Contextualization means that one group of people has borrowed an idea or custom from another group, and has come to consider the borrowed item to now be a part of their own culture. For example, the Christmas Tree is thought to have originated with German speakers, but is now a part of American culture.

Another example: cars were invented in the west, but today no one says that if you drive a car you are not a real Chinese. Cars are a normal part of Chinese culture, even though not necessarily everyone buys a car. They fit into an existing space (transportation) or people accept the parts of the invention that fill a felt need (such as status-symbol).

The term contextualization was coined in 1972 by Shaki Coe and has had many definitions. Conservative Christians use it to name the “process whereby Christians adapt the forms, content, and praxis of the Christian faith so as to communicate it to the minds and hearts of people with other cultural backgrounds.” (The Changing Face of World Missions1  page 323). 

That book also distinmguises contextualization from two other terms:

1) Indigenization was coined in the mid-1800’s. It means that the universal Christian faith has been put into the forms and symbols of a particular culture of the world (page 327). It is illustrated by the “three-self” principle developed by Rufus Anderson and Henry Venn, which states that local churches should become “self-propagating, self-governing, and self-financing.” More recently, self-theologizing has been added to this list

2) Inculturation, more widely used in Roman Catholic circles, was defined by Pedro Arrupa as “the incarnation of Christian life and of the Christian message in a particular cultural context, in such a way that this experience not only finds expression through elements proper to the culture in question, but becomes a principle that animates, directs and unifies the culture, transforming it and remaking it so as to bring about a new creation”(327-329)

The book also says that the Bible should be translated into  categories relevant to the new cultural context. (p 323), and that Christian contextualization is the process whereby Christians adapt the forms, content, and praxis of the Christian faith so as to communicate it to the minds and hearts of people with other backgrounds. The goal is to make it understandable. (p 323)

Contextualization is associated with another term, assimilation. Assimilation can be a step toward contextualization. Assimilation means that a group of people make use of a foreign idea, but they do not express it in a way that makes it into a part of their culture. An example would be the words amen and hallelujah. In English, Chinese, and many other languages, these Hebrews words were never translated. They are still spoken in Hebrew. An example of a custom that has beenassimilated is that most churches around the world never constructed their own plan for Sunday morning worship. Most still use the ingredients from the Jewish synagogue service (readings, sermon, prayers, offering, benediction). Different groups of Christians just added different additional songs.

When people create a new way to do something that is appropriate to their own culture, instead of “assimilating” an old way, we can then say they “contextualized” that activity. An example of a contextualized Sunday morning church service is that used by the True Jesus church, a church originating in China. They did not copy the historic plan for the worship. Instead, they used their own creativity. They speak the hymns, and they have communion first thing in the service. Another example is the American praise service. It does not follow the ancient European plan, but used the plan of the 19th century American outdoor revival service, using the format of a time of praise followed by a sermon.

The importance and value of understanding contextualizing is that it helps us to see whether we have made mistakes when we contextualized the gospel to our own culture.  We can apply contextualization principles in one-on-one conversations.

Understanding contextualization helps us to look at our own lives, because each individual person, just like each culture, understands new ideas in terms of the ideas he already has. We can explore how much we have contextualized the biblical concepts into our own lives. We can ask whether we understand them and use them according to their original intent, or whether by contextualizing tem into our lives we have distorted the meanings.

Studying contextualization helps strengthen one’s ability to introduce Christianity to non-believers and to create ways to explain Jesus to other cultures, including the younger generation of one’s own culture. Note — your goal is to explain, NOT to convert. That is the Holy Spirit’s job.


Contextualization is done automatically by the listener, and if fact, the cannot avoid contextualizing, because he is only able to grasp new concepts in terms of words and concepts that he already knows. 

The listener will automatically put the new idea into a category, such as “burial practices” or “Military weapons” that already exists in the receiving culture.  Sometimes the category in the receiving culture is different from the one in the sending culture. Contextualization  becomes a subject of concern when the new niche is so different from the original niche that the idea becomes unduly distorted. This could happen through the words chosen for translations, and in the introducing of a new concept.

Here is an example of a problem involving translation: Translators into Chinese chose “crime” as the translation for “sin.” Therefore new Christians have to be taught that in church usage the word “sin” means any disobedience toward God, not only crimes.) 

Here is an example of problem involving a concept. For missionaries in New Guinea, an airplane fit into the category of “transportation,” but for the natives of New Guinea, it was regarded as in the category of “religions,” because the airplane was seen as a god who could brought gifts to you if you cleared a space in the jungle.

From this example, we see that contextualization has to do with a receiving culture finding a place for a concept from a sending culture. This happens when the new idea is able to fill a niche that already exists in the receiving culture. Contextualization  becomes a subject of concern when the new niche is so different from the original niche that the idea becomes unduly distorted. 

The speaker has the responsibility to communicate in a way that will help the receiver to understand the concepts correctly in terms of his own culture. The speaker must listen carefully to the feedback from the receiver, in order to make added explanations when needed until it seems clear that the listener’s grasp is sufficiently close to the concept that was meant.

Here are some secular examples of ideas moving from a niche in one culture to a different niche in a receiving culture:

1.Compare the different effects industrialization had on China and Japan. In Japan, it was welcomed by the emperor and served to strengthen imperial rule. In China, it was rejected by the emperor and weakened the imperial system.

2. In the west, McDonalds is an inexpensive place to eat customary western food. In the east, McDonalds is not inexpensive, and the food is foreign, but junior high kids go there because they find the bright lighting and clean décor attractive.

3. Here is an example involving religion: In Native American culture, dancing has religious meaning; in western culture, dancing is for recreation; to find a niche for native dancing in western culture, Buffalo Bill in his wild west shows had the religious dances done for to fill the niche of entertainment – this is, they were contextualized as entertainment (it was the way they could fit into the context of western culture). On the other hand, putting dead bodies on top of poles was never accepted into western culture at all – there was no open place in the context of western thought where it could be crammed in. for westerners, it remained an exotic custom mainly of interest to anthropologists. Indian tipis were a different matter. You can find them at scout camps and commercial campgrounds. They fill the same context in western culture as they do in their original culture — places to live in.

To understand the contextualization of any topic, one would try to discover which of the three possibilities has occurred: does the new idea fill roughly the same purpose as it did in the originating culture? Has the new idea entered the receiving culture but in order to serve a different purpose? Has the new idea not been accepted by the other culture at all?  Have some people in the receiving culture accepted the foreign idea, while others are reacting to it with hostility?

Here is an example of contextualization without consensus: In India, yoga is a religious practice. Many in the west have put it into the niche of physical exercise. This has led to questions and concerns. A guru may doubt that the western version is truly yoga anymore. A Christian may wonder whether yoga can be done properly without an unwelcome influence on western religious viewpoints. This raises the issue of syncretism2

There are also social hierarchy issues. Paul told Timothy to appoint elders. In western democracies, elders are more likely to be elected. In Chinese churches, it is the oldest people who are deferred to as leaders.)

Social customs complicate the attempt to contextualize. For example, fornication is plainly forbidden in the Bible, and yet AIDS is rampant in southern Africa, which is over 50 per cent Christian. A missionary told me that African Christians agree that fornication is a sin, but it is given about as much weight in their thinking as a traffic violation would be to American Christians. 

In some instances the receiving culture is able to see things in scripture that were not significant to the sending culture. For example,  the scriptural emphasis on eating together is indifferent to westerners, but very meaningful to Chinese. The idea of gathering to eat to celebrate the birthday of a god is central to Chinese folk religion, and gives added weight to gathering to share the body and blood of Jesus.

E. GOD provides a model for contextualizing.
 If we regard the difference between heaven and earth as a cultural gap, we can appreciate the difficulty of God bridging the cultural gap with Israel. In order to reveal the spiritual world, which is beyond human comprehension, God communicated to them using their already existing vocabulary (such as EL for God), and their already existing concepts (such as covenant), but gradually transformed these into richer meanings, largely by God’s actions in history.. Those are the same ways we use to bring the gospel to others: words, concepts, and actions. I’ll draw examples from Abraham (including God providing a ram to take Isaac’s place), Moses (including the tabernacle), and Jesus (including parables and the significance of cross and resurrection).

To Abraham, using Abraham’s language and concepts, God revealed many things.
Though God identified himself by using that region’s generic word for god, which is “El,’ God filled that word”El” with richer meaning by explanations and actions. That is, God showed what kind of a God He is through actions. For example: that God is a God of  personal relationship, by saying “I will be your God.” Of trustworthiness, by saying  “I make my covenant with you.” Of acceptance, by counting Abraham’s faith as righteousness.

To Moses, using Moses’ language and concepts, God revealed:
His personal name, Yahweh, which is a form of the word “to be,” so by using that name God showed that He the source of existence itself. By helping his people escape from Egypt, God showed that He is deliverer and redeemer. By giving the Ten Commandments, that He is a God of ethics, including love. By giving them manna to eat, that He is a God who strengthens faith through trials

Through Jesus, God revealed Himself most completely:
John 1:18 says that Jesus, the only son, who came from the father, has made God known.
Hebrews1:1 says that God has spoken through His son (Hebrews 1:1).

Jesus’ actions deepened the concepts of words like:
1) Love, because he said there is “no greater love than giving up life.”
2) Forgiveness – because as the “ransom for all” Jesus completed the sacrificial system
3) Life. Jesus promlised Abundant life, New life, and eternal life, and 1 John 5:11 says that “this life is in His Son.”

These are the concepts about God that the Hebrews next passed on to the Greeks, using words and forms that the Greeks could grasp, and filling their existing words with particular meanings.

F. SEQUENTIAL CONTEXTUALIZATION. The Hebrews contextualized their beliefs to the Greeks. In translating the Septuagint, the Jewish scholars selected already-existing Greek terms to fill in for the Hebrew concepts. The New Testament writers kept those usages. The words chosen for law and atonement need special explanation to be understood correctly. Examples of using concepts already known to the hearers include Paul’s speech at Athens and John’s use of Logos.  The Greek word agape was chosen to indicate God’s unconditional love.

From the Greeks to western culture. Each people group in Europe understood the gospel from their own standpoint and at many different times (from the Italians in the 1st century to the Scandinavians as late as the 11thcentury). However there was a pull towards standardization due to the acceptance of papal authority and the widespread use of Latin. Each new people group used its already-existing vocabulary words, and the missionaries had to fill these words with Christian meanings.

From the west to China. Jing Jiao (the Nestorians), from the 6th century made wide use of Taoist and Buddhist vocabulary to explain Christian concepts. Matteo Ricci and the rest of the Jesuits, from the 13th century, made it a point to understand the viewpoints of the Confucian scholars. Morrisson, the first Protestant missionary, translated the Bible with Chinese assistance, and chose a different Chinese word for God than the Jesuits had used.  Other word choices that merit examination are the terms chosen for sin and for atonement. By the 1930’s the church in China was said to have become “contextualized” due to the success of Chinese evangelists and the acceptance of the “3-self” idea.  But each generation must explain the faith to the next generation in a way they can contextualize:  every generation must be evangelized afresh.

From China to its neighbors There are still many minority groups within China that need the gospel to be explained more fully. The movement called “Back to Jerusalem” suggests that it is valuable if Chinese Christians become able to explain the gospel to other people groups.

Concepts gained from studying contextualization will help you to be more sensitive and successful in talking to someone of your own language and culture. Even that person will not help but understand what you say in his own terms, so you’ll need to welcome feedback and be able to explain the gospel in many ways.

The receiver will fit the message into his own situation — That is the way he will understand the vocabulary and concepts. He will receive the ideas that fit his felt needs. You find out the felt needs by listening and asking polite but penetrating questions.

1) Be sensitive to misunderstandings and cut-offs; look for bridges and handles. See more
2) Rejection doesn’t mean failure — rejection may mean you have successfully explained clearly.
3) When meeting objections, look at the other person as your friend, not an opponent.  See more

Our role is to present the gospel so that the listener understands it. Whether that person believes the gospel is the role of the Holy Spirit, not ours. The key issue then is not what we say, but what the listener comprehends. More on evangelizing

After someone becomes a Christian, the areas of Christian life, church life, and church organization all have their own difficulties in contextualization, and are important enough to have presentations of their own. Once the person has God as his new Ultimate Allegiance, then this works its way into the other circles of his life and culture,3 affecting beliefs, feelings, and behavior. The work of Ninian Smart provides a check-list for making sure all areas of religion are considered in creating a contextualized church.4

return to cross cultural page          return to evangelizing non-Christian religions

 中英表  Bilingual Index (English to Chinese)

1. Pocock, Michael, Gailyn Van Rheenen, and Douglas McConnell.,  The Changing Face of World Missions.  Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing House, 2005.

Note these Three principles of communicating to another culture found in Paul G. Hiebert, The Gospel in Human Contexts, Grand Rapids, Baker Publishing House 2009 (p 31):
One. The gospel must not be equated with any human culture (the contexts it was revealed in are not normative for every culture)
Two. Gospel and human cultures inter-act with one another. We seek to incarnate the gospel into a culture without the gospel losing its divine nature.
Three. The gospel then transforms. Begin where people are and help them grow in faithfulnesss and toward maturity. First conversion, then INVOLVE PEOPLE IN EVALUATING THEIR OWN CULTURES in light of God’s revelation. They are in a better position to do so than we are.

2. Pocock (op. cit. p331)  says “Avoiding syncretism cannot be left in the hands of expatriate missionaries. The local community must be empowered to biblically evaluate their own practices. Missionaries must learn to trust …”  (p331)  Missiologist Paul Hiebert notes four steps for deciding whether to adapt or discard a pre-Christian custom are quoted in Pocock on page 337:
One. Uncritically gather relevant traditional beliefs and customs
Two. Have the Community study the relevant scriptures together   (see my note below)
Three. Community makes decisions. Options are:
keep old practices that are not unbiblical
reject practices that are biblical
modify practices to have a Christian meaning
Four. Develop the new understanding into rituals that will show and maintain the understanding.

My thought is that “relevant scriptures” would not just be the ones that mention the topic at hand, but also using the gospel message as standard.

3. Click here to see how Gene Bunkowske’s concentric circles illustrate the transformation.

4. To ensure we don’t omit any aspect of creating the new church culture, refer to the 6-part scheme of Ninian Smart, explained in detail by Pocock (op. cit.)starting on page 339.
One. Doctrinal. (what is True) 
Two. Ritual (what do we do to express our beliefs)
Three. Ethical. What is right and wrong, how do we behave.
Four. Experiential. How do we feel, what do we experience.
Five. Stories.
Six. Organizational, including Christian Education and funding