The Key to Contextualization

October 22, 2012 — 7 Comments

A few weeks ago, my friend Phil and I met with Mark Oestreicher before our Bay Area Youth Forum to help us get our heads around the unique context we find ourselves in and capitalize on those uniqueness so as to have a more effective and relevant student ministry.

Key to Contextualization

What MarkO pointed out is the very fine balance between one truth that every context is unique and the other which is that for the most part students are the same everywhere.  This really resonates with me.  We are all humans and we are all made in the image of God.  We all have the same longings and desires.  (N.T. Wright wrote about this in the beginning of this book Simply Christian)  But we all live in different contexts and these different contexts shape our worldview as well as our self view.  Because of this reality, the felt needs to which the Gospel can be shared will very from context to context.  Therefore, the trick is understanding the values of the context in which you live and so that you can capitalize on these values to find the “thin places” where the good news of Jesus meets people where they are at with language and stories that match their context.

This is exactly what the Apostle Paul did throughout Acts.  In Acts 13 Paul finds himself in a Jewish context and uses the rhythm of the synagogue and the story of Moses and David to find common ground with his audience as he shares about Jesus.  In Acts 17 Paul then finds himself in Athens and ditches the Moses talk and uses statues and local poetry to affirm their religious values and then presents Jesus as the revealed God made known to his creation.  (I wrote more about this here.)

The Homework we were given: 

As we were preparing for our forum and for our meeting with MarkO, MarkO gave us some homework to prepare for our time.  What he asked us to do was incredibly simple yet the results have already proven to have great impact on our ministries and have made for rich conversation for us over the last few weeks.  This was the simple assignment:

List 5-8 core values of the context in which you do ministry:

At first we simply brainstormed all the values of our context.  This list soon turned out to be a list of reasons why kids didn’t come to youth group the way they had in the past.  They were a list of excuses about kids being busy and parents not valuing their children’s spiritual development, etc.  But as we talked we realized that we were missing the mark.

When we reshaped it to think of 5-8 values from negatives that make our job hard to positive values which anyone at Safeway could affirm the juices really started to flow.  We chose our Safeway customer as our generic person to test our values to make sure were really coming up with positive values that our context would embrace.  The truth is that all of us think we are living out of some certain set of positive values and the same is true of the people we rub shoulders with ever day.  And with this new rubric we were able to come up with a great list.

Each value as a shadow side:

After settling in on our list we were able to see how many of these values also had a shadow side, a negative impact that seemed to crush students.  These shadow sides were the impacts that we have noticed working with our students.  But these issues were not values just the negative implications of those values.  And it was in this collection of positive values and the shadow side impact that gave us several ways for our ministries to connect in a culturally appropriate and relevant way.

There were positive values that are in line with the values of God and for those we can easily connect people in our context with our ministries.  And there were some values that have a shadow side that leave our students crushed and broken.  Because we can identify these contextually specific ways our kids are crushed and broken we can find the parts of the gospel story that are culturally appropriate dealing with the true felt needs of our students.

I think that this homework done well can become the foundation for a contextualized ministry that will find greater openness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the expansion of his Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven!

The cohort of rookie youth workers I am working with is doing this exact assignment and I recommend that you take a stab at is as well.  I would love to know what you came up with and hopefully we can learn from each other as we strive to be cross-cultural missionaries to the unique culture our students find themselves in.  Below is  your assignment:

Your Homework:

  1. List 5-8 core values of the context in which you do ministry
  2. What is a value or two that you can embrace because they are similar to God’s values?
  3. What is the shadow side of these values that the Gospel speaks into?
  4. List the 2-3 values of your ministry
  5. How do these ministry values capitalize on the values of your context or the shadow side of them?
  6. How can you increase the overlap of values of your ministry with your context?

7 responses to The Key to Contextualization

  1. awesome ideas here! i’d love to get a glimpse of what you came up with to use as an example…

    • these are the list of values we came up with:
      1) individualism / uniqueness
      2) activism
      3) politically liberal
      4) achievement
      5) affluence
      6) humanistic spirituality (self fulfillment)

      Some of the shadow side of these values are:
      1) isolation
      2) alienation
      3) abandonment
      4) worthlessness
      5) broken spirituality

  2. love it Ben. Sorry I missed you @ Rescue this weekend.

  3. I’m interested to know if these values would then be used as your longstanding “core-values” or if these cultural values are used strictly as a tool to help understand the worldview of your community?

    • jeremiah, that is a good question. for me these values inform my understanding and worldview of my community. and because of how god had made me and because of who are church is, some of our values overlap and that becomes our sweet spot for ministry. (does that make sense?)

What do you think?