Are you a fan of jazz music? Some people are, and some aren’t. Those of us who are understand a little about what it is to improvise on a theme. Often the theme is a well-known older song, called a standard, but sometimes the theme is just a melody line that is created in the moment by one of the musicians. Whether from a standard or from a creative moment in the song, the theme is introduced by one of the players. Then another player picks up the theme and improvises on it, adding their own stylings and creation to the theme while keeping the theme present. For musicians, this is the pinnacle of musicianship, to create music on the spot based on a theme while others are playing along with you. It requires an immense amount of skill and practice.
In the cross-cultural mission world, we improvise on the gospel all the time. We take the gospel and contextualize it to the particular culture we are working in. Language is often the first area where we feel this need. Perhaps you are in a culture that has never experienced snow. If you were teaching from Isaiah 1:18 which talks about God taking our scarlet sin and making it white as snow, you would need to come up with another way to explain what that scripture meant. You wouldn’t change the message of that verse, but the people wouldn’t understand it well unless you changed the metaphor. Bible translators are constantly faced with this challenge. Language, though, is not the only cause for improvising the gospel. The difference in cultures make it necessary as well.
Tribal cultures tend to see God as a chief and relate him to what they have experienced throughout the ages from human chiefs. Mission workers must find ways to help them understand an all-powerful, yet loving God that make sense to them. Cultures who have endured centuries of being dominated by another culture struggle with understanding true freedom in Christ. In the US, we constantly struggle with understanding the difference between what is part of our faith and what is just part of being an American. Because we are so individualistic we make our faith out to be very personal when that may not be the emphasis of much of scripture. We could go on and on here with current examples, but the Bible talks about this as well.
When Paul is talking with the Athenians on Mars Hill he begins with relating to their own spirituality, noticing that they worship many gods faithfully. He moves on to notice that they even have a monument for an unknown god, wanting to make sure they cover all their bases. He then goes on to tell them about God but in that discussion quotes from their own philosophers to illustrate his points.
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 2I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23
How should this impact your life today living in your home culture?
Even though we may be within our own culture, people are still different and think differently. You can see how this plays out in the relationships that you have. As you get to know someone better the way you act toward them and around them changes. It becomes more comfortable. It becomes improvised to who they are and how they live life. Different people give and accept love differently. Some hug and kiss in public while for others a nod or smile may communicate the same thing. The better you know someone, the deeper you can love them and loving them communicates God to them.
In your improvisation of the gospel, remain true to the theme. Let the gospel always be present and clear though you have personalized it and then contextualized it.
It is the power of God leading to salvation for all who believe.