Methods of Communication and Contextualisation

Rev. Graham Cray

The purpose of the proclamation is that people hear the gospel. The choice of methods of communication raises four key questions. What can any particular medium of communication convey? What is it assumed to convey within a particular culture? What parts of the whole process of evangelisation does it fit best? What does it need to be faithful to the gospel?

Evangelicals sometimes reduce proclamation to preaching. But the form of preaching must be sensitive to context, or it will not be heard. Christians still live in a fallen world. There can be no culturally neutral media. Everything is freighted with meaning developed in human cultures; this includes preaching and Scripture translation. All contextual communication involves risk.

Willowbank emphasised conversion as process not just crisis. Different methods and media fit more naturally at different stages of the process. As Christendom ends, churches in the West have to address the gulf between church culture and that of the surrounding society. Church culture is often seen as an outdated leftover. There must be no substantial cultural gap between the two cultures, other than a moral one.

Art Forms

The whole gospel for the whole world requires the whole gamut of art forms and communication media. Otherwise we limit gospel communication to those who think primarily in concepts! The folk, popular and performing arts are of particular significance today. They have power to engage the imagination in a way which more direct forms of address often fail to achieve.Art forms have a ‘parable character’ and the parables of Jesus provide a significant biblical model. Like parables, all contextual forms of communication must have points of contact within the real world of the listener, the capacity to evoke a response towards Christ, and an engagement with the theological assumptions of the hearer. Different media communicate in different ways. Our expectations must be related to the integrity of each particular medium.

Each method of communication needs to be evaluated within its cultural context . Cultures set limits to what can be seen and heard within them through their underlying worldview. The foundation of a worldview is the story by which a culture interprets life. The story will only be believed if it is able to offer credible answers to life’s key questions. These are primary theological questions! It is at this level of worldview that propositional statements of truth are important. It is a serious misunderstanding to set narrative truth in opposition to propositional truth.

A worldview becomes visible through key focal symbols which publicly express and reinforce its story and priorities. Failure to engage with the dominant symbols in a culture is a failure to engage with it at all.

The new discipline of cultural studies has emphasised the way in which public symbols and signs not only express society’s story but also shape it. The media of communication are not neutral carriers of objective meaning. The ‘forms’ form content!

The outcome of a worldview is a lifestyle, which gives plausibility to the underlying story. Many people live as though only one story and lifestyle is plausible for them. Christian proclamation and lifestyle demonstrates an alternative plausibility and de-absolutises the dominant non-Christian plausibility. The church itself is the greatest medium of communication of God’s purposes. There is no media alternative to authentic Christian discipleship.

Some evangelism is controversial because of the previous ‘pagan’ or ‘immoral’ associations of the media used. Some things are unacceptable in any context. But the underlying assumption must be that the gospel has the power to cleanse communicators and to redirect methods of communication. Should our use of the media of communication be controlled more by the meanings and messages they have carried in non-Christian culture, or by their meaning as an anticipation of the new creation?


There is a growing consensus that enlightenment-based Western culture is coming to a close, and that the West is undergoing a transition into a different cultural era.In Western societies, mission has to be contextualised on two fronts, modernity and postmodernity.

Mission in other parts of the world is also now on two fronts, local culture, and global culture.

Underlying this developing global culture is a worldview. It is through this worldview and its underlying story that many people in the world will interpret all forms of Christian communication.

We find our identity more through what we consume than through what we produce. Freedom of consumer choice has become the primary social and moral value. Members of the consumer culture find their identity and focus in the present more than in the past, or a vision of the future.

Consumerism is not merely materialism. It is an outlook on life in which everything is viewed as a consumer choice. It is profoundly addictive and promotes lack of contentment. In particular it hides the poor.

We are becoming an electronic age which makes relativism appear self-evident. If we are continually bombarded with competing and contradictory messages how can any truth claim to be more than local? The electronic age is a transition from book culture to screen culture. We must recognise how learning happens in this context. People who receive their information episodically, through computers, music videos, or even channel hopping, are not less rational than those educated in a more linear and literary culture. The church must develop the imaginative capacity to communicate through electronic media and to know when more personal forms of communication have more to offer. The combination of consumer choice and global electronic network can have a profound impact upon understandings of truth.

Globalisation can undermine belief in universal truth, opening the way for a constructivist understanding where all ‘truth’ is seen as a social construction. This treats the very concept of revelation as illegitimate. This perspective is closely allied to the suspicion that all truth claims are power plays. It is essential that Christian communicators grasp the directions of change in the emerging global society, but do not give up on truth.

In a global society the church as a multicultural reality has the opportunity to be a forum where attempts at contextualisation are assessed and insights and resources shared. For evangelicals the Lausanne movement offers one catalyst for this creative interchange.

Date: 21 Jun 1997