Killer Cows and the Importance of Contextualization
-Dr. Terry Dorsett
I grew up in a medium sized city in the Midwest. As a teenager I moved to a small city in Virginia and after college I lived in a small city in South Carolina. Since my entire life had been spent in the city, what a culture shock it was when I moved to rural Vermont in 1993 with my wife and family. We had come to a small village to serve as missionaries with the North American Mission Board (SBC). We served a rural church with less than 20 members that was struggling for survival. The first week I lived in that tiny village I had what was then a traumatic experience but has since become quite humorous. It was also a great teaching moment which impacted how I view ministry.
I love to walk in the mornings and pray about what God is doing in my life. That first week of living in a rural area I struck out walking down the main street, which was also the only paved street in town. I did not get very far before I encountered a cow that had escaped from the pasture and was standing in the middle of the road. Having grown up in the city, I did not know what quite what to do, so I froze in my tracks. My life flashed before my eyes. My heart raced with fear. Would this cow charge me? Would it trample me? Would it eat me? Surely this vicious creature was a killer cow!
I do not know how long I stood in the middle of the road looking at that cow, but eventually someone drove by in their pickup truck and asked what I was doing. I replied that a “killer cow” had gotten loose and I did not know what to do. They looked at me, looked at the cow and laughed hysterically as they drove away. Eventually I realized that the poor creature was just an old milk cow who had wandered the wrong direction. I slowly eased past her and went on my way. But I have never forgotten my encounter with the killer cow on the main street in town. I knew I was not in the city anymore!
What does this story have to do with the Gospel? Just as I had to adjust to the presence of cows in the middle of the road, I also had to adjust to doing ministry in a different culture than I was used to. I was no longer living and working in a city. I was now in a different environment. I learned to show up at the post office each morning at 9:30 AM when everyone came to get their mail. I could visit half the town in an hour. I learned that I was the “community” pastor, providing weddings and funerals for the entire community and not just for the handful of church members I had. I learned how important it was to make a contribution to the annual 8th grade Town Dinner fundraiser. I learned not to wear a tie, as it made me look like I was a Mormon or a bill collector, neither was which was very welcome in that small village.
During the eight years I served that church, I learned a great many things about how to minister in a rural village. I think it is important to point out that at no point did I actually have to change the Gospel itself. The Gospel is always relevant to all cultures in all time periods and to all people groups. There is no other Gospel but the one found in the New Testament that begins with the sinfulness of mankind and ends with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ to reconcile us back to the Father. But methods and programs used to communicate the Gospel are constantly changing. Pastors, missionaries and other Christian leaders who want to reach their communities for Christ must understand this. One generation might use flannel graph and chalkboards, another generation might use video projectors and smart boards, but the message of the Gospel remains the same. One people group might like to meet in house churches and worship in a rare dialect, another people group might prefer giant cathedrals and the use of a more common language, but the Gospel remains the same for both people groups.
Since my fateful encounter with the killer cow so many years ago, I learned the communicate the Gospel in a variety of ways as I have started churches and led evangelistic activity across the mountains, valleys and small towns of Vermont. Each town is a little different, but in each one God has called a group of people to Himself. My job is to join God in His work and communicate His Gospel in a way that the called can hear and respond. When that happens, the Gospel goes forth and God is glorified, and His people rejoice, even if it looks differently than what we had expected.
-Dr. Terry Dorsett serves as a church planting missionary with the North American Mission Board of the SBC. He has a passion for helping young people discover a meaningful faith and then become leaders in sharing that faith with others