In this 4-part series we unpack To Win Some’s namesake passage, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Today AM brings you Part 2. (Click for Part 1)
Imagine you were captured through war and sold as a slave to a foreign family. You would quickly learn their language, adopt their schedules, live in their way as a matter of course.
In New Testament times a slave in a Roman household was expected to adapt to Roman ways, a slave in a wealthy Jewish household likewise to Jewish customs. A slave “was an outsider who bought no rights with him from the society he came from, and had no claims on the society which maintained him” (Thomas Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery).
- Remember Joseph diving into Potiphar’s household and becoming, to all intents and purposes, Egyptian?
- Daniel and his friends learning the language and literature of the Babylonians?
- Naaman’s wife’s slave girl in 2 Kings 5:2-3?
They maintained a distinctiveness, a witness, they never forgot who they were, yet their success was in large part due to their willingness to get stuck into the culture where God had sovereignly placed them.
This is the language Paul chooses in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, “I have made myself a slave to all… to the Jews I became a Jew.” I enter any new household, any new nation not as a know-it-all, not as an internationally-acclaimed speaker, not as an answer-carrier – I enter as a slave. I bind myself to their customs, their food, their rhythm of life, I constrain myself to their constraints. Why? To win some.
We call this contextualization, or inculturation, or incarnation. But let’s be clear. In these verses Paul is not primarily referring to contextualization of the message (although Paul was a master at this). Paul is primarily talking about contextualization of the messenger.If you are concerned about reaching new nations for Christ, then you are concerned with contextualization. We must seek to identify as closely and deeply as we can with the people we are reaching.
But why contextualize? Why become a slave to the people we are seeking to reach?
1. Because the Lord Jesus did
Jesus didn’t bring a message, he was the message.
When God wanted to communicate salvation to us, he didn’t give us a book, or an angel, or a prophet – he gave us a life, lived at a certain time in a certain place in a specific culture and language. Born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law (Galatians 4:4-5).
With my Muslim friends I am constantly debating this – Jesus didn’t bring a book, Jesus is the book. He makes the invisible God visible. He earths the principles of the gospel in a real life that could be touched and asked questions of and accepted or rejected.
The gospel was incarnated, inculturated, in Jesus.
God is not a Middle-Eastern 1st century man, but he lived on earth as one. God is not under the Mosaic Law, but he chose to be. “The incarnation meant the deliberate self-limiting of a divine being in order to be truly and fully human” (Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image).
The gospel isn’t the Sermon on the Mount; it is Jesus’ actions in life and death and resurrection. As Tim Chester writes, “What was Jesus’ mission strategy? The Son of Man came eating and drinking” (A Meal With Jesus). So with us – preaching will take up a very small part of your time; living, eating, relating, commuting, parenting will take up most of it.The message is you. Your life. The Son of God had to incarnate. So do you.
2. To communicate effectively
Communication theory states that you have only communicated effectively if the listener has understood. Timothy Keller’s book Center Church is probably the best book you will read on contextualization of the gospel. Keller writes:
Contextualization is not — as is often argued — “giving people what they want to hear.” Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.
To communicate effectively you have to be close enough to people to know what questions they are asking. You have to listen. Communication is a two-way bridge; we cannot just expect to traffic our message over to them, without first allowing traffic from them over to our side.
“Even Jesus didn’t start off by telling people who he was – but listening to who they were.” – Bob Roberts
The medium is the message, and this is especially true in high-context cultures. In a low-context culture (like the UK), what you wear, what family you come from, and what house you live in are not relevant if the message you speak is persuasive and compelling. But in a high-context culture, these things are inseparable from the message – your context is the message. Someone from such a culture cannot even “hear” your argument because of the loud interference played by your alien lifestyle.
We become slaves to the culture we are entering in order to get close enough to people to hear their stories, their fears, their worldview, their heart-questions. And we take on as many of the cultural forms as is feasible because the medium is the message.
3. To empathise
Jesus didn’t just suffer for us, he suffered with us. Hence he is a sympathetic High Priest (Hebrews 2:17-18). He had to draw grace from the Father and comfort from the Spirit in the wilderness, and in Gethsemane.
When I sit in the traffic on a 4-hour daily commute, or am struck by a virus that has emptied half the schools in the city, people will listen to me because I live here too! I am vulnerable to the same temptations and need to learn how to draw on grace, and when I preach on these things people nod their heads because I speak with empathy.
When a foreign worker does something for the good of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) it is both missional and empathetic, because if he genuinely lives in the city (not just camps on it), then “in its welfare you will find your welfare” is authentically true for him.
Empathy cannot be faked. Only one who has suffered can comfort one who suffers. Although it is rare for cross-cultural workers to genuinely “become” local, the effort that you make to expose yourself to the same lifestyle as those you are seeking to reach – your schooling options, accommodation, work hours, food – will go a long way to communicating the compassion of Christ who lived among Jewish men as a Jewish man.
4. To earth the gospel into the culture you are reaching
If a Westerner communicates the gospel to an Easterner the immediate assumption is that the gospel is Western. So as far as possible we inculturate our lives, as the gospel is communicated not just with words, but with lifestyle. This is what the good news about Christ looks like, feels like.
And how it looks is different in every culture. There is no such thing as Christian culture, just as Muslim culture changes from Indonesia to Morocco. We communicate Christian values by “fleshing them out” in the culture that we are serving. That is what Jesus did.
We threw a party and invited a whole raft of friends, including the local shopkeeper. In an honour-shame culture there is a constant, subconscious vying for position – You are a teacher, I am a lawyer… I am higher-status than you. Our friends were nonplussed, even appalled that we had invited “the market man.” They took me into the kitchen to rebuke me.
So this moment becomes an enactment of the gospel – the God who accepts all regardless of social status, the new community where inclusivity trumps exclusivity – much as the parties that Jesus attended “fleshed out” his message of grace, hope and new community.
By living cross-culturally we have a unique opportunity to proclaim the gospel through how we live from within the culture.
It is not merely the preaching of the gospel per se that is important, but the preaching of the gospel through a messenger who incarnates its message such that the hearers can both understand it clearly from one who obviously empathises with them and can see what it would look like if it took root in them. (Ciamper & Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians).
Editor: This post contained points 1-4 here. Stay tuned as we continue the question “Why contextualize?” with points 5-8 in the next post.
AM has been in a city in the ME since 2009, leading a team, leading his family, planting a church. “We are still very new at this, so don’t take anything I say too seriously!” Click here to connect on Twitter.