Contextualization Meets Burnout

by Carol Ghattas

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, 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:

Cultural or Christian?

by Leland Sawyer

One afternoon I came out of a meeting and saw a large group of men parading down the street. They had completely taken over the road and were blowing whistles, horns and singing all kinds of songs. It was a traditional Bagisu circumcision parade. The last two months of each calendar year is the season for these celebrations, and they mark when a young boy becomes a man in the cultural society. Yes, they do involve circumcision.

They also involve heavy drinking by everyone involved, several elements to pagan worship, and witchcraft. The people celebrating will drink all day and then perform the circumcision (dangerous, right?) in front of everyone. While doing all of this, the elders and leaders of the village are making offerings to and saying spells for the gods and spirits they worship.

These rituals are a part of the culture here; they are ingrained into life. And even as people come to Christ, they struggle to break free from rituals such as this. Many of these practices are steeped in darkness and pagan worship, but people hold onto them long after they have committed to following Jesus because of the strong pull and influence that their upbringing and CULTURE has on their lives. Don’t get me wrong, there are many elements of culture that are not sinful, some even are God-glorifying (such as community and family). But many elements are in direct opposition to our faith in Jesus and a lifestyle of being made into His image.

But let’s not pretend this is an African problem. This is a human problem. It has been this way since the beginning of man. At our last meeting during our National Conference here in Uganda, we focused on the history of culture invading God’s people. The Old Testament is filled with examples of God’s people adapting to their culture and sacrificing their own holiness. We see in Acts 15 how the early Christians were being invaded by legalistic Jewish culture AND by pagan Gentile culture. And we can see throughout church history similar stories.

So as I watched this parade, my first thought was about how they were letting culture dictate their lives in ways directly disobeying the Word of God. But my second thought was much more personal: How do I do the same thing?

  • How do I let my culture (both my passport culture and my new culture) trump the culture of the cross?
  • Do I allow my American individualistic spirit shape my theology more than the Word?
  • How do I allow consumerism to shape my experience within the body of Christ or how I view other people?
  • Am I concerned more about my nation (America) than God’s Kingdom?
  • Do I let the “rebel spirit of Texas” influence my obedience to God’s call?

As I process these questions, I can’t help but be torn when I know that my call is to serve God and His people, but this call is sometimes clouded by my own desires and wants. While I don’t go after the next best technology, the latest styles or fancy cars (we live in Uganda after all), that doesn’t stop me from wanting to buy things. I let my own wants (time, money, resources) trump others’ needs. I hurt inside because I see so much poverty in the streets, yet I live in a pretty comfortable and protected home.

How am I truly loving my neighbors? How am I living out God’s Kingdom rather than my own kingdom? How are my reactions to people shaped by my personal, American views rather than God’s view of people when I think they shouldn’t be doing something?

I’m hoping you also think a little bit about these questions: How do we try to hang onto our culture in a way that contradicts our Christian faith? What types of things do you need to let go of from your culture so that your faith in Christ shines more brightly? How do we live as an “exile and stranger in this world” (1 Peter 2:11)?

photo credit


Leland Sawyer, his wife and 6-year old daughter have been missionaries in Uganda for 3 years. Leland has a passion for life-on-life relational discipleship and the development of spiritually healthy leaders. He works with pastors and church leaders throughout Uganda, walking alongside men and women to help them learn more about what it means to fully live like Jesus. Before moving to Uganda, he was a youth minister for 11 years in Colorado and Texas. You can follow their family and ministry at Sawyers in Uganda.