One of the toughest things to do in missions is to communicate the gospel effectively. This is where contextualization comes in. Contextualization is used by missionaries when explaining the gospel in a relevant way to the current culture in which the missionary is working. The world is full of all different kinds of people with a variety of different world experiences. These experiences inform our worldview. As we bring the gospel to different cultures, we need to understand their point of reference and understanding. When we do not, it can be… um… awkward.
I was reminded of this fact last week. I found myself trying to explain the game of American football to a Chinese friend. This sounds like a fairly straightforward task. It is not exactly rocket science. It is a game. Surely an educated man of the world, such as myself, could easily explain a game. Luckily I did not bet money on that assertion.
My friend had zero experience or frame of reference for American football. Image a space alien from a faraway galaxy landed in front of your house on a fall Sunday afternoon. Now imagine, as you lounge in your EZ boy, that said space creature points to your 500 inch, plasma screen, wifi-enabled TV and says, “Explain.”
Talk it through
“So these guys are trying to go this way with the ball. And the other guys are trying to stop them.” – So far so good.
“And those guys can run with the ball or throw it.” – You’re doing great.
“So the first guy throws it to the second guy.” – You’re a pro.
Then spaceman hits you with, “So can the second guy throw it again?”
“Well no. Well, I mean, he can throw it backward. He just cannot throw it forward.” – Keep it together man.
“Well, because… um… that would be a forward… um… lateral… and, um.” – You’re too low Maverick… PULL UP MAN! PULL UP!
“So only the first guy can throw it. Can he throw it from anywhere?”
“Well no… there’s this line called the line of scrimmage.” – You know this. Breathe.
“Which line is it? Is it one of the white lines?”
“No um… See it is not a real line. it is kind of imaginary. Well… the TV crew makes one on the TV.” – Now you sound like a crazy person.
“The TV makes the line? How does the thrower see it?”
“I would like you to leave now please.” – Well played.
Contextualization and the gospel
My conversation did not go quite this bad. But it is a pretty close transcript of our conversation. It made me realize a few things. Many times the Biblical truths that we have mined, through years of living out a life in Christ, are not quite that obvious to friends that have zero reference point for a loving God that wants to know them personally. We need contextualization. We need to present the gospel in a way they can understand from their point of view and their life experiences.
Sometimes we need to slow down and remember that it is often the basic truths of Christ’s love that have eluded some of our friends. It is the simplicity of the gospel that translates so easily: love, grace, redemption, peace, and joy.