There are two main challenges in contextualizing theology within and for another cultural setting. First, you must state your message in a way that is applicable to a certain culture. This is known as cultural contextualization and is the relative aspect of the application of truth. Second, while contextualizing certain truths, you must also be able to express truths that transcend the culture you are in at any time. For example, a Christian in China should understand the atonement the same way that a Christian in Africa understands it. This is known as trans-cultural normativity and is the absolute aspect of the meaning of truth. Therefore, the challenge is to avoid making relative what is absolute (i.e. post-modernism) and making absolute what is relative (i.e. the American way is the right way!).
A very important question that arises from this task of contextualization is: “What is the extent to which a given culture’s worldview affects and should affect how theology is formulated within and for that culture?” In other words, yes there is a legitimate place for cultural input, but to what extent? Before we can answer this question, there are two pitfalls we must look at.
First is “cultural Christianity”. Cultural Christianity is a formation of a theological understanding that is nothing more than an echo or reflection of values and beliefs that are already resonant in that culture. One example of this pitfall is Liberation Theology, which has been used in Third World countries by corrupt leaders to gain influence among the masses. This theology begins with a preferential option to the poor and builds a theology of the wickedness and oppression of the rich, and the innocence and righteousness of the poor. Of course, such theology is found nowhere in the Bible, but comes from their culture. An almost directly opposite example is Health and Wealth Theology, which is used among the affluent and materialistic. Here, right standing with God means being healthy and wealthy and Jesus is taught to be a rich man!
Second is “non-cultural Christianity”. This pitfall is when people claim to hold the pure and simple Christian faith with no mixture of culture in this faith. The reason this is a pitfall is because this is nothing but deception and naïveté. All of us are more inculturated than we are aware of. An example of this would be a missionary who goes out to Africa claiming to have a pure Christianity and teaches people that Christ died for their sins, to believe in Him to be saved, to wear clean clothes to church, to put a cross on the church, and to clap in 4/4 beat. We must realize that we have preferences that have nothing to do with the Bible or the Gospel.
The third alternative to these two pitfalls is contextualized normativity. Notice that “contextualized” is an adjective to the main noun, “normativity”. In other words, we must hold on to the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. There is an apostolic teaching that is normative and must be taught in any culture that is to become Christian. And yet, we realize that this normative truth has to be communicated in a contextualized form. We must contextualize it in a way where it is understandable but not compromised by that culture.