Contextualize This (Africa Journal #3)
I scanned my notes rather quickly, looking for problems. I would soon be preaching amidst a gathering throng of Kenyans. Was there an allusion somewhere in here to America culture? Were there idioms that would make no sense to these saints? Was there a hint of technical jargon connected to theological controversies that had not yet crossed the Atlantic? Truth be told, I was more nervous than I have been in a long time. Nairobi West Presbyterian Church is neither tiny (which tends to make me more nervous than large crowds) nor massive (which tends to make some others more nervous.) The pews were, however, filled with a rather mixed crowd — most of them local, but a decent sized contingent of those who had been travelling with me from these United States.
My text that morning was I John 3:1-3 wherein John enjoins us first to see how very much our heavenly Father loves us that He allows us to be called His children, and ends reminding us that we will be purified as we hold on to this precious hope, that when He returns we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is. This text means rather a great deal to me. There are two of the promises I dealt with in my book Believing God: 12 Biblical Promises Christians Struggle to Accept. My notes began with an allusion to Dr. John Gerstner, a hero to me, and to my hero, my father. That would have to go. They included a story about a whole set of my heroes from when I was a boy, the Pittsburgh Steelers. That would have to go. There was a reference to our recalcitrant Pelagianism. I probably wouldn’t have time to explain that, so it would have to go.
As I thought through these things the panic began to subside. This, after all, is what I’m supposed to do. Knowing your audience is critical to effective communication. What I lacked in knowing about whom my audience was, I made up for with what I knew they weren’t — not students of the history of twentieth century Presbyterian history, not fans of the NFL, and not versed in the long list of heretics vanquished by Saint Augustine.
This, in turn, reminded me that I really did know a thing or two about those gathered in worship. Africans and Americans, men and women, young and old, these together were sinners saved by grace. These together had been regenerated, redeemed, and adopted. These together, like me, struggled to believe it. They, like me, needed to know the fullness of the promises of God. And so I relaxed, and I preached.
It turns out we had only one challenge flowing from our different cultures. I had to adjust to this — the constant refrain of encouraging “AMEN!”’s coming from the pews. My problem wasn’t losing my train of thought. My problem was keeping from crying while this refrain preached back to me what I needed to hear. In an age where experts encourage us to contextualize the gospel, what a joy to find that the gospel fits in any context where there are sinners in need of grace. Jesus told us where to preach — Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the outermost parts of the world. Jesus told us what to preach, that through Him our warfare has ended, and we are made the children of God. Nothing could be more simple, nor more powerful.