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Contextualize, Don’t Merely Evangelize

Christians must be willing to pursue contextualization for reasons other than evangelism.

As I waited for my plane, I was stumped by what I was looking at. If Chinese understood the English on the KFC sign, no one would want to eat there. It simply read “finger lickin’ good.” For anyone who knows Chinese culture, this slogan would be like Colgate advertising that it will make our teeth “toilet bowl white.” Uh, maybe that’s true, but no one will want to buy something that promises to give me a potty mouth.

You see, Chinese people don’t like eating with their fingers. In fact, many Western burger restaurants offer gloves for people to eat their sandwiches.

Why then is KFC so successful in China? At one level, it is a famous western restaurant, and eating there shows you have a comfortable income. However, KFC’s real secret to success is found elsewhere. KFC knows how to contextualize its product. If you don’t want fries, you can order rice porridge, corn, or egg and tart congee. Instead of chicken, customers can buy fish and shrimp sandwiches.

Fortunately for KFC, contextualization is about more than a good marketing slogan. Creative communication attracts people to something novel, but in the end, people stick around because of substance, not slogans.

Contextualization Makes Disciples

In business, companies care about “contextualization” in order to make a sale. In the church, is it possible that some of us regard contextualization similarly as “Christian marketing”? Unlike KFC, however, I wonder if many missionaries and pastors think contextualization mainly concerns one’s “slogan” or “style,” not the substance of one’s ministry.

In Christian books and articles, contextualization is typically associated with evangelism. The entire conversation about contextualization is largely driven by the desire to do evangelism well. As a result, too little attention is given to a more fundamental goal––making disciples.

Limiting contextualization to evangelism is like confusing one’s wedding for the marriage.

We contextualize the gospel not to make a convert but rather disciples. The difference is very significant. Why we contextualize will shape how we contextualize.

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Jackson teaches theology and missiology in a seminary for Chinese church leaders. Previously, he worked as a church planter. Last month he released a new book, One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization. In addition to his published works Jackson maintains a blog at jacksonwu.org.