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Contextualising the Gospel

How do we take the gospel into Japanese society? Of course we don’t change its content; it’s only the direction we approach it from that needs consideration. Many people still think that all they have to do is translate something and it will suddenly make sense to the listener, but in reality the way we choose to approach the topic is much more than simply a language issue. 

I first met this issue when working with students in northern Japan. While leading Bible studies I talked about sin: where it came from, what it does, the fact that it causes a gulf between me and God, and . . . here is Jesus, the solution—“Won’t you invite him into your life?” The standard model I might use in the UK. However, there are many assumptions in that way of thinking: there is only one God, that we all have one ancestor, I can make a personal decision without reference to anyone else, and so forth. I needed to rethink the methodology of my evangelism—the way-in to the issues of God, sin, redemption, etc. 

There are two things I noticed: 

I needed to

  • find narratives within Japanese society (e.g. the children’s stories that everyone knows, the nature, the drama, the music, the art, etc.), and
  • discover issues that people face regularly,

 and use them as ways into explaining biblical truths. 

The Evangelist and Japanese students

For example, at the university in northern Japan, there was a group of 10 engineering students—all male, all going through the same issues: keen to succeed in their studies, keen to be rich, worrying about their girlfriends (or lack thereof) and about the future generally. I was beginning to get the first glimmerings that the traditional method failed to resonate, so I tried approaching the issue of sin from a different perspective: from that of the Evangelist in Ecclesiastes. There was nothing he didn’t know about knowledge, money, or women, but none of it was ever enough. As a way of talking about the big hole of dissatisfaction in their hearts, what better example? Better to be led by their agenda not mine.

However, we are often poor at doing the first: appropriating the stories and themes in popular culture for the gospel. I think we fail to do it because it takes more work to find these things: we want short cuts and quick results, and fail to realise how much time is involved. Finding Japanese illustrations for my sermons takes time, after all, let alone the amount of Japanese needed.

The ultimate contextualiser

Jesus was born, lived, worked, and died in first century Israel. He knew how people thought. He used the things around him that people knew well to illustrate his truths. He was good at contextualising the good news. We need to find 21st century parallels to do the same. We missionaries need to see the world as our host culture sees it and not treat them as if they are nationals from our home country. We need to try to see how they think, what their values are, what really speaks to them—then use those things for the gospel. Our goal should be to be incarnational and not expat; only then will the gospel have a Japanese shape to it. That is what contextualisation really is. 

By Alaric, an OMF missionary

Will you pray for Japan?

  • Pray for God’s help and wisdom for missionaries seeking to contextualise the gospel into a Japanese shape.
  • Pray for eyes to see and minds to remember cultural narratives that provide a way in to explain Bible truths.
  • May the church in Japan be a truly Japanese church reaching out in Japanese ways.

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