Contextualizing the “Least Things”
by Ruth Julian
Last November, I was sitting in the living room of a vibrant Congolese Christian woman and we were sharing prayer requests. She asked for prayer for the upcoming month. Wanting to understand the request better, I probed to find out more details. She explained that in Congo, the month of December is one in which people are fearful and stretched beyond their means financially. They are expected to purchase gifts for elder family members who have positions of responsibility and power in the family. If people do not show respect to their elders by purchasing and giving gifts, they fear physical repercussions from the spiritual realm.
She continued, “There is a lot of sickness and death in the month of December. People are afraid.” Churches in the capital city of Brazzaville are filled on New Year’s Eve. People who never darken the door of a church during the year are faithful to attend these all-night services. Why? In many cases, it is because they are thankful for the protection from their family and the ability to finish the year alive and well. In other cases, it is to “buy” protection for the upcoming year.
When I asked my friend if this phenomenon of fear is ever addressed in church, she replied, “In church, we talk about the big ideas of our faith, but we never talk about the least things.” These “least things” that influence thinking and actions in everyday lives are the building blocks of contextualization. If they are not addressed, Christ, the giver of abundant life, is kept out of these areas.
In another situation in Congo, I visited a Christian woman who had been thrown out of her home. As she talked about what had brought her to the brink of divorce, I wondered, “What went wrong? Could this have anything to do with the lack of contextualized Christianity in this culture?” As anger and palpable fear spewed forth, I heard the influence of culture dominating any influence of Christ in her life. The deciding factor in her reactions was cultural reasoning, not Jesus’ life and teaching, not the victory found in his death and resurrection.
These experiences reflect how, in a crisis situation, our true colors show vividly. If we have allowed Christ to transform us—not just through intellectual belief, but to pierce the core of our very being—this will become apparent in these types of situations. If, on the other hand, Christianity has been simply a means to an end, a social outlet, or an intellectual assent to a set of beliefs, this will also become evident.
We find the same phenomenon if we scratch below the surface of Christianity throughout the world. Materialism, family, and social expectations often have more influence on Christians than the gospel has. Christians become content with Sunday morning Christianity while letting other voices reign throughout the rest of the week. This so-called “Christianity” is not what will pull people through crises. It is weak, having no power to bring the kind of transformation that gets to the core of who we are. Therefore, other powerful cultural elements fill the void.
Evangelical contextualization can be a way to pursue this transformation because it treats seriously both the gospel and the world in which this gospel is to be presented and lived out. While the term “contextualization” has been around since the early 1970s and attempts were made to put it into practice even earlier, stories like the ones above accentuate the importance of contextualization.
In August 2008, I had the privilege of working with scholars from three different academic disciplines who met to present papers and discuss evangelical contextual theology. No longer content with a verbal assent to the need of contextual theology, these scholars proposed ways for the gospel to be contextualized so that the reality of what is promised in the gospel becomes a reality in people’s lives.
As long as contextualization remains in the domain of academia, it does no one any good. Contextualization is not an academic discipline to study; it is a discipline to be lived out. Making the gospel real, allowing it to take shape and take root in any and all contexts in order to bring transformation, is the basis for contextualization.
What if the Congolese Christians living in fear received not a gospel that ignores this fear, but one that challenges it and gives the means to overcome it? What if the woman bent on divorce had been discipled in a way that took her beyond an intellectual belief and addressed her context (marriage, family, culture) so that transformation could take place? What if the gospel message presented throughout the world challenged our bent toward materialism and societal pressure and yet affirmed us in who God has created us to be in our contexts?
Contextualization is not a panacea for all the wrongs in the Christian world. The transformation that the gospel holds out to people is more likely, however, when the “least things” that are often the driving factors of everyday life are addressed by a contextualized gospel.
Ruth Julian works with The Christian and Missionary Alliance in the Republic of Congo. She is a visiting professor at several seminaries and Bible schools in Central Africa, teaching in the areas of mission and contextualization.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 392-393. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.