Bringing It Home
We know the Gospel must be presented for people to be saved. And when we are honest, we know it will be presented differently in various places, according to their cultural uniqueness. This is called contextualization.
And while we do focus on that when sending foreign missionaries, I think we often sidestep the process at home. In the West, we need to talk about contextualization in our own setting.
I have written and talked about what we call the missional matrix. To figure out how we carry out the work of God, we need to vigorously consider three issues.
We can establish Christ was the greatest example of a person who lives on mission. We can even agree the New Testament Church showed us how the gospel of Christ can flow into any culture with success.
But it is the adaptation of the ministry into ‘language’ of the culture, and how the greatest truth can be faithfully expressed which is often the trickiest part.
How do we communicate? How do we contextualize the message or the presentation, so churches might become more indigenous along the way? What forms and strategies should we use to be about the Kingdom work here where we are sent?
Why is it so difficult to successfully contextualize?
Dean Gilliland, in The Word Among Us, explained it this way:
Contextualization is a delicate enterprise if there ever was one… The evangelist and mission strategy stand on a razor’s edge, aware that to fall off on either side has terrible consequences. Fall to the right and you end up in obscurantism. The root word there is obscure, not a normal word that people use. But fall to the right and you end up in obscurantism so attached to your conventional ways of practicing and teaching the faith that you veil its truth and power from those who are trying to see it through very different eyes. Slip to the left and you tumble into syncretism, so vulnerable to the impact of paganism in its multiplicity of forms that you compromise the uniqueness of Christ and concoct another gospel which is not the gospel.
In my experience, one of the great challenges in America is obscurantism. People are used to doing things in church and ministry the way they’ve always done it. But people in the larger culture are trying to see it through very different eyes and it is not resonating.
This is well documented and easily observed. But we would be naïve at best and reckless at worst, if we didn’t also recognize the danger of syncretism. That is why I believe a church must be a biblically faithful, culturally appropriate, counter-culture community for the Kingdom of God.
This is about recognizing the fact that the truth of God is unchanging. He has revealed His truth through Scripture. We don’t get to change it so we can reach more people. As has been said, “What you win them with is what you win them to.”
Knowing and applying the Word correctly is a critical part of living the mission regardless of cultural variations. As developed in previous articles in this series, we need to know Christ, and we need to know the values of the New Testament church. That will inform our expression as much as what we learn from our surrounding culture.
This is about relating to the beautiful variations of cultural distinctions. If it is important for our message to be consistent with God’s truth, it is important for our methods to be compatible with the people God wants to reach.
Our music, teaching styles, gathering formats, etc. should interface well with the way our surrounding culture lives. We know people are, in many ways, a product of their surroundings. That isn’t always a bad thing.
Learn their cultural language, and use it to speak God’s message. There is no reason to force a square peg in a round hole, when a round peg will work just fine.
This is about revealing the Kingdom of God in the midst of a fallen system. Culture itself is neither good nor bad. But within culture there is evil, as well as good. In a fallen world, evil permeates every aspect of a society and even controls certain aspects of culture.
Believers need to provide a picture of what God designed and intended. This will often not fit with the forms found in the unredeemed culture. So while it is important to be able to use their language, it is just as important to tell a different story that will be accepted by some and rejected by others.
We are celebrating and revealing God’s truth to transform people, not just adding something to their way of life.
How Are We Doing?
There needs to be conformity to the truth of God, even as there is customization to the life of the culture. So it becomes a missional balancing act.
Contextualization is about remaining true to Godly principles, while ringing true in a culture that is tainted with ungodly practices.
In the Western Church, on which side of Gilliland’s razor’s edge do you think we tend to fall? Is the Church (or the culture) more a victim of obscurantism or syncretism?
What Western cultural practices deserve the most attention as we look at the possibility of syncretism?
In this discussion about contextualization, what has the Church done well in the Western culture? What can we learn from those ministering in Asia, Africa, or South America?