Mission Must Be Contextual

Each Monday morning ACT 3 publishes an online article of 1,000 to 1,600 words (usually, but not always, written by me). We call this the ACT 3 Weekly. This article is also turned into a podcast.

ACT3LogoFacebook I am amazed at how many regular readers of my blogs do not receive these free weekly articles. While the blogs offer my shorter thoughts on a variety of issues and themes related to the church, mission and ecumenism (along with some personal stuff that I like to share with friends), these ACT 3 Weekly articles are my most serious writing. Here I generally develop a subject in more depth and write things that may, and in some cases will, be turned into published books.

I recently concluded a series of sixteen on “The Church and Her Modern Mission.” I consider this material to be at the very core of my call and vision. Here is a sample of what I wrote in the August 15 issue title: “Mission in the New World Must Be Contextual.” (Again, the whole is archived at www.act3online.com under ACT 3 Weekly.) Again, this material is excerpted in order to give you a sense of the argument and to encourage you to sign up for the ACT 3 Weekly and visit the archives to read this and other back issues.

 

When I studied missions in the early 1970s contextualization was a strictly overseas oriented subject. I studied it formally but never realized that my study would later become important to me as an American church planter. It would then become important to my ministry as a local pastor and later as a teacher and equipper of leaders.

The term contextualization has become a “hot button” among extremely conservative Christians. This is unfortunate. This reaction is often the result of fear and misunderstanding. Almost every Christian, and church congregation, practices some form of contextualization in the actual application of biblical and ecclesial authority. Let me explain.

Missionary theologians have been writing about contextualization for a long time. What has changed is that a debate about  the subject has arisen in the West. Some of this debate is pretty silly, a kind of intramural Christian fighting. When this happens it is much to do about nothing. But some of this debate is serious since some want to alter the gospel itself to gain an audience.

Missionaries have always struggled to communicate God’s Word faithfully to other cultures If they haven’t struggled with this then they quite likely are not being heard by those who most need to understand the good news. A missionary has written a helpful
article about this debate and says:

Some cultures have seven primary colors, others recognize only four, and some only have the ideas of shiny and dull. Given these realities, how would you translate Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” in a culture that doesn’t have scarlet, white, red, snow or wool? Which word best describes Jesus going to Emmaus, or Jesus walking on water in Zulu which has 120 words for walking? The Malagasy-speaking peoples of Madagascar distinguish over 200 kinds of noises and recognize over 100 colors. One missionary in the Congo consistently used a phrase for “crying out” to describe John the Baptist or the Old Testament prophets until one day he discovered that this referred to the kind of crying that little babies did in their cribs. We must acknowledge that faithfully rendering God’s Word in another culture and language is not an easy task.

A properly critical contextualization is called for in an increasingly post-Christendom context. Failure to contextualize will lead us to false and non-biblical reductionism and dangerous conclusions. But when the culture is used to contextualize the gospel without a proper biblical understanding then the results will be a form of religious syncretism. The end result of this process will be no gospel left at all.

Contextualization says, in effect, that all human language and communication must be interpreted. Both the speaker and the receiver understand each other in a specific context that is directly related to the use of words and symbols.

Did the West turn away from the gospel because it was never properly contextualized in the first place? Or was it because we over-contextualized the message in a way that caused it to lose its distinctive character?

What Will Contextualization Look Like Today?

What would real contextualization look like in modern North America? While conservative evangelicals and progressive Christians fight over the answer to this question I am persuaded that David Bosch was correct when he said: “We really do not know (Believing in the Future, 58).

I realize that this answer scares the daylights out of many conservative Christians because they need a simple, closed and definitive answer. The problem here is actually not complicated. We have an unchanging message but how we make our message known in our time is just not profoundly clear at this moment in time. This sounds like a form of relativism but it is not. It is an honest
response to a huge problem at a unique time in our history. If we know our message well, love Jesus with all our heart and soul, and love our neighbors deeply, we will find ways to listen and speak that are relevant and effective. If we want a program that will do this for us we are not likely to find one. We must recognize that what we have is a divine call to follow Jesus into the unknown. This requires us to live by faith, not by sight. We very often find this too much to handle.