.  

Relationship, then, is the key fruit that is the demonstration of God. This is evidenced from God’s early relationship with Adam to his relationships with Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, and everyone in scripture and beyond scripture. Jesus says, “Abide in Me and bear fruit” (John 15)—this is fruit that demonstrates God’s love, compassion, mercy, grace, righteousness, and very character.

The first name given to Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us. In order to communicate him, we must genuinely be with those we seek to win and disciple. Contextualization, then, is the process by which Jesus in us is lived in such a way that people feel his incarnation, his life being lived among them. Everything else we talk about in contextualization studies is a derivative of this presence communication. To contextualize the gospel is to bring Jesus’ presence into the lives of a people.

A Process, Not Simply a Product
We often talk of contextualization as if it is or could be a finished product. We want to see a contextualized Christianity produced in such and such a place, and would be happy if the people of that place relate to Christ in a culturally appropriate way. We want to see people express their faith in their own way.

Often lost in our discussions, however, is the fact that true Christianity is intended to be dynamic—as it is in the New Testament. When Christianity is alive, people are growing and changing. When revival hits, we can count on movement and creativity, even heresy.

Most people and groups that come to Christ start out with at least a few sub-ideal beliefs and practices. Their churches may be too Western (C1 or C2) or too indigenous (what some critics consider C5 to be). In either case, there may be need for movement, say from C2 to C3 or from C5 to C4, if the people in these churches are to understand and better relate to God.

Much of the criticism of approaches to contextualization that advocate a C5 Christianity seems to be based on the fear that if people start one way, there is little hope of them ever maturing into something better. The assumption is that if people start with sub-ideal customs (e.g., polygamy, reverence for ancestors, common-law marriages), they will continue in those customs.

Such an attitude, however, demonstrates our unwillingness to trust both the Holy Spirit and the people who turn to Christ. As William Smalley once said, when we don’t trust the Holy Spirit to work his transforming work in the churches we seek to guide, “we are treating [the Holy Spirit] as a small child with a new toy too complicated and dangerous for Him to handle. Our paternalism is not only a paternalism toward other peoples. It is also a paternalism towards God” (1958).

Contextualization is to be seen as a process guided by the Holy Spirit that starts with a faith relationship around which is constructed a cultural system embodying many sub-ideal customs. Guided by the Holy Spirit, people are to grow, develop, and change that cultural system in every generation and between generations toward greater approximation to scriptural ideals as a function of their growth in Christ-likeness. For this to happen, we:

• Need spiritual growth within whatever type of Christianity the receptors started with, whether C1, C2, C5, etc.
• Need pressure on the part of the leadership toward Christian ideals
• Need continual discovery from the word and experience
• Need continual reexamination of every custom to see if it is appropriate to scripture and the receiving culture

We need these things because the gospel is (1) personal and people are always growing and (2) a faith, and faiths must grow if they are to continue to be vital. Systems do not grow and are difficult to change, but a faith can and should grow.

Essential Christianity needs to be seen as a faith instead of a religion if we are to talk sensibly about contextualization. For only a faith can be expressed in any set of cultural forms. Ours is not intended to be a religion that gets transplanted and, although adapted a bit, is really the same set of forms from culture to culture.

Essential Christianity needs to be seen as personal instead of structural. We seek to communicate a Person, not a system. To do that, we need to be personal and relational, since we are the major part of the message we seek to communicate.

And essential Christianity needs to be seen as a process in which people engage under the direction of the Holy Spirit instead of a product produced in one society and transported to another. We are to seek to plant seeds, not to transplant whole trees. It is this faith, this Person, this process that contextualization is all about.

Smalley, William A. 1958. “Cultural Implications of an Indigenous Church.” Practical Anthropology 5(2):51-65.


Charles H. Kraft is professor emeritus of anthropology and intercultural communication at Fuller Seminary, where he has taught since 1969. He holds a Ph.D. from Hartford Seminary Foundation and has been a pioneer missionary in Nigeria. Charles is the author of thirty books.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 80-86. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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