Missions commonly today focuses on the idea that contextualization is necessary. Contextualization is the enculturation of the gospel message. A Christian 1st century Greek did not, and should not live like a Christian 1st century Jew. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 recognized Unity within Christ while maintaining Diversity in Culture. Today, in missions we seek to do the same thing.
But who, actually, does the contextualization? Options:
1. The missionary. This is the most common explicit or implicit answer given. Missionaries are the cross-cultural experts. Their etic (outsider) perspective of the culture in question and (presumed) Biblical understanding should make them the best at bridging the gap.
However, missionaries often have no clue. Their understanding of the culture they’re working in is often limited to behavior and artifacts, not the underlying beliefs and worldview. They also have problems in that they see the world through glasses shaded by their home culture.
Example: Consider Asian Ancestor worship. To an American missionary, the whole Eastern way of dealing with ancestors seems like worship and so should be ended. However, consider American practices with the dead. We commonly:
-Take the dead and dress them up and embalm them much like Egyptians did.
-We put them in expensive wooden boxes and place them in the altar area of a church (or a church-like funeral home). There, we walk up solemnly to the box look down at the deceased and commonly say a prayer.
-We cover the box and surrounding area in the church with flower offerings and, often, money gifts.
-We place them in the ground in an area generally considered sacred, and erect a graven statue, plaque, or altar shaped stone.
-We commonly keep the area where the deceased is buried cared for, returning to give flower offerings and often say a prayer when we visit.
American Christians would almost unanimously assert that NONE of this is worship of the deceased. They would say they are honoring (showing respect) for the dead and going through socially appropriate steps of mourning. To an outsider these behaviors may look like worship, but they are not. Therefore, missionaries need to be very careful when looking at Asian death practices before assuming they know which things are honoring (a good thing), and which things are worship (worship being something only to be reserved for God). Missionaries should also be careful before assuming which prayers are directed to the ancestor (not acceptable in Christian belief), those directed for the ancestor (questionable, but more acceptable), or directed to God with the ancestor as the focal point of remembrance.
2. The local believers. This makes more sense. The local people have an emic (insider) perspective of their own culture. As they grow in faith, they begin to recognize the good and bad aspects of their own culture.
There are problems here as well. First, young Christians (like young people) learn through modelling. If they become Christians and are serious in the faith, they will look to the only other Christians in the area to determine how they should live. In many places, these models are the missionaries. In other places, it may be other Christians who have been trained up by missionaries who are more culturally imperialistic. In yet other situations, the models may be heterodox groups quick to jump in to snatch away the little faith these new believers may have. A missionary who does not assist and equip young believers in the integration of their faith with their home culture, is leaving baby lambs out with the wolves.
Still, the positive side of this cannot be ignored. Consider the ancestor worship again. Many Asian Christians believe that they can practice a majority of the practices of “ancestor worship”. They can still pray (to God), they can still give little offerings (like American Christians putting flowers on graves). However, they will not light incense at the graves. They believe that within their culture, this crosses a line and is not consistent with being an Asian Christian. (This is not a universal understanding, of course. This is just one perspective).
3. God/Holy Spirit. Some might argue that God contextualizes, we don’t. The Holy Spirit reveals how we should live.
This always sounds spiritual… but one should always watch out for things that “sound spiritual”. If God has called us to do something, we are NOT being spiritual by refusing to do it and tossing it back to God. Secondly, far too many people use the Holy Spirit to squelch discussion. After all, if the Holy Spirit said to do something (even if it seems to be foolish, or even evil) there is not a lot of wiggle room for discussion. One must either reject the message (and the messenger) or accept it without condition.
4. The Bible. Again, this sounds spiritual, but it is not. The Bible does not give a lot of details of how to apply the faith to specific cultures. We know how it applied to 1st century Jewish society, 1st century Hellinized Jewish society, and 1st century Greek society. This does not say much about contextualizing for a people group in Tawi Tawi, Philippines, or a village in Nunuvut, Canada.
In practice, when people point to the Bible as the full guide for behavior (not just principles), they are generally pointing to a 20th (or 21st) century interpretation of the Bible in a different culture. Cultural imperialism is restored. Contextualization is theologizing (study of man and his relation with God within a specific setting). Theologizing bridges the gap between God’s revelation, and man’s context. God’s revelation may be set, but man’s context is fluid, so theologizing (contextualizing) must be fluid.
5. Local Society. Since contextualization involves theologizing within the context of the local society, one could let that society judge what it means to be a Christian within its own context. Of course, there is not a supermind called “local society”. In practice it means that contextualization is the work of everybody and nobody.
Clearly, the problem is that local society has good and bad aspects. Societies are often blind to their own failings (and may not even be that aware of their own strengths). Contextualization is not simply blessing what a culture does. It involves a critical judgment.
Consider the Jerusalem Council. This council in Acts 15 was the culmination of many steps.
a. The model of Christ (particularly in Matthew) as an international, not simply national leader and God.
b. God working with Philip the Evangelist, Peter, Cornelius, Barnabbas, and Paul, as well as many believers of different cultural backgrounds.
c. The gathering for reports, discussion, and prayer of different Christian perspectives for a group decision.
If you see this, you find God working in it (Christ modelling, the Spirit guiding, and the Father saving/transforming). You see missionaries interacting with local cultures and believers.
Let’s return to the bridge. If one side of the bridge is God’s revelation (His word), and the other side is the local culture, then the bridge itself is the contextualized theology. This bridge is built anchored at both ends (by God’s word and local culture) and is built by local believers, empowered by missionaries, both seeking God’s will throughout.
So who contextualizes? It guess all parties contextualize. However, the role of the missionary should decrease over time as the local believers self-theologize.
How is the process done best? I don’t know… I have seen far more bad examples of contextualization than good. What about you?