Monday, June 10, 2013

Always Contextualizing

Contextualization is a word that gets used a lot by missionaries--and increasingly among pastors involved in the missional church movement. Recently there has been a growing backlash and antagonism towards this term (in both its verb and noun forms)--even among some pastors who should know better!
con·tex·tu·al·ize [kuhn-teks-choo-uh-lahyz]
verb (used with object), con·tex·tu·al·ized, con·tex·tu·al·iz·ing.
to put (a linguistic element, an action, etc.) in a context, especially one that is characteristic or appropriate, as for purposes of study.

con·tex·tu·al·i·za·tion, noun
Prabhu Sri Yeshu (he can be your Guru too)
So I'll be straight--I believe that contextualization is necessary for the communication of the Gospel. I am drawing my line in the sand. I believe that contextualization is biblical (see Paul's letters), I believe that it is Christ-like (in His incarnation) and I believe it is necessary if we desire to see the people's of the earth come to the knowledge of Jesus!

Whenever anyone attempts to share or express the message of the Gospel, by virtue of articulating it in the limiting form of spoken or written language within a temporal setting the message is already being contextualized. We knowingly or unknowlingly add our own cultural baggage to the communication of the Gospel--with the words we choose to use (or not to) we shape it.

Many factors contribute to the presentation of the message--including the location the message is presented, whether it is home, a coffee shop or a church building--whether it is presented in warm winsome tones or through a bull-horn on the street corner, we are constantly adding linguistic and cultural cues to the message of the Gospel.

The job of anyone who desires to clearly communicate the timeless message of Jesus' incarnation, death, resurrection and victory over sin, death and the devil will have to put the story into the context of the listeners for them to be able to receive it as good news.

It goes to eleven!

Much of the current debate surrounding contextualization has come against its use by missionaries working with Muslims. Back in 1998 a missionary by the pseudonym of John Travis wrote an article in which he described different types of contextualization being done among Muslims. 

Not this C-scale
The spectrum that he described (C1 to C6) has come to be known as the C-scale. Many people wrongly see the C-scale as a progression of contextual intensity leading towards syncretism, or as prescriptive guidelines on missions among Muslims--neither of which it was intended to be. Unfortunately, both of these wrong understandings have dominated the debate about contextualization. It is not uncommon to hear people saying that contextualization leads to syncretism.

In the original article that John wrote, he made sure to point out that all six groups he described on the scale were equally committed to Jesus' lordship and the central truths of the Gospel. "The six types in the spectrum are differentiated by language, culture, worship forms, degree of freedom to worship with others, and religious identity. All worship Jesus as Lord and core elements of the gospel are the same from group to group." (Travis, Evangelical Missionary Quarterly, October 1998)
syn·cre·tize [sing-kri-tahyz, sin-]
verb (used with object), verb (used without object), syn·cre·tized, syn·cre·tiz·ing.

to attempt to combine or unite, as different or opposing principles, parties, etc.
syncretization: to combine or attempt to combine the characteristic teachings, beliefs, or practices of (differing systems of religion or philosophy)
Because all six levels described in the C-scale are equally committed to the Gospel and Jesus' lordship--and all of them are by virtue of trying to put the Gospel in context are participating in some form of contextualization, then none of them is inherently more prone to syncretism than any other--the potential for syncretism is prevalent at all points along the C-scale.

How the C-Scale has been misrepresented by its antagonists.

There is no correlation between certain types of contextualization and syncretism--as those antagonistic towards the missionary use of contextualization have suggested (as is shown in the above diagram which I borrowed from here). The choice not to contextualize is a choice of contextualization--it is unavoidable. The degree of contextualization does also not lead to syncretism--the choice to reject contextualization can just as easily (and does) lead to syncretism also.

Therefore, the Muslims Background Believer church that looks exactly like an Evangelical Western church and the Insider Movement believers that worship Jesus in the mosque are both in equal danger of sycretization. The Western style MBB church is in danger of syncretizing Christianity with foreign philosophies and beliefs that run contrary to the Gospel--while the Insider Movement is in danger of syncretizing with aspects of the Islamic worldview that cannot be redeemed by the Gospel.

Semper Contextualize

One of the watchwords of the Protestant Reformation was Sempor Reformanda--always reforming. As Wikipedia so nicely puts it, "It refers to the conviction of certain Reformed Protestant theologians that the church must continually re-examine itself in order to maintain its purity of doctrine and practice." I believe that the conviction that we must continually make sure that our communication of the Gospel is being done well (that is, contextualized well) is a logical extension of the Protestant idea of Sempor Reformanda.

Jesus, Chief of Chiefs
Rather than arguing whether we should contextualize the Gospel (the bible I believe is abundantly clear that we should), we need to move the conversation on to the quality of contextualization being done--both at home and abroad. People do not contextualize by degrees (that is more or less)--we are always and equally involved in contextualization every time we try to express an abstract idea in a finite language--therefore we shouldn't used measure words when talking about contextualization (i.e. more contextualized, less contextualized), these are unhelpful at progressing this conversation. Instead we should discuss contextualization in quality terms, that is, with adjectives like: good, well, healthy, effective, thoughtful, sloppy, bad, poor, unwise etc.

The truth is, that many of those vocally antagonistic against the practices of missionaries regarding contextualization are not particularly effective at communicating the Gospel to the lost in their own cities and neighborhoods. We need to become a people that desires the Gospel to be communicated in a way that everyone can understand--from the smallest child to the most jaded atheist college professor. We need Christians disciples that can share the Gospel well in unique and contextual ways in their work places, schools, community centers, homes and churches. The way that the message is articulated should vary significantly from place to place--and I believe that this generation has lost the ability to do this effectively.

If you have a problem with the way that some missionary or group is contextualizing the Gospel, do not throw out the baby with the bathwater--there are many people (including Western Christians) that are horrible at putting the Gospel into the context of the people they are hoping to communicate with, in these cases, we should encourage them to improve the quality of their communication of the Gospel within the context they are in.

Syncretism and the American Dream: We Tend to Project Our Own Culture onto Jesus

Nice suit J-Mac.
Many of us have undiscerningly attached Western political, social and cultural ideas to our understanding of Christianity--and it affects the way that we share the Gospel. This is syncretism. Syncretism is a four-letter-word for most Christians, and when used against missionaries it is quite damning, but the truth is that many American Christians and pastors are more guilty of syncretism than the missionaries which they are attacking.

What do democracy, capitalism and American exceptionalism (a few examples of many) have to do with the Gospel? If we really want to deal with syncretism in an honest way, we're going to have to BBQ some of American Christianity's sacred cows.

The Western pastor, dressed in his suit and tie (or best Hawaiian/bowling shirt) preaching an hour long three-point sermon in an air-conditioned church building on a Sunday morning to a group of white middle-class Americans (with power-point slides, CCM music, self-serve communion and coffee service) needs to wrestle with syncretism and the ways in which the Gospel can be and has been compromised to one culture or philosophy just as much as the missionary working among Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims.


Whenever we communicate an abstract idea in a finite language we are always contextualizing--whether knowingly or unknowingly. The first step in being better communicators is realizing that we are constantly processing and contextualizing information in order to understand and communicate it. My challenge to today's church, to Always Contextualize is an extension of Semper Reformanda--the reformation ideal of constantly sharpening our understanding of the Gospel and how it works itself out in our lives. We have a choice about whether or not to sharpen a tool the Lord has given to us, or to continue to use it as a bludgeon.

One cannot contextualize more or less, they can only contextualize well or poorly. Likewise, there is no direct correlation between syncretism and contextualization--we are all equally capable and vulnerable to the danger of syncretizing the Gosepl with a human philosophy or worldview. As a people committed to Always Contextualize, we need to pursue thoughtful and healthy contextualization of the Gospel; with the desire that God would get the glory, and the people's of the earth would hear the Gospel in a way that they can understand and respond to it.


Unknown said...

Good read, bro!

Ian Smith said...

Thanks Cody--I'm grateful for your insights over the years on this topic. I haven't really had a chance to talk about this topic in depth since leaving Chicago, so I feel like this blog post was a little rusty. Glad that you enjoyed it.