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Thinking Through Missiology Together, Second Round

Our discussion surrounding MissionSHIFT has continued to be a great conversation. I am pleased again this week to have so many voices thinking about missiology together, and especially focusing on contextualization, which most of my readers will recognize as a topic of particular interest to me.

Here are some excerpts from yesterday's discussion around the blogosphere. If you want to read these posts in their entirety, you can find their links in the comments section of yesterday's post.

Justin Peter shared some observations from ministering in Myanmar:

It quickly struck me how they have been enculturated by a western form of Christianity, and did not question it much. Of course, Christianity is not the outward form, but the inward substance. Inwardly, these students may love God and the Bible just as much. However, a church steeple is supposed to be as alien to this country as a mud hut is in the artic. They accepted it somehow, without much resistance. But when I proposed that there may be many unchurched people out there who are unwilling or afraid to enter a church building because of unfamiliar practices and forms of worship, the students sat up and took notice. They shared that in response that the churches there have indeed been unable to reach out to or appeal to many. Christians remain a very small minority.

He went on to say:

The "Gospel" is both a verb and a noun. It is a missionary message to be preached. On one hand, we need to ensure that God's truth is not compromised as we preach it in different cultural contexts. On the other hand, we also need to ensure that God's truth does not fall onto the ground after bouncing off ears that do not understand due to our irrelevant approaches and methods.

Lilli shared an important perspective about cultural context:

What have I learned about contextualization? Keeping the integrity of the scriptures is of up most importance. This shows the need for critical contextualization. One needs to be constantly praying through and be conscience that they are indeed sharing biblical ideas in biblical ways to fit contextual understandings. Geisler pointed out that there are some truths in scripture that are transcultural. I would agree with that statement. The character of God, the depravity of man, the sinlessness of Christ, the atonement of Christ's death, and so on are in fact transcultural ideas. But the way that we come around to understand these ideas can be different depending on our context. Let me give one example: My husband told me of a man who was perplexed by sexual immorality being the big sin of all sins in the US. He said that in his culture everyone is sexually immoral... a man has really messed up when he shows his anger. I would stipulate in his culture that the lack of self-control in anger is a starting place for the gospel. He understands that as wrong, so it is something that you can highlight from scripture as a picture of man's sin where here in the US more people may be affected and see sin by showing the need to be sexually pure. Does either of those distort the gospel? No. Does either of those lessen the need for Christ? No. It just shows the need for the gospel in a way that fits one's context.

Geoff Henderson came at the issue from the perspective of working with youth, a setting in which Geoff sees contextualization as an important issue :

The gospel is so rich and multi-faceted, and answers so many of the heart level questions people are really raising, as well as concerns that need addressing. It is the responsibility of the missionary, pastor, and anyone who seeks to minister in his/her context to know what questions are really being raised. The gospel challenges our love of security, which CAN be seen in saving for retirement at the neglect of tithing and giving to missions. But when I write the lessons for the Jr. High, I don't mention this at all. In fact, I'll often highlight the gospel's offer of a new status, that the youth don't need to be popular because the gospel is true. Security, usually, isn't the heart question they are asking.

Jeff read this from his viewpoint as a church planter and was struck by the idea that the conversation needs to be simpler:

In a world of a thousand tribes, the only way to reach it is to empower people who are already part of these cultures to take the Gospel to them. As many have said, we are entering an age where every believer must be a church planter.

This will demand that we keep the number of things we deem biblical absolutes at a minimum. The more things we label "must haves" the more we de-power people by making it increasingly difficult from them to build communities (churches) in their tribes. Things naturally drift toward complexity...and our current institutional forms of being the church have been adrift for a long, long, long time.

I was trained to think that as a leader in the church my job was to contextualize. For a long time I thought my job was to translate the Gospel into culture by designing worship services, building programs, and leading the way with vision. For years I've fought with this. I'm beginning to understand that my job is rather to help people define the simple unchangeables and then empower the people to translate those. Leadership brings out the core DNA principles, helps others apply them in their context, and holds them to those.

Jeremiah Passe made a great observation about the problems that can come on both ends of the spectrum:

As a Pastoral Studies major, this is something I have been thinking about myself. I am not looking to move to a foreign country, but with our ever increasing diversity here in the United States, this is still a topic of question for me. With the strength and hipness of the missional church movement, I wonder "How far is too far?" Sometimes the missional/emerging church movement looks dangerously like the world around it, but at the same time, sometimes the traditional/(dare I say) less missional church looks dangerously separate from the world around it.

Willow Creek's Reveal study came up again, this time with an observation by Doug Foltz:

There have been many churches that have worked hard at contextualization and done a great job at being relevant to the culture. Willow Creek has been a leader through their Reveal study at humbly showing the failures of focusing too much on contextualization and not enough on discipleship. I said in my last post that I can't help but read the Bible and see our mission as making disciples that make disciples. We can't forget that contextualization is meaningless without discipleship. In David Hesselgrave's second thoughts, he reminds us that Paul Heibert emphasized "the principle of missiology." I'd call this the marriage of contextualization and transformation. Michael Pocock quotes Shaw and Van Engel on p. 106, "Christianity is not about knowing; it is about appropriate living...It is about incarnation. It is about a life lived today so people can see Jesus in belivers."

When churches simply measure attendance and offering, we are missing the point and can quickly slip into uncritical contextualization which leads to syncretism. We must study Scripture and understand what a disciple of Jesus is and use the that as our measuring stick.

Good contextualization is not measured by the crowd it attracts but by the lives and communities that are transformed as a result.

Ricky Kirk recognized that cultural distinctives simply cannot be ignored, and asked the logical questions that follow that understanding:

While I believe the gospel should always be proclaimed in a way that transcends cultural distinctives, there is no escaping those distinctives exist either. A gospel presentation to a group of 5th graders will be different than one before a group of PhD's which will be different than one to those with no thestic background. The question then becomes: To what extent does the missionary push orthodox boundaries (in doctrine and practice) to present the gospel to a people group? This is where I believe the debate will continue to be expressed. What cultural elements are adopted without crossing biblical boundaries to present the gospel to 5th graders, PhD's, or those with no theistic background? What is permissable? What crosses the line? How do you establish those boundaries?

Glen took issue with Geisler's response to Hiebert, particularly in light of his own daily interaction with people from many different backgrounds:

How do I engage mission in my multi-cultural daily life? To attempt a positivistic attack on the views of my friends using the Aristotelian laws of argument would destroy those relationships. It would be a bait and switch, indicating my desire to share a meal or enjoy their company was based solely on my secret motive to convert them to my belief system. They would feel betrayed, and rightly so.

My most conservative friends might get offended by this, but I choose another path. I am going to befriend folks who don't know Jesus, but I will continue to do so without an agenda. Whether or not they ever choose to believe, I will be their friend. God has been faithful throughout my life to bring people to me who ask of the hope which he has deposited in me. And when they do ask, I share in my own way, using Scripture memorized and stories of what God has done in my life. I do not go so far as some of my missional friends as to avoid any presentation of the gospel. But I do allow such conversations to flow out of authentic relationships, rather than agenda-driven encounters and relationships. It is the stuff of disciple-making.

Chris Meirose pointed out that it is essential for missionaries to understand their culture and be able to interact with it:

One of the first thoughts I had while reading through this (along with other reactions in the book to the essay as well as an essay response by David Hesselgrave) is the idea that contextualization is inherently reactionary - or at least as it has been categorized by Hiebert. Being reactionary puts the missionary/church at times at a disadvantage to addressing the culture. While this isn't unique to the missions field, it is/can be an additional barrier in what can already be a challenging place for ministry. This is why I am a strong proponent of indigenous led churches as early and often as possible. To his credit, Hiebert does a fair job of pointing out the need for missionaries to deal with sociocultural differences. To be able to minister as effectively as possible, foreign missionaries must really do their homework to learn the culture, and then continue to grow in that knowledge and understanding. And it has to be both knowledge and understanding for the missionary to be able to fully leverage the culture in the presentation of the Gospel.

Sean Pease reflected, however, that this does not only apply to the area of foreign missions, but also to our own backyards:

As I have a heart for missions work abroad, I think I have developed a joy of studying other cultures and learning how to live, as a Christian, within them. The interesting thing to me is that we need to function in this manner in our own neighborhoods. Even when our neighbor is native to our same culture, so many influences effect their worldview.

Dony began his post by saying, "Contextualization of the Gospel for a postmodern generation is imperative. For missions, it is where the rubber meets the road, as the work of God through His Son to save creation, essentially comes to the question if God Himself contextualized his message." He then went on to give an interesting case study of how the issues we have considered have played out in his context in Bulgaria.

Aaron Allison was struck by how we ourselves are shaped by cultural context:

Here is a sobering statement by Hiebert: "As Christians, we are often unaware that we are shaped more by our contexts than the gospel (p. 83)."

As a pastor in the Nashville area, I can relate this statement to our city. Our community is the headquarters of several denominations, and our Kentucky / Tennessee region is the origin of several American-birthed church movements. This means in 2011 that VBS is as much a rite of passage for the average Nashvillian as little league and school dances.

So, the way we experience Christ in Nashville is different than those in other cultures. This difference applies to other regions of the USA, but it especially applies to foreign unreached people groups.

Ed Roden saw this exact same issue and addressed the need to consider the people of a culture and how they have been shaped:

While holding to a high view of Scripture - including Geisler's infallibility and inerrancy comments - how do I present the truth of the Gospel within the various roles and cultures in which God has placed me? Stetzer's essay summarized this perfectly when he said "Why block people from receiving the gospel by insisting that they accept our cultural eccentricities?" (p. 157, emphasis author's). Several of the authors alluded to how to understand a culture, but Willis called it out - we need to not just study the culture, but ask questions of those involved in the culture (point 4 - Understand the receptor culture). It sounds so simple, but is so often overlooked.

Finally, Chris Williams noted, "As I reflected on this issue of contextualization, it occurred to me that the core issue at hand, at least as I see it, is where the line falls between connecting and compromising." He then went on to share some examples, such as this one:

The central message of the Christian faith is the historical reality of Jesus Christ. The saving act of God in the person of Jesus Christ is the redemptive, life changing truth that missiology is focused on sharing. And the Christian life is one that makes a decision to accept the gift offered by Christ and to re-orient every aspect of existence around the person of Jesus Christ, following him and seeking to become like him. Though the way the story may be shared or the way it might be illustrated will vary in different cultures or generations, the story remains unchanged and the essence of Christianity endures. Therefore, the Church, at home and abroad must stay centered on the person, work, message, and calling of Jesus Christ, believing that Christ is timeless and eternally relevant in every time and place.

More blog posts are being written and published, so I hope to share some more with you soon and to continue the discussion. These are not all of the great comments, just a sampling of them. To see more, look at the links and comments from yesterday's post as well as the ones from our first discussion. For now, feel free to interact.

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Thinking Through Missiology Together, Second Round