October 5, 2015Culture

Contextualization and Interaction Mapping

James Watson, a consultant for Salvation Army Canada, shares about how we might contextualize in culturally-mixed environments.
Contextualization and Interaction Mapping

It was a very memorable “pot luck” luncheon for House of Prayer for All Nations. The church planters had effectively built relationships with their neighbors and about half of the people who arrived through the long morning worship service (or perhaps just for the pot luck at the end) were newcomers to Canada. We were blessed at these worship services to have neighbors encounter the gospel for the very first time. We had to label the three different tables for the buffet: “vegetarian” (for friends from Hindu regions), “halal” (for friends from Islamic countries) and “we don’t know what’s in it” (the eat-at-your-own-risk table). The wide range of food options reflected the diversity of conversations as people ate together.

Contextualization in the Midst of Diversity and Change

How does contextualization of the gospel, discipleship and congregational life function in such a mixed environment? There are different countries of origin, languages and ethnic identities. Some people are becoming more entrenched in the cultural customs of their old country to avoid being overwhelmed by culture shock while others are adapting as much as possible for the relational and financial benefits of being able to fit into their new society. Many people are effectively becoming cultural hybrids – they behave according to one set of cultural rules in certain situations and when they are around a different group of people they may act in a very different way. For example, a Sudanese family who have left their country as refugees and are adapting to life in Los Angeles may have a teenager who talks and acts very differently at home than among his multicultural peers in high school.

How does contextualization of the gospel, discipleship and congregational life function in such a mixed environment?

Similar to changes in cultural identity, religious or spiritual behaviors and convictions may be changing. New religious perspectives and actions develop in order to respond to the diversity of options available in Western society. Moving from an Islamic country to a multicultural city like Toronto may mean encountering expectations that food shopping should only take place at stores approved as halal. There may also be openness to explore and change their spiritual focus. Immigrants from countries where expressions of Christianity were suppressed may be curious about Christianity…and Christians. They can have interesting assumptions, such as Christians being accurately represented by all the characters in Hollywood movies because America is a “Christian country.” They may be inspired to explore Christian faith wholeheartedly or they may express their spirituality very differently among different groups of people in their diverse social circles. In certain cases, change in spiritual commitment may also carry the weight of damaging important relationships, either here or overseas. The hyperdiversity of gateway cities not only creates new beginnings for migrants but also provides opportunities for Christians to love their new neighbors and learn how to share the gospel with globally-connected conversation partners.

Responding to Complexity

One approach to untangling the complexity of diverse and changing social contexts can be to map out relationships within the neighborhood. Awareness of the web of relationships can then allow for observation over time of the ways in which influence flows through the relational networks. As someone in the neighborhood discusses religious ideas or expects certain cultural customs to be observed or invites people to a worship gathering, what is the reaction of their neighbors? Do they choose to accept or reject? Knowledge of who is initiating the influence and how individuals are responding will provide indicators of both strength of the relational ties between the individuals and the personal convictions that are developing. It may be that the response depends very much on who is initiating the activity. Ongoing monitoring of the trends of influence can aid in thinking through our own actions. The changing context can be addressed by being prepared to quickly take note of the consequences of our own ministry activity and adapting our approach based on the different responses.

Movement Toward Jesus

Contextualization can be monitored as we observe the patterns of interaction and discern whether individuals are moving closer to, or further away from, Jesus. The conversations we participate in, observations of behavior and notable influencers among the networks all provide data for spiritual discernment. The ripples we send out through the relational networks will generate negative or positive feedback and we can prayerfully reflect on the impact of our ministry. When there is a negative response we may be able to adjust our approach based on whether we believe there was a cultural misunderstanding, a rejection of the message bearer, or the reaction was based on a challenge actually presented by the gospel. This intentional focus on relationships fits well with planting initiatives. While the Holy Spirit inspires vision and spiritual transformation, and the Bible provides the core curriculum for the development of new churches, relationships form the links that both hold the new faith community together and create opportunities for interaction with our new neighbors.

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