Today's post is by Dr. Darrell Whiteman, the leader of Global Development, an organization that seeks to "enable missionaries, pastors, and lay people to better distinguish the universal message of the gospel from their local interpretation and practice of living out the gospel within their communities."
As a young Free Methodist missionary in Central Africa (1969-1971) nearly 50 years ago, I wondered why the churches over there attempted to look so much like the churches back home. It seemed like they were almost “carbon copies” in worship, theology, polity, and ministry.
What’s wrong with this picture?
I couldn’t articulate why that made me so uncomfortable, but it didn’t seem right. Why should churches in Africa look so much like churches in the United States? Something was wrong, but I didn’t know why or what it was. The strategic goal seemed to be denominational extension more than advancing the Kingdom of God by joining Jesus in his mission.
I now realize years later that what was missing was contextualization—a term that didn’t even appear in missiological discourse until the early 1970s. Since then there has been a plethora of academic and missiological publishing on this important concept, even though in practice there is still a lack of contextualization in much mission activity today.
Ironically, long before his time, the provocative Methodist missionary to India and the world, E. Stanley Jones, understood the need for contextualization which he expressed eloquently in his classic book, The Christ of the Indian Road (1925).
Let me begin by discussing what contextualization is and why it is important and close with some suggestions about why it is relevant to the United Methodist Church and its global mission efforts today.
What is contextualization?
Contextualization is both a method and a perspective and relates to the challenge of connecting the gospel to culture. As a method it attempts to communicate and live out the gospel and to establish the church in ways that make sense to people within their local cultural context. In this way Christianity meets people’s deepest needs and penetrates their worldview, thus enabling them to follow Christ and remain within their own culture. Jesus may be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8) but cultures are constantly changing and more rapidly than ever in the present era.
Advocating cultural change or conversion to Christ?
Much of the postcolonial critique of mission in the age of colonialism has come because too many missionaries too often confused following Jesus with adopting the cultural ways of the missionary while simultaneously condemning the culture of their converts. Perhaps without realizing it, they were advocating a kind of cultural conversion more than conversion to Christ within their own culture. They didn’t understand or appreciate the principle hammered out in the Jerusalem Council’s decision that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus without having to become culturally and religiously Jews, as recorded in Acts 15.
Will contextualization lead to syncretism?
Opposition to contextualization sometimes comes from those who fear it will lead to “watering down” the gospel and its requirements to become a follower of Jesus.
In reality, however, the opposite is true. Contextualization doesn’t take the sting out of the gospel, it intensifies it. Contextualization sharpens the focus and offence of the gospel, it does not dilute it. If the gospel doesn’t critique culture, then culture wins every time and the transforming power of the gospel is lost.
One way of looking at the relationships between the gospel and culture is as follows: The gospel affirms most of culture, critiques some of culture, and transforms all of culture. I take this to mean that converts can and should remain within their culture and follow Jesus (I Cor. 7:17-24), recognizing that there will be aspects of their culture that will undergo change because of their allegiance to Christ. Following Jesus will put disciples at odds with aspects of their culture in every society, whether ancient or modern. The gospel has always been offensive, (foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews, I Cor. 1:23) so let’s be sure we offend people for the right reasons and not the wrong ones. Too much mission activity is so culturally offensive that people don’t experience the offensive of the gospel.
I think many people oppose contextualization because they don’t understand it and fear it will become the slippery slope that leads to syncretism—a mixture of biblical and non-biblical beliefs and practices. Actually, the opposite is true. Contextualization is the best hedge against syncretism because it sharpens the focus of the gospel.
How can the church be relevant to culture while remaining faithful to the Bible?
Contextualization is concerned with both cultural relevance and biblical fidelity. Good contextualization is both relevant to the cultural context and faithful to the biblical text, and this is not easy to do. It’s not easy because the cultural context is constantly changing, and it is also challenging because there are sometimes divergent interpretations of the meaning of the biblical text.
Nevertheless, without the effort of doing contextualization the church becomes stagnant and irrelevant. Because of the lack of contextualization Christianity is often perceived as a foreign religion by many in the Majority World and an irrelevant waste of time by some in the West. Many in the West are increasingly turned off to organized religion, i.e. the church, but are still interested in Jesus and his teaching.
Who is responsible for doing contextualization?
Contextualization must be done from inside the culture and community, not attempted by outsiders. It should always be done in community, not by distant desktop theologians. It benefits from knowing how to exegete the biblical text, but also how to discover the deeper underlying values and worldview of the cultural context. Skills in biblical exegesis and anthropological ethnography can help. And finally, it cannot be done adequately without the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Contextualization is important, because without it the church can drift into cultural irrelevance and/or wander away from biblical teaching. How do we maintain a balance between cultural relevance and biblical fidelity in an increasingly post-Christian and secularizing society in the West? It requires dialogue and respect for the other when there is a difference of opinion and often repentance when holding to our cherished position in a debate causes us to dehumanize the other or dismiss their perspective out of hand.
Is contextualization helpful in an increasingly divided church?
Could some of the divisions within the United Methodist Church today be less strident if all sides in the discussion understood and practiced contextualization in community and were led by the Holy Spirit? Would our mission efforts be more effective if we encouraged contextualization by followers of Jesus in other cultures and religions that are different from our own? Would we better understand that the Spirit of Christ in one person greets the Spirit of Christ in the other, and closes the distance between them? As we contemplate the importance and practice of contextualization today we may have to relinquish our need for certainty in exchange for our quest for understanding.