How do you communicate the Gospel to someone who has absolutely zero foundation in the Bible? In this fascinating and helpful lecture on “Worldview Evangelism”, Don Carson makes the case that sharing the Gospel with postmodern Westerners is not really that different than sharing the Gospel with animistic tribes, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims or anyone else without a Judeo-Christian framework in their cultural background. You start at the beginning. The cross of Christ makes no sense without the Old Testament foundations which provide the framework for understanding the nature and character of God, man’s nature and origin, the truth about the spiritual realm (in contrast to an animistic/occult perspective), and a bit of the history of how God relates to people. Some may wonder whether it is really necessary to go through the work of laying down the Old Testament foundations before getting to Jesus. Take a listen to Don Carson’s opening story about his missionary friend’s experience in India and you’ll get a picture of how a failure to set a framework and teach a Biblical worldview first can lead to syncretism and nominalism.
Although the word “contextualization” is sometimes abused in order to justify a watered-down repackaging of Gospel, it’s proper meaning is to teach and live out the Gospel in a way that is clear and understandable in a given cultural context - whether that be young Western postmodern relativists or Thai Buddhists/animists or anybody else. What is the Biblical truth and how do you teach and express it (live it out) in a given context? Good contextualization should make clear the difference between the Gospel and other worldviews, and in all things not sinful take on the cultural/local garb of where the Gospel is being presented.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, either for the West or for Thailand, but in order to do contextualization well one needs to understand the Bible thoroughly and understand the culture as thoroughly as possible. I am still working on both of those and will be for years to come. By knowing the culture, I don’t mean being conversant with every pop musician or fad TV show that comes down the pike, but rather understanding the beliefs and values that shapes people’s outlook on the world. When that happens, it becomes easier to anticipate common objections and misunderstandings in response to the Gospel (or a particular presentation of it). Understanding the culture also helps one to know what people are interested in, what fires them up, what excites them, what concerns them, what makes them afraid. All these things can provide a conversation starter that can be an opening for talking about spiritual truths. It can also give insight into what areas of discipleship will probably need special attention.
With that said, take a listen to Carson’s talk on "Worldview Evangelism". There are actually five lectures in the series on “Reaching an Untouched Generation”. I have finished the Worldview Evangelism one and highly recommend it. I’ve also started listening to one on “Apostolic Evangelism of Biblical Illiterates” which covers Paul’s sermon in the Aeropagus in Acts 17. This one is quite good so far and I hope to listen to the other three as time allows. (Thanks to Rich Cho for recommending these sermons)