Youth Work and Contextualisation

The more I learn about youth culture, the more I realize I have so much more to learn. But the issue I am having now is whether I try to contextualise the gospel at all so that I communicate it effectively within the culture. Am I simply doing what the Victorian missionaries by teaching them the gospel in a culturally irrelevant way? Do I try to adapt the stories and beliefs so that they “get it”?

But then I get worried because I think about syncretism and whether I would be taking things too far. The other questions are, can you really take things too far? Who decides what is Christian and what is not when it comes to beliefs and practices? Surely that is relative.

I’ve always been taught that the great commission in Matthew 28 confirms the need to be baptized in water. Peter and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 and the subsequent letters of Paul back this up. But even in the translation of word “baptism” (baptizo in Greek) there is fierce debate. Does it only been immersion in the sense of water (Strong, 1990:16) or is it an all encompassing word that could mean immersion in a physical material (water, dirt etc) but also immersion in the ways of…?(Jackson, 2006:451).

If immersion by water was a contextualised way of understanding Jesus’ command, could we immerse our young people in a different method? For example it is suggested in “Christianity in Culture” by Charles Kraft that a more appropriate western method could be being placed in a coffin to symbolise the death of the old self (Kraft, 1979:331). I find all of this incredible fascinating but at the same time frustrating.

Going back to the idea of contextualising the Gospel stories, on Sunday I listened to a children’s talk on ‘The Good Samaritan’ by a visiting ‘student’ minister. She related the story to the young people by changing all of the characters into sweets. But sitting watching it I could see the young people were interested (probably hoping that they would get to eat the sweets once she was finished- they didn’t) but by changing the story in this way, the original point was lost. Jesus was not simply saying, help each other. He wouldn’t have got crucified for that. For me, that was a step too far as it lost the meaning entirely.

The challenge then is holding in tension contextualisation and syncretism. Simply put, you know you’ve gone too far if you’ve lost the meaning. But then I guess even that is subjective. Take for example a DVD I bought recently but haven’t got around to watching yet. The film is called the “Son of Man” and it is a modern retelling of the gospel story set in South Africa. The reviews on ‘ebay’ range from “a masterpiece” to “blasphemy”. Maybe one man’s contextualisation really is another man’s syncretism. I understand Hesselgrave’s concern about the danger of creative forms of contextualisation (Hesselgrave, 1989:174) but disagree strongly with his conclusions regarding the sacraments. He suggests that the original form of the sacraments in the bible dictates the limit of interpretation but that brings us back to David Miller’s question of whether the acts of the apostles were supracultural (above cultural translation) or a cultural translation of the words of Jesus. I would argue for the latter.

So where does this leave me?

I realise that I do try to communicate the gospel in a culturally relevant way but there are clear examples in my head when I know that this has not been the case. There have been times when I have simply communicated it to them in a foreign way (ie. in my cultural understanding). I think questions have to be asked of how often do I try to translate and adapt these stories in ways that they will understand and “get”. In truth, sometimes I forget that my culture is very different to the young peoples’ culture. I know for other leaders this is a frustration. “Why don’t they understand?” is a phrase I have heard many times at the meetings we have at the end of the night. “They just need Jesus” is another common phrase. But what Jesus do they need? Your interpretation of Jesus or a Jesus that is culturally relevant to them? Or is that syncretism?

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