Everyone Has a Life Context
We don’t live our lives in a vacuum; God has us living in a certain place and time. Wherever you are, you live in a specific culture, you speak a certain language, and you are surrounded by a unique group of people, be it family, friends, or relative strangers. Also, you and the people you are surrounded by, live with certain cultural perceptions and legacies that frame how you understand the world around you. All of these factors make up your life context.
To deny or ignore the life context that you live within sounds at one level to be very grounded, noble, and eternity-minded. And in some ways, that is so. We should stand firm in the face of cultural evils, no doubt about that. However, there are many aspects of our life context that merely frame how we understand our world, and they are not all evil. I’m thinking of things like language, ethnicity, family dynamics, relative prosperity, urban or suburban residency, or the type of job you have. The list of these factors is almost endless.
We know that as Christians, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to the pain, sin, and suffering in the world. While other things may mask the pain, only Jesus Christ can truly heal it. However, we know that God reveals Himself mainly through the Scriptures. The truths of the Scriptures are communicated through avenues such as preaching, the sacraments, the fruit of the Spirit in changed lives, and the love of His people for God and each other. The truths of Scripture are often summarized in creeds and confessions. My church uses the Westminster Confession of Faith as its confessional document, as well as the more universally well known creeds.
However, each one of these creeds and confessions—as true as we believe that they are—were all written in a specific time and cultural context. They were often focused on addressing specific cultural or religious problems that were prevalent in their day and culture. While they are no less true, they may have to be adjusted or enhanced to work well in another cultural context.
For example: South Korean culture has a historical religious legacy of ancestor worship, a fruit of their Confucian religious influence. The Westminster Confession addresses many issues and theological truths but the sin of ancestor worship is nowhere addressed. This is because ancestor worship simply wasn’t a problem in the British Isles in 1647. This cultural context simply had be addressed for the gospel to flourish in South Korea (and it is, by the way).
Asking the Right Questions
However, we don’t have to look for that kind of extreme example to understand our context. I live in Mississippi, which has a specific economic, racial, and a historical cultural context that must be a major consideration when figuring out how we are to do gospel ministry. In southwest Virginia, it was different. In Montana, it was different. If I lived in New York City, or southern California, it would be different. Furthermore, the neighborhood in which you live or even the family or ethnic dynamic of your own household is a part of your own context. It effects how you understand the gospel, cultural engagement, communication, and a multitude of other things that can help or hinder the people you are trying to reach out to for Christ’s sake.
One of the biggest obstacles that I believe the church faces today is that they are giving true answers but they are to different questions than their culture is asking. Listen to the actual questions and problems of the people in your world, and let the gospel essentials frame your answers. Lovingly communicate these answers in such a way that they can be received and understood by the hearers. If they don’t accept it, you can’t change that. However, it is up to you to make it understandable to the culture you are trying to reach, and that doesn’t necessarily mean converting them to yours.