Three Functions of Contextualization

If you want to read the article by Darrell Whiteman, you can click HERE. But grabbing some excerpts, the first  purpose is as follows

Darrell L. Whiteman

Contextualization attempts to communicate the Gospel in word and deed and to establish the church in ways that make sense to people within their local cultural context, presenting Christianity in such a way that it meets people’s deepest needs and penetrates their worldview, thus allowing them to follow Christ and remain within their own culture.

This function seems at first to be self-evident, but it is clear we have not always done mission in this mode. Why, then, this sudden burst of energy and excitement, at least in the academy, about this notion of contextualization? I believe the answer lies partly in the postcolonial discovery that much of our understanding and practice of faith has been shaped by our own culture and context, and yet we often assumed that our culturally conditioned interpretation of the Gospel was the Gospel. We are now beginning to realize that we have often confused the two and have inadvertently equated our culturally conditioned versions of the Gospel with the kingdom of God.

Now the second function

Another function of contextualization in mission is to offend—but only for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. Good contextualization offends people for the right reasons. Bad contextualization, or the lack of it altogether, offends them for the wrong reasons. When the Gospel is presented in word and deed, and the fellowship of believers we call the church is organized along appropriate cultural patterns, then people will more likely be confronted with the offense of the Gospel, exposing their own sinfulness and the tendency toward evil, oppressive structures and behavior patterns within their culture.   …

Unfortunately, when Christianity is not contextualized or is contextualized poorly, then people are culturally offended, turned off to inquiring more about who Jesus is, or view missionaries and their small band of converts with suspicion as cultural misfits and aliens. When people are offended for the wrong reason, the garment of Christianity gets stamped with the label “Made in America and Proud of It,” and so it is easily dismissed as a “foreign religion” and hence irrelevant to their culture.  When this happens, potential converts never experience the offense of the Gospel because they have first encountered the cultural offense of the missionary or Westernized Christians.

Ant the third function:

A third function of contextualization in mission is to develop contextualized expressions of the Gospel so that the Gospel itself will understood in ways the universal church has neither experienced nor understood before, thus expanding our understanding of the kingdom of God. In this sense contextualization is a form of mission in reverse, where we will learn from other cultures how to be more Christian in our own context.

This is an important function of contextualization in mission because it connects the particular with the universal. The challenge is creating a community that is both Christian and true to its own cultural heritage. Peter Schineller points out in addition that “every local Christian community must maintain its link with other communities in the present around the world, and with communities of the past, through an understanding of Christian tradition.”

Bad Contextualization of the Gospel

I am happy to say that I don’t hearblog_ifyouonlyhaveahammer this much anymore… the idea that the gospel message needs not be contextualized or made to be recognized relevant to the hearer. On occasion, one hears someone quote Isaiah 55:11, believing that God word accomplishes what it is supposed to do, despite us.

So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.

Usually, rather than attacking contextualization, what is challenged is the motive behind contextualization… the belief (or perhaps fear) that contextualization is some sort of pluralistic relativism, diluting the Christian faith. Can it be that? I suppose… one can interpret almost anything as anything… that is the characteristic of pure symbols. However, such fear can be a lazy excuse to use just one presentation of God’s message, even where such a presentation would in all probability be a failure. Or it may be a lazy or selfish choice to not understand others.

Let’s consider a rather extreme case of bad contextualization of the Gospel. It is the story of Emperor Atahualpa, and the Conquistador Pizarro. You can read the story in one of my previous posts… HERE. This version of the story is from Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” Look at the method of presentation of the Gospel, and the results.

On the quick read one might argue that it wasn’t a presentation of the gospel at all. For Evangelicals it does not push toward the tradition of the “Sinner’s Prayer.” There is also no focus on sin, repentance, and faith. Yet it does have a couple of  features that make it an even more theologically sound presentation of the Gospel. Consider the following:

A.  The friar was offering to teach the people to be friends of God. This focus on discipleship certainly places it superior to calls for belief without Lordship of Christ, or a call even to follow Christ in any meaningful way.

B.  The message of Good News was actually from God’s Word, the Bible. In fact, the friar gave the Emperor the Bible, and sought to help him use the Bible. This certainly places it superior to presentations that are more logical or clever, but clearly outside of utilizing the whole of Scripture.

So if this was such a good presentation of the Gospel, why did it fail so miserably. (Frankly, I hope most readers would identify the killing of thousands of non-Christians and the subjugation of the rest as an undesirable result of a gospel presentation.) Many of the problems with the presentation were due to the cross-cultural gap that had to be bridged. But there were other problems as well that may not have as much causation from poor contextualization. Let’s consider the contextual issues first.

  • The Word of God wasn’t really presented in a way where it could be responded to. The Incan Emperor did not know how to read Latin, so he could not have read it, to say nothing of responding to it after understanding it. Giving the Bible to someone who can’t understand it, thinking it will have a positive result is quite foolish. The power of the Bible is in the message it conveys… not some magic associated with it, and not the physical structure of the Bible.
  • The Bible was not even in a medium that the Emperor could appreciate. The Incans had no written language, so he had no concept of written language. He did not even know how to open the book. The present the Bible utilizing a medium that the people cannot connect to is much like establishing a Christian radio station in the 16th century— an impressive accomplishment, but no one will be able to receive the message. They won’t even know that there was a message being sent in the first place.
  • The message was given disrespectfully. When the Emperor did not know how to open the book, the friar tried to reach up to help. The Emperor was angry. Probably, although I am just guessing, the behavior was inappropriate when dealing with the Emperor. Of course, making the emperor angry through a social faux pas is quite likely to drive a wedge between the two rather than leading to agreement.
  • The behavior of the friar and Pizarro was thoroughly ethnocentric. It was so ethnocentric that when the Emperor tossed aside the Bible (tossing something he had never seen before– and did not look all that interesting since he could not read), the friar called them enemy dogs and the Emperor a tyrant. In all likelihood the friar did not know the Emperor well enough to know if he was a tyrant. He may well have been no more of a tyrant than the Spanish royals. Calling them dogs is a disappointingly classic form of dehumanization and of self-elevation. In the 1500s explorers and theologians struggled with the question of whether the strange beings they found in other lands were truly human or not. The wise of that time didn’t know the limits of what is, so it is understandable if there was some confusion. Still, if one was actually superior, it hardly seems appropriate (or even necessary) to degrade the others further. Certainly presuming that their deaths were less of a tragedy than one’s own people, qualifies as ethnocentric.

There were other problems as well:

  • Mixed motive. Pizarro was a conquistador… driven forward by the desire for conquest (thus the term “conquistador”) and wealth. The friar actually joined the group because of his desire for plunder, not hearts turned to God.
  • Mixed allegiances. Pizarro calls for the Incans to be subject to God, the the King of Spain, and the Roman Catholic church. It is understandable that missionaries sometimes identify themselves with their nation of origin or their own denomination so strongly that they struggle in separating those allegiances from allegiance to God. History does have many stories that may lead one to concern about mixing denominationalism (or creedalism) or nationalism, with allegiance to God.
  • Mixed methods. Mixing the message of God’s desire to make peace with all mankind with an army bent on destruction and colonization certainly sends a double message.

I think it is safe to say that contextualization, and proper motivation has a strong effect on how people respond to the Gospel.

 

 

 

Contextualized Evangelical Theology?

How does one contextualize theology while still being Evangelical. I struggle with this a bit.

On one side, I believe that good context theology must have two invariants:  (1) It must be true to God’s revelation. (2) It must be relevant to the culture it is meant to be contextualized to.  The failure to meet the 2nd invariant means it is not contextual. The failure to meet the 1st invariant means that it isn’t good. To the extent that Evangelical Theology upholds these two invariants, I believe that Contextualized Evangelical Theology is a worthy goal. bamboo-wedding-chapel

On the other side, I also know that Evangelical Theology itself tends to be strongly contextualized to a British and American cultural sensibility. And frankly, to be true to good contextual theology is likely to strain the definition of Evangelical as it is commonly understood. Is it worthwhile even to add the term Evangelical into the term “Contextualized Evangelical Theology?”  I sometimes have the same issue with some other terms as well. I sometimes teach in a Pentecostal school, even though I am not Pentecostal. I often feel that their desire to hold onto the term “Pentecostal” as they seek to contextualize their faith– even more so as much of their theology here in Southeast Asia has less and less to do with the theology described as the foundation of traditional Pentecostalism. Often the term seems to provide little more than a nostalgic link rather a doctrinal one.

Returning to the term Evangelical, I see value in the term, but acknowledge reticence  in using the term when speaking of contextualized theology since it can suggest a rejection of contextualization. On the other hand, I have met people who appear to believe that the attempt to contextualize automatically involves a rejection of the normalizing beliefs of Evangelicalism. I just don’t see that. Regardless, Dr. Rodrigo Tano, presently the president of Alliance Graduate Graduate School listed several parameters in “Toward an Evangelical Asian Theology.”

  1. Must uphold the supremacy of the biblical revelation as normative for faith and conduct. This would reject seeing the holy books of other faiths as being additional canonical revelations of God. It would also, presumably, reject seeing other possible forms of divine revelation (prophecy, activities of the church, reason, creation, and history) as anything but having a clearly subordinate role to the Bible.
  2. Maintains the balance in understanding of God, in terms of His personality, transcendence, and immanence. So attempts to link God as described in the Bible with other faith’s understanding of God must not violate His character as shown in the Bible and in Bible history. So linking God of the Bible with God of the Quran is highly problematic. Additionally, the missionary goal of linking an animistic group’s view of the “god of the heavens” with the God of the Bible may be a useful starting point for dialogue, but again can be open to problems down the line unless there is clarification.
  3. Must maintain Jesus Christ as the unique and final source of restoration for mankind. Salvation history climaxes with Jesus death and resurrection, and is complete with His return.
  4. Must affirm mankind’s lostness and need of God’s grace through faith.
  5. Includes as an essential element  the call to belong to the Christian church.
  6. Our message must fill the local and national religious concepts with biblical substance. Traditional cultural concepts should not be employed in theological formulation without critical evaluation and reinterpretation.

Some good things:

  • Item #6 clearly identifies the need to repackage the message in terms of local concepts… while still clearly maintaining “biblical substance.” Without this in its two aspects, the theology would not be contextual, or biblical. In fact, #6 is the only item that has anything to do with contextualizing or localizing theology.
  • I feel that #1, #2, and #3 really are necessary to be Evangelical… and I would say these would be necessary for good theology… regardless of whether one chooses to throw in the word ‘Evangelical’ or not.

Some perhaps a bit questionable things:

  • I think #4 is true but only when one really embraces the term “affirm.” Affirm means to accept as true, but the term does not imply centrality. Evangelical soteriology has tended to focus on Jesus as Savior over Jesus as Lord. However, one can suggest a culture where sin is not a central concern where the key is Jesus as Lord. Focusing of Jesus as Lord and guide does imply affirming lostness, but it may not be central as a concept.
  • I am not sure that #5 is a necessary characteristic of good contextualized theology. The mystical unity of all believers through Christ (the Universal Church) and its implications on self-identity are certainly critical. To that extent I agree… however, the term “church” is often defined in Evangelical circles in ways that, while not necessarily wrong, don’t seem to be supracultural. It seems to me that #5 here should be removed or much more carefully worded.

Actually, these concerns are rather mild… a modest critique.

However, I do wonder about the overall tone of the list. I recall a Filipino theologian here stating that Tano is not so much a Contextual or Local Theologian as a translator of Evangelical Theology to other cultures. Certainly this list points to that idea. Items 1-5 emphasize maintaining Evangelical distinctives. Item 6 is to contextualize. But in Item 6 there seems to be more caution associated with contextualiztion than affirmation of its importance.

Is “Orthodox Missions’ ” an Oxymoron?

A nice article from an Orthodoxthe-what-where-when-and-why-of-orthodox-missions-3 missionary in the link below. The Orthodox church along with other groups associated with the “Eastern Faiths” were by far the most missional in the first millenium (combining in this sense the Greek Orthodox, “Nestorian,” and Coptic churches). In the 2nd millenium, the missions of the Russian orthodox involved an impressive expansion of the faith across Northern and Central Asia and into North America while Protestant churches were still experimenting with the idea of cross-cultural missions.

They were the first groups to respectfully and positively interact with the Islamic faith… and the first (particularly with the Russian orthodox again) to effectively evangelize Muslim groups. They also took seriously issues of translation of Scripture and liturgy, and indiginization of the local church long before these were in vogue in the West.

Curiously, books on Missions commonly ignore Orthodox missions. For Protestants, denominationalism is not really an adequate explanation since many of those same books take seriously Roman Catholic missions.

Anyway, this article helps to explain the omission, at least in terms of fairly recent history.

Is “Orthodox Missions” an Oxymoron? – http://wp.me/p8e2Jb-2kM

Cultural Perspective and the Prodigal Son

Osobo O. Otaigbe, in his book “Building51jtl2ynvgl-_sx331_bo1204203200_ Cultural Intelligence in Church and Ministry,” tells a story from Mark Powell regarding different cultural responses to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Numerous Christians from three nations (United States, Russia, and Tanzania) were told the story, and asked about the story. The question was why did the prodigal son end up in the pig sty?

  • The majority view of Americans was that the prodigal son ended up in the pig sty because he squandered his money.
  • The majority view of Russians interviewed was that it was because of a famine.
  • The majority view of Tanzanians was that it was because no one helped him out.

Who is correct? Well, let’s look at the passage (Luke 15:13-15):

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.

So who is correct? They all are. He squandered his money, there was a famine, and no one helped.

One culture focused on the Individual, one on the Community, and one on Fate.

Culture filters what we see and hear, and guides our interpretation and behavior. But in this particular case all three views have a point, but none ultimately matter. The story is ultimately about the Father (God) who welcomes and restores– regardless of whether the problem is due to individual fault, community failure, or kismet.

However, if I could only choose one viewpoint, I might focus on the one of the Tanzanians.

  • Individualism can lead one to see solutions in oneself… and that is the wrong place.
  • Fatalism can lead one to see solutions in luck or perhaps “calling.”… and that ultimately does not bring solutions.
  • Collectivism can lead one to see solutions in relationship to others… and that is a better place to look.

A Christian understanding probably comes closest to seeing things in the third sense– our relationship with God and with others.

Regardless, multiple viewpoints can be beneficial… not forcing new ideas into the text– but helping us find our own blindspots.

Maybe a “Cross-cultural Minister”?

In our Mission Research class it came up a second time. Should there be missionaries serving here in the Philippines? After all, if over 90% of Filipinos self-identify as Christians, are they needed?  If one identifies missionaries in terms of the Biblical role of apostle– evangelist and churchplanter– they are unnecessary in much of the Philippines. An outsider is less effective in evangelizing and churchplanting… so an outsider has little purpose in such work unless it is to throw money at the problem. Sadly, throwing money at problems from outside sources can create dependency— and I certainly have seen that.

So should there be missionaries serving in the Philippines? As one who could be described as a missionary, a foreigner ministering in the Philippines, it is awkward for me. My tentative solution is to separate the term “Missionary” as it is popularly understood, from another role. Perhaps we could call it “Cross-cultural Minister.”

So maybe the criteria for Missionary could be:

  • Serving outside of the local church primarily. (This is in-line with the NT Apostle)
  • Serving in another culture or same culture. (This is also in-line with the NT Apostle. There seems no evidence that apostles only worked cross-culturally)
  • The focus is more directly on Kingdom Expansion (more on evangelizing and churchplanting, though that should not negate social ministry, or translation, for example)
  • Works in support of local churches or where the church does not exist— rather than in competition with local churches, or doing what local churches should be doing themselves.

Even though I like very broad definitions for many things, including the term “missionary,” the above list seems reasonable.

One might then come up with criteria, or at least examples, of what would entail a Cross-cultural Minister, who doesn’t also fit into the criteria for Missionary:

  • Serves in a cross-cultural setting.
  • Humbly works in support of local churches or other ministries in that setting
  • May support missions (such as in logistics, training, member care, and such)
  • May help churches in that new setting work more effective in local cross-cultural ministry.

Why might it be useful to designate a difference between missionary and cross-cultural minister?

  1.  To understand the term missionary from a Biblical sense, it may be more useful to tie the term better to the New Testament term “apostolos.” However, the term missionary today is too broad, so developing a Biblical-Theological understanding of missionary is difficult. Perhaps narrowing it and setting it more in line with apostolos would help.
  2. Nations and peoples transition from being mission-receiving to mission-sending groups. However, there may be reasons for having cross-cultural ministers long after the need for missionaries has gone. This is easier to understand if different terms are used.

Cross-cultural ministers should always exist, I believe. Christians are stronger in their unity, as we recognize our international, intercultural diversity. One way such diversity is celebrated is through individuals working in other cultures. We learn from each other. Also, with refugees, economic diaspora, and more, cross-cultural ministers can be a great asset for a local culture to reach out to another culture in their midst. Diversity of viewpoints from different cultures also can make us wiser and stronger.

(On that last point. I am from the United States, and reading the poorly thought out ethnocentric bigoted statements made by sheltered, but sincere, Christians there, I say we truly need cross-culture ministers from other nations serving in the United States as well.)

I have served in the Philippinescropped-istock_000024760796small for 13 years. The first 6 years I served primarily as an organizer of evangelistic medical missions to under-reached communities. That may well meet the narrower definition of missionary, but I primarily worked with local churches, local medical personnel, and local church planters. My role was more as a catalyst than anything else. In recent years, I primarily teach missions, and teach and do pastoral care, especially for local pastors and missionaries. This would not meet the narrower criteria for missionary, but in a sense I am more necessary now. The island of Luzon, generally does not need missionaries… but they do need a reminder that the Church is international, universal…  not just local– and that we are stronger in our unity, when we embrace our diversity. We all need that.

Of course there is a risk here as well. Many Christians like to say that they support missionaries. I would hate to see many (including myself) cut off financially because they support missionaries, but not cross-cultural ministers. Classification of terms can be useful in certain settings, and destructive in others.