Reading a verse is one thing; living it out is another. That is certainly the case for many of us who have read Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth and found this gem:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
These words from chapter 9 encapsulate the work of contextualization for the modern Christian in cross-cultural service. Yes, the incarnation of Christ is the ultimate example, but since we’re not perfect like Christ, we tend to lean more on Paul’s words and model. Even so, we have big shoes to fill, as he seems to have had a head start with his multiple languages, passports, and education.
When moving toward cross-cultural service, we study and prepare, gaining insights from God’s Word and also from a long history of missionaries who have gone before. There is an implicit and sometimes explicit expectation that we will need to adjust how we live, speak, dress, and act in order to make inroads into the hearts and minds of those to whom we’re called. Unfortunately, in most cases, we are not told how incredibly difficult this is.
During my two years of service in Ivory Coast, West Africa, as much as I tried to dress like Ivorians, speak like Ivorians, and act like Ivorians, I could never completely fit in, because I was not Ivorian. I studied their culture but sometimes still had no clue as to why they did the things they did. Contextualization, however, can only take us so far. Not everything in a particular culture will jive with biblical teaching, and so efforts of contextualization will eventually conflict with our faith and convictions, leading us to stop at a certain action, word, or style of dress.
As we adapt and change our ways, looks, and even speech to reach others, the expectation on our side is that our efforts will open doors for the gospel. Unfortunately, the results do not always meet those expectations, and this is where contextualization meets burnout. We’ve made all the effort, with little fruit to show for it.
Burnout can also come at another point in serving others: when we lose ourselves in the contextualization process. This happens when we’ve worked so hard to conform our words and ways to another culture that we forget who we are and the end goal of our efforts in witness. The essence of contextualization is the word context. We adjust our lifestyle and witness in order to make them fit into this new reality in which we are now living.
Losing one’s self in contextualization means that we haven’t recognized the limits of the process. We’ve passed the limits where our faith and convictions should have stopped us, because we’re too eager to please and fit in. Once we’ve crossed that line, we’ve lost sight of the reason we’re living in this culture in the first place. Dangers of losing one’s self abound, because there is an enemy who is always working against us. We must always keep up our guard as we seek to be all things to all people for the sake of Christ.
Think of the child’s toy that helps them put specific shapes into their corresponding holes. Here I am, a square, now living in a society of circles. I can’t fit in until I shave off my rough edges, and that can be very painful. Yet, if it’s done remembering that at my core, I’m still that square, then I haven’t lost much and can now actually fit into two cultures. It’s when we throw away the core that burnout hits. What makes up my core? My faith and values are the rock-solid center of self. Culture and traditions come and go, but faith in Christ and the values he builds in me should never be sacrificed for the sake of fitting in.
To avoid burnout, I must always keep before me the reason I’m trying to fit in—to open doors for witness. I’m not trying to change because I love their culture or because I plan to live here the rest of my life; I’m changing and adjusting my lifestyle, words, or dress in order to build a bridge to the gospel. I want doors to open because of my efforts to be more circle-like in their eyes. The challenge in contextualization and becoming part of a culture is to make sure you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and what is behind the meanings of words used. Never be afraid to ask questions or to make mistakes. Understanding the nuances of any culture is a long-term endeavor.
There is a point when I have to check myself and ask: “Am I still sharing the truth of the gospel in my words and actions or just trying to please people and not offend them?” When we are no longer able to answer in the affirmative, we’ve lost our way and must return to the basics in our faith and ministry.
While we make changes for the sake of conveying the gospel to others, it is important to remember that the sharing of the gospel can never be fully contextualized, as it would change its very nature. Paul started his proclamation to the Greeks in Athens by talking about their “unknown god,” but the God he revealed to them was completely different from all the gods they knew. Some who heard that day believed and wanted to hear more, while others sneered at his words. He contextualized the message enough to “fit into the hole,” but the core was still fully Jesus, and when Jesus is made known, people must make a choice.
The longer you live among another people group and adapt to their ways and language, the more you feel at home. The foreign becomes familiar, and you may now struggle to connect with your native homeland and family. It seems you can’t be fully at home in two places at once. As strangers in a strange land, we find hope in Christ Jesus our Lord. He reminds us that the only permanent home is the eternal one to come. Embracing this truth, we can handle the unintended consequences of contextualization and find balance in life and ministry.
Carol B. Ghattas has over thirty years of experience in cross-cultural ministry and has lived in five countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Now back in the United States, she maintains an active blog site, lifeinexile.net. She is a writer and speaker on missions, Islam, and other topics. Her newest book, Not in Kansas Anymore: Finding Home in Cross-Cultural Service, is available through online book distributors in eBook and paperback formats. For more information or to contact Carol, visit her website: lifeinexile.net.