Learning to Transpose the Gospel

When it comes to the conversation about how we share the Gospel in our current cultural setting, there are nearly as many opinions as there are people. And yet, as an evangelistic Christian ministry which finds itself in an ever changing cultural context, the question, “How do we contextualize the Gospel to those to whom we minister?” is a concern we continually consider.
The goal of contextualization is “to enable, insofar as it is humanly possible, an understanding of what it means that Jesus Christ, the Word, is authentically experienced in each and every human situation.”1 It involves “presenting the unchanging truths of the gospel within the unique and changing contexts of cultures and worldviews.”2
A recent Gallup poll comparing church attendance by state, revealed Washington is sixth worst in the nation, with only 24% of respondents indicating they went to church weekly. At the same time, 58% of Washington respondents indicated they “seldom or never” go to church.3 This points to the reality that our current cultural context is largely unchurched and this must shape the way we engage our clients.
In our context at Life Services of Spokane, often the women to whom we minister can’t relate to our “Christianese”, or the insider language that we Christians often use about our faith without even realizing it. Words like sin, grace and repent must be communicated in ways clients can understand. This is tricky, as we don’t want to unintentionally “dumb down” the Gospel and end up inadvertently changing the timeless truth we just celebrated at Easter, of “Jesus Christ, Son of God, crucified and resurrected to new life.”
This year as a ministry we are studying a book on the subject of contextualization by Pastor Jonathan Dodson titled The Unbelievable Gospel. Dodson a church planter from Austin, TX realized the Gospel he was presenting seemed “unbelievable” to those he shared with. He came to understand he needed to “rethink” his evangelism efforts in his cultural context. As Dodson reviewed the evangelism efforts of the early Christian church he found they “had a habit of getting into the mind-set of pagans and Jews alike to transpose the Gospel into the appropriate key.”4
As an amateur musician, I love Dodson’s metaphor of “transposing the Gospel into the appropriate key.” To transpose a piece of music means to move the music up or down on the musical staff, resulting in the music being “higher” or “lower” than it was originally. After transposing a piece of music it is essentially the same, but when transposed it will sound different. In the same way, our goal must be to “transpose the Gospel” into something that is understandable, always being careful to not change the core message in the process.
Dodson challenges each of us to “become ‘culturally fluent,’ able to articulate the gospel personally in words and idioms that make sense to the people we talk to.” Each time in our clinics or in the maternity home we get the opportunity to “share the reason for our hope” (1 Pet 3:15) with one of our clients, we are working to communicate the Gospel in ways that she will understand, and speak directly to her heart’s cry.
For example one person may primarily be seeking acceptance, another hope, and still another could be seeking approval or intimacy. Jesus’ saving message of grace can speak to all these heart cries and many more. Sharing the Gospel this way means that each Gospel presentation is tailored to each person and their context and heart cry. However, it always retains the timeless and unchanging biblical truth of Christ’s saving work available to each of us.
The responsibility of conveying the truth of the Gospel is not one any of us takes lightly. We each want to be faithful to “be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim 4:2, NIV). In the words of Ed Stetzer, “Contextualization, then, is simply about sharing the Gospel well.”
Realistically, in life’s journey, we sometimes only get the opportunity to share our faith through our actions. However, as fellow believers, let us commit together to pray that each of us will be ready to respond when given the opportunity to share Jesus with those in our sphere of influence. Pray the Spirit would remove any fear or anxiety and give you and me a gentle boldness as the Spirit leads in each individual interaction. Finally, pray that we could communicate the Gospel in ways that are “believable” and easily understood, while also faithful to the biblical witness.
Rev. Shawn Stevenson, M.Div.
Life Services of Spokane, Executive Director