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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Need for Cultural Contextualization

Written by: on June 7, 2017

Growing in cultural awareness has been a progressive experience in my life journey. I can say with certainty today that cultural context is more complex and intricate than I had ever anticipated. It shapes us more than what we realize. Let me share a few experiences as I reflect on this week’s reading.

LANGUAGE:  Even though Spanish is my native language, when my family moved to Mexico to serve as missionaries, a simple greeting would often invite the question, “Where are you from?” I soon realized that my Spanish was Chilean Spanish, so I had to contextualize my language to the new culture in which I was ministering. Eventually I stopped using certain words, I learned new words, and I learned to pronounce some words a little differently. I discovered that effective missionaries know how to contextualize their language.

MOVIES: Later, while leaving in Texas and functioning in English, I discovered that several of the movies that I loved growing up had a different name in English. For instance, I loved the movie “The War of the Galaxies.” Perhaps it is one of your childhood favorites too, except that you know it as Star Wars. How about the movie, “The Rebellious Nun”? It is a famous musical that you know as “The Sound of Music.” I discovered that in order for movies to be marketable in a different cultural context, the names have to be adapted because words carry different nuances in different cultures. Successful movie producers know how to contextualize their movie titles.

FOOD: How about food? Do you like Hellmann’s Mayo? Many people that travel internationally have experienced that the same product may not taste the same when purchased in a different country. My father, who worked for a company that produced many international brands, explains that companies conduct flavor studies in order to adjust the taste of the product to the different audiences. It is the same brand—just a slightly different nuance in flavor. I discovered that experienced food companies know how to contextualize their flavor.

MATH: How about Math? We think of math as an exact science, so perhaps the idea of contextualizing math may initially sound illogical. Yet, let me ask you to solve the following equation. 120:6=____. If you studied Math in Chile you would know that the answer is 20, because that is the way we write a division. I discovered that contextualization is not limited to language and taste, but even the way we write mathematical equations changes from culture to culture. It is the same Mathematical calculation—just a different process to get to the same answer.

THEOLOGY: How about theology? I used to think that theology was a different beast altogether; one that transcends culture. However, Matthew Michael has successfully shown the need for contextualized theology in his book, Christian Theology and African Traditions. Contextualizing theology does not mean sacrificing sound doctrine for syncretism. Rather, it means adapting the nuances of theological reflection to its cultural context. It is about building a theological framework that addresses the cultural worldview and gives answers to issues faced by people in a given culture. Failing to do so may render the church irrelevant and ineffective. Irrelevant, because it fails to address questions that are important for people in a given cultural context. Ineffective, because it fails to transform the distorted worldview that Christians inherit from their cultural context.

As Michael reflects on systematic theology in each chapter of his book, he addresses the worldview that Africans have in each category, tailoring the theological reflection to the African worldview. He calls church leaders to pay attention to the nuances of African Christianity in order to be relevant and effective in an era of unprecedented church growth in the African continent. He does so in a systematic way that is biblically balanced and culturally insightful.

If the church is to succeed worldwide, it cannot be an import from the west with a west title and a west flavor, but it has to be contextualized like linguists, movie producers, mathematicians and the food industry have already discovered.  Consequently, effective theologians also know how to contextualize their theology to the culture in which the church is planted. This is an important lesson to learn as I continue to lead Ethnos Bible Church in a diverse context that is multilingual, transcultural, and multigenerational.

About the Author

Pablo Morales

Pablo Morales serves as the Lead Pastor of Ethnos Bible Church in Texas. He is currently pursuing the Doctor of Ministry degree in Leadership and Global Perspectives at Portland Seminary in order to understand what it takes to develop a healthy multiethnic church.

7 responses to “The Need for Cultural Contextualization”

  1. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Pablo,

    Reading what you wrote about contextualizing to specific cultures makes me think that your challenge is significant because Ethnos Church is trying to include people from a number of cultural backgrounds.

    What are your thoughts regarding how to contextualize when you are not dealing with a single “different culture” but rather with many? Might you have to strategically reach out to just one or two cultures at a time, or do you keep a list of the cultures involved in the church and seek to have one culturally appropriate illustration in each sermon?

    Any thoughts about this; or do I need to read your dissertation?

    • Pablo Morales says:

      Marc, you’ll have to wait until you read my dissertation. Not really (:

      You are right in your assessment. I’m still learning from research and experience about these issues. I read an article that focused specifically on the unique dynamics of preaching in a church with different cultures. It basically recommends cultural intelligence; to think of illustrations, stories, and cultural issues more carefully.

      There are four intentional things that we do in our ministry at Ethnos. First, I often ask people from the congregation to share some biblical insights with the rest of us; like a short devotional. I wanted to give voice to both men and women from different backgrounds. It has been helpful to hear their different insights. In that way it helps people in the audience to connect with somebody that may share a similar cultural background. Secondly, when using powerpoint I intentionally try to include diversity in the images. The third thing I do is to touch on topics that are relevant across cultures. So far, I realize that issues of identity, motive, fear, forgiveness, etc. are common across cultures.

      The last and most significant part of ministering across cultures has been our evangelism and discipleship program. I learned from my research that evangelism and discipleship are key ingredients of a multiethnic church. We have a system of explaining the gospel and discipleship that is one-on-one and provides a Christian worldview on several of the issues that Michael’s book addressed. The fact that people from different backgrounds have gone through the same process in different languages and share a common ministry vision gives them a common DNA. Perhaps this aspect of our ministry has proven to be the most significant element in building a sustainable multiethnic church.

      As I said before, I am still learning. I am also still new to the Chinese culture, so the latest issue we are now facing is the need to re-think how we do the offering in order to be sensitive to a shame-honor culture. It is complex, but I love it. Thank you for asking.

      Pablo

      • mm Marc Andresen says:

        Pablo,

        This is helpful. This summer when I create my “Intro to International Learning Community” class I will remember, “So far, I realize that issues of identity, motive, fear, forgiveness, etc. are common across cultures.” I also am thinking about semiotics and symbols as communication. I will be training teachers to use cultural intelligence in their individual classes. Your power-point suggestions are helpful.

        By having different people share in worship you are also building body life – as church members have an opportunity to see into the souls of different people. It builds relationships.

        By the way, several books I’ve come across are:
        Chinese Christians in America – Fenggang Yang
        The World at Your Doorstep: A Handbook for International Student Ministry – Lawson Lau
        Internationals Who Live Among Us: doing world Missions at Home – Neal Pirolo

        (You may have recommended one or more of those to me.)

  2. Claire Appiah says:

    Pablo,
    Thanks for an excellent exposition and analysis of Michael’s book.

    It is very easy for some Christians to confuse theological contextualization with syncretism. And some may think that contextualization can be on a continuum that can ultimately lead to syncretism. But, you have made it abundantly clear that, “Contextualizing theology does not mean sacrificing sound doctrine for syncretism. Rather, it means adapting the nuances of theological reflection to its cultural context. It is about building a theological framework that addresses the cultural ‘worldview’ and gives answers to issues faced by people in a given culture.” That is also an excellent way of expounding Michael’s thesis and his criticism of Christians in the height of the missionary era. Their theology was not spiritually transformative because it was not relevant to the cultural worldview of their audience.

    I like the way you engage your congregation and encourage participation that encompasses a variety of cultural expressions. What has been your major challenge in sustaining relevance in a multilingual, transcultural, and multigenerational context?

    • Pablo Morales says:

      Claire, surprisingly, as I reflect in the past decade of ministry, the most challenging factor in sustaining relevance is not in the multilingual or transcultural factor, but it’s the multigenerational factor. The first generation of youth that attended this church when I began my pastoral ministry did not continue walking with the Lord in the most part. The second generation did a little better, but not as well as I would have liked. In this third generation of children we have completely changed our approach to our youth ministry to ensure a more personalized system of mentorship and discipleship. It seems to be more effective, but we will see how it works after this generation of teens become adults. Interestingly, one of our strategies has been addressing worldview. In fact, there is a ministry called Worldview Academy that provides summer retreats for our youth to train them in developing a Christian worldview. I see that a big part of the equation is the interest of the parents in the spiritual development of the children. When the parents are behind the spiritual growth of the kids, they do much better than the kids who lack that spiritual support at home. Some of them turn back to the Lord later in life, after they have tasted the bitter flavor of the world.
      Pablo

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