One of the most challenging tasks of sacred agents is contextualization. (Oh the irony, I’ve used a 19-letter word and a 17-letter word already.) Contextualization is the challenge of translating the great news of God’s Kingdom, which reaches across all time, places and cultures, into a specific time, place and culture so that it can be understood. If you’ve ever looked at someone, scratched your head, and thought “how can I possibly put this wonderful hope in a way that you’ll be able to grasp?” then you’ve wrestled with contextualization. It’s tricky.
And of all of the trickiness, there’s the danger that it makes us tricky. It’s good for us to keep our finger on the pulse of societal trends and communication methods. In our dealing with the world we are to be as wise as serpents. But we’re also meant to be as innocent as doves.
If we follow too closely the PR approach to mission, never wanting to offend or repel anyone, loudly proclaiming the “upside” of following Jesus and fudging on the cost, we can end up being quite unlike Jesus in our efforts to represent him. There is a wonderful straightforwardness to Jesus, speaking the truth lovingly but also directly and clearly, and being up-front about the cost of discipleship.
(Selling Christianity as a lifestyle choice by highlighting how its benefits far outweighs its costs has problems in itself in leading to consumer Christianity where people “select” Jesus for his usefulness rather than submit and entrust themselves to him, but let’s discuss that later.)
Another form of trickiness comes when we make reconciliation to God an over-complicated process. When a person is 1,000 miles from God’s kingdom, sometimes we try to influence them towards a place just 990 miles from God. Nudge them a little bit closer, and feel that we’ve done some mission. But a person 1,000 miles from God is actually only one step away (hallelujah!), and we see many such people in the Gospels coming to Jesus and being wonderfully transformed. Do we inch people along the garden path sometimes instead of inviting them to come right on in?
What might it mean for us to be clear and straightforward as agents of the Kingdom? More wise and yet less sophisticated? Might it not be both truer to the gospel and refreshing and appealing to many in our time and culture?