A well-known blogger/author recently said about his church: “We do contextualize. Our services are in English.”
When pressed he said, “Sure, we could contextualize more.”
In other words:
- Contextualization means speaking the same language.
- Contextualization beyond this isn’t all that important.
But this is an abysmal definition of contextualization.
First, it fails to account for God’s common grace beyond the realm of language. God communicates through mountains. Music. Art. Poetry. Story. Life.
Second, it fails to see contextualization as an act of love. Speaking a language we already know does not suffice.
Third, it fails to follow the picture of contextualization woven throughout scripture. God does not merely use human language, but human experience to communicate: slaughtered animals, naked prophets, nations at war, etc. Language is merely the glue that connects these concrete realities to the unseen.
Fourth, it fails to understand the nature of language. C.S. Lewis (in an essay I’m dying to remember, if anyone does) once wrote that all real communication deals with concrete realities. For example: when I say ‘Cedar Tree’, I am communicating an image to you.
When I say ‘tree’, I communicate less.
When I say ‘nature’, I communicate even less.
When I say ‘thing’, I say nothing.
The more we categorize, the less we contextualize, and so – the less we communicate. If communication is mediating between us and the Mediator, we stand (as John Stott’s book notes) between two worlds.
It’s not enough to say ‘Trinity’ – we must also say, “Father, Son, and Family Lawyer”.
It’s not enough to say ‘Propitiation’, we must also say, ‘Lamb on the altar’.
But even this is not enough (contra John MacArthur). Because we no longer belong to that world: we belong to our world. We’re not shepherds, or priests, or money-lenders. The point of these pictures is to draw on concrete reality – but this is no longer our concrete reality. Now we’re movie-watchers, app-users and Facebook mongers.
The contextualization question, then, is: “How can we glue the concrete realities of daily life in our world to the concrete realities of the gospel?” And ‘daily life’ is shifting sand, consisting of one-thousand variations within English-speaking people groups.
That’s why contextualization isn’t just speaking English. It’s speaking their English.