The Limitations of Contextualization

Identifying the culture of any group and contextualizing to that culture is a helpful process as long as two important truths are born in mind.

First, every culture is part of a common humanity. Whatever the distinguishing characteristics of particular culture, people within that culture have characteristics that are true of everyone. They are made in God’s image, an image they still reflect to some degree by God’s common grace even though that image is now marred by sin. They enjoy the goodness of God’s world and long for the relationships for which they were made. They are all broken people. They are sinners who face the judgment of God. And they are the victims of the sins of others.

Second, every person is a unique individual. Whatever the distinguishing characteristics of particular culture, people within that culture have aspects of their personality and interests that are unique to them. They may be a truck driver who likes opera. They may be an unemployed teenager who loves reading. Each person is different. Each person is part of a matrix of relationships that is unique to them. So, while cultural descriptions may be commonly true, we cannot assume they are true of the person in front of us. We need to contextualize on a person by person basis.

We can present this through the following diagram.


Everyone is both part of our common humanity (‘a’) and a unique individual (‘e’). In between these two realities we can slice the triangle at different points, so including varying numbers of people. We can, for example, slice it a point ‘c’ and describe the culture of people from working-class and deprived areas. This would produce some useful descriptions that would be generally true of people from this culture though we must remember that everyone is different and not all our generalizations will be true all the time. We can take broader cultural group such as British people (‘b’). Here we can identify some generalizations that were true of both working-class and middle-class Brits. Or we can take a narrow slice at point ‘d’ and describe the culture of urban rap music or northern working men’s clubs.

Three implications follow.

First, we need to remain confident that the gospel is ‘the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes’ (Romans 1:16). Everyone is part of our common humanity (‘a’)  sharing a common identity as God’s image-bearers, facing the common problems of human sin and divine judgment, and needing a common Saviour. Whatever marks out a particular culture as different from others, everyone needs the gospel and everyone can find in the gospel the hope of salvation.

Second, we must always treat people as people, not in an undifferentiated way as generic representatives of a social class. We cannot let our cultural analysis harden into presuppositions or prejudices.

Third, generalized cultural descriptions are helpful tools because often they short-cut the process of person-specific contextualization. There are sufficient common cultural characteristics to make contextualization worth pursing. The differences among people from working-class and deprived areas do not invalidate the process of considering their common traits. The French are heterogeneous, but there is still value in missionaries to France learning about French history and thinking about contextualizing to French culture. In the same way, working-class and deprived areas are heterogeneous, but there is still value in those working in these areas thinking about contextualizing to this culture.

So we can helpfully describe specific cultures as long as we remember that every (1) individual is both unique – they are in some respect like no-one else – and (2) every individual is part of a common humanity – they are in some respects like everyone else.

This material is adapted from my latest book, Unreached: Growing Churches in Working Class and Deprived Areas. It’s available from and

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4 thoughts on “The Limitations of Contextualization

  1. Pingback: The Limitations of Contextualization « left handed church

  2. Pingback: 4 Words, Contextualization and Teaching Students | changing perception

  3. Pingback: Tim Chester: We need to contextualise on a person by person basis «

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