Essential Contextualization

Paul Hiebert in his article “Critical Contextualization” describes three types of contextualization:  Non-contextualization, Uncritical Contextualization, and Critical Contextualization.

20a. Critical Contextualization

Critical Contextualization Model (Hiebert)

One can, however, say more. As Jackson Wu states in his book One Gospel for all Nations, “Contextualization is inevitable.” That is, in effect, non-contextualization is still contextualization, just done very poorly.

“David Sills drives home the point clearly when he says, ‘If one does not contextualize, he is doing just that– changing the gospel. He becomes a modern-day Judaizer. He is in effect telling his hearers that they must become like him to be saved.’ I venture to say few missionaries would do this intentionally. However, the implicit message is heard clearly.” (pg. 10)

Dean Fleming highlights a second danger– syncretism. Syncretism emerges whenever the biblical message is made to harmonize so closely with a given culture (or subculture) that the biblical truth is compromised. Syncretistic theology and practices reflect the culture more so than the biblical text. His comments remain among the most important I’ve read on this topic.

‘But could it be that refusing to contextualize the gospel poses an even greater risk of syncretism? Consider the situation today– not unlike that of Colossians– when the gospel meets worldviews that are burdened with fear of unseen powers thought to control practical realities such as crops, health, and family relations. In many cases, the Christian message that has been imported to these contexts from the West has failed to address such issues. As a result, people can easily assume that Jesus is powerless to overcome the forces that influence their daily lives. Like the Colossian syncretists, converts may look for supplements– shamans, amulets, rituals, or occult practices– to protect them from hostile spirits. Ironically, a gospel that neglects such worldview issues may unwittingly end up promoting syncretism instead of preventing it. ‘ (pg 10-11)

So two things one could add to Paul Hiebert’s model:

  1.  Non-contextualization can lead to syncretism, just as over-contextualization. Paul Hiebert’s further teaching on “The Excluded Middle” (as essentially described above by Fleming in terms of the Colossian syncretists) could be in itself seen as Syncretism– a formal high-end (veneer) theology on top of local practices.
  2. The three categories of contextualization arguably are three categories of interpretation, communication, and application of the gospel. That is, non-contextualization is actually a bit of a misnomer. Non-contextualization is very much a form of contextualization. In saying this, it is more than simply saying that an absence of something is still something (like the absence of color, black, is still a color). Rather, when one is not contextualizing the gospel to the recipient culture, one is contextualizing it to another culture.

But I might add that non-contextualization can have results that are non-intutitive. In the Philippines, Christianity has been normally presented in one of two contexts:  Spanish or American. The implicit message is that one or more of these two constitutes where Christianity is properly situated. In so doing, the Philippines is a good place for Christianity as long as Christians there embrace a Spanish or American form. Some Korean missionaries in recent years have done a similar thing but from their own perspective. An interesting twist on that, however, is the growth of “Jewish Culture” Christianity here: Jewish diet, Jewish holidays, learning and idealizing Jewish words and concepts, in some of the church movements in the Philippines.

On a certain level, this reaction makes sense. If Christians here were taught (commonly unintentionally) that a foreign culture is more ideally Christian than Filipino culture, then it is hardly surprising if many Filipinos ask the logical question:

Which is the ideal culture for Christianity–

Ancient Jewish (or 1st century Greek)


American (or Spanish)?

The correct answer is actually that the best cultural soil for Christianity in the Philippines is Filipino. But if local Christians haven’t been helped to understand this, it is hardly surprising if they don’t recognize this.



High Context Evangelism

I was talking to my Cultural Anthropology class about high context versus low context communication. A nice source of information about High Context versus Low Context cultures is “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” by Erin Meyer.

In terms of communication, high context can apply not only to certain countries and cultures, but also to sub-cultures and micro-cultures.

The example of this I used was:

“ECO the 4A16 ASAP”

Most people would not understand this statement. But one can slowly expand it from a bit of high context communication to low context.bridges-not-walls

  1. ECO the 4A16 ASAP
  2. ECO the 4A16 as soon as possible.
  3. (Create an) Engineering Change Order (for) the 4A16 as soon as possible.
  4. Create the paperwork of an Engineering Change Order for the 4A16 Printed Wiring Board as soon as possible.
  5. Create the paperwork of an Engineering Change Order to guide the Design Department to modify the blueprint for the A16 Printed Wiring Board of the Antenna Control Unit (Unit 4) of the BPS-16(V) Submarine Radar System, as soon as possible.

The original (level 1) statement only makes sense to a fairly small group of people (myself included from my days as a mechanical design engineer in a certain department in a certain corporation). By the time we get to level 5, many would understand what is wanted… people who are not part of a very small subculture.

The value of high context communication is two-fold. First, it saves time. Communication is easier for members within the same high-context sub-culture. Second, it separates US from THEN. In missions, however, one must communicate across cultures. And, using language to divide (create a linguistic wall) is problematic when one is trying to use communication to serve as a bridge across cultural barriers.

Frankly, much of our conversation as Christians is High Context.

Consider the statement:

Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior

This statement is as meaningless as “ECO the 4A16 ASAP” to someone with no acculturation into (Evangelical especially) church sub-culture. Half of the words need to explained… as well as the broader context of the overall message.

And yet, the biggest problem is not those who have no acculturation into the church sub-culture.

Zero cultural understanding leads to No Communication

Limited cultural understanding leads to Miscommunication

While we want non-Christians to understand and respond to a call to allegiance to Jesus Christ. However, miscommunication is more dangerous than no communication, because miscommunication leads to misunderstanding.

Overall, the dangerous with the use of Christian jargon is two-fold… failure to communicate effectively, or the development of misunderstandings.

Inward, Outward, Upward

The book “Encountering Theology of Missions” by Ott, Strauss, and Tennent, has been a very beneficial read for me. One section I especially like is where they look at missions in terms of “Kingdom Communities.” They could have said “Church,” but I suppose they wanted to avoid people who picture the idea of church too narrowly, rejecting small fellowships of believers, or perhaps sodality structures or even (maybe) cyber-communities.

They suggested that such communities should operate with three dimensions that could be marked as axes on a cube. The axes are:

  • DoxologyCube
  • Evangelism & Discipleship
  • Compassion & Social Transformation

In the table below, I listed some ways of looking at these dimensions. There is considerable simplification but still I think it an be useful.

  1.  Doxology. I showed it here as Worship. Ott (and his coauthors) described the guidance as The Great Calling. In terms of Direction, it is focused Upward… toward God. And I see it as a Heart activity. Of course, it is more than simply a heart activity, but some aspects of worship drift into the other dimensions.
  2. Evangelism & Discipleship. I show this simply as Discipleship. As the Engel Scale would indicate, one can see Evangelism as one aspect of the overall activity to develop disciples. It takes it’s guidance from The Great Commissions (especially the Matthew version of it). Direction-wise, it can be seen as focused Inward. As Kingdom Communities, they are bringing people in and develop those who are in these communities. It can be seen as a Head activity. Although discipleship (and evangelism) is truly holistic, it’s most characteristic quality is in terms of faith, belief, understanding, and repentance. These, right or wrong, are often seen to be more of thinking (as opposed to feeling or doing) activities.
  3. Compassion & Social Transformation. I show this simply as Compassion. It can be seen as primarily guided by the Great Commandment (although the Golden Rule wouldn’t be inappropriate either). It can be seen as especially Outward-directed, even though these same ministries may be directed inward to the community, or drawing inward of those outside the community. I put it here as a Hands type of ministry. Even though Compassion may be viewed as a feeling, it is only recognizable in terms of action.

Cube TAble

Looking at the cube, the Yellow face, the plane established by discipleship and compassion, is much like the quadrant I use when talking about holistic ministry (where the axes are spiritual ministry and social ministry). You can see it’s use in the Videos on Social MinistryVideos on Social MinistryVideos on Social Ministry.

So I could call the yellow plane as Holistic Ministry. The problem is that I am not sure what to call the other two planes– the Pink one (Discipleship and Worship), and the Orange one (Compassion and Worship).

Any ideas in that would be appreciated.


Choosing our Words Carefully in Ministry

I watched a TED talk, as well as the 2016 movie “Arrival” recently. Both of them had a somewhat similar theme… that the way we think is guided strongly by the language and labels we use.

TED talk, Keith Chen’s “Could Your Language Affect the Way You Save Money,” noted a strange correlation between health and saving practicestimeless of people who are first language speakers in “tenseless” languages, versus those in “tense” languages. That is, looking at those in which verbs change based on past, present, and future (tense) and those in which verbs do not change (tenseless). The theory seems a bit far-fetched but there is a fairly strong correlation. For example, English has tenses for time:

I went to the store

I go to the store

I will go to the store

Some other languages, like in fact most other Germanic languages, are tenseless. Time is still addressed but not in the verb:

I go to the store yesterday

I go to the store now.

I go to the store next week.

Tenseless languages tend to have users that save better and have practices that lead to better health later in life. This correlation has a tantalizing theory as far as causation. Could it be that for tenseless languages, action is seen in more of a timeless way? Therefore, subconsciously there is a slightly lesser tendency to disconnect our activity today from the future. In other words, perhaps those from tenseless languages don’t feel that the sowing of today is as disconnected from the reaping of tomorrow.

Of course, this can be overdone. Benjamin Whorf suggested a time relativism of language where a culture that has a “timeless” worldview may have a timeless language. He used the example of the Hopi language. However, the example appears to be misguided a bit since the Hopi language can still distinguish between past, present, and future. Rather, language and thought connection tends to be more subtle..

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests that how mfhsutq24qdiyjw767fx0tawe structure and use language will guide or influence how we think and how we behave. A classic example comes from fire investigations. A man is in a room that is suddenly engulfed in flames. Luckily he survived and when the investigator talks to him, he discovers that the survivor was smoking when the fire started. The investigator asks him if the lit cigarette could have caused the fire, the man replies, “I don’t see how, there was nothing in that room but a bunch of empty cans.” But what does it really mean “empty cans?” Is anything truly empty? In fact, those cans were full of highly flammable fumes. That and the lit cigarette came together to cause the fire. The man labelled the cans as empty, and in common usage he used the term “empty” correctly. However, the term in his mind was connected with “harmless” or “safe” and that led to behavior that was foolhardy.

Again though, one must avoid taking this too far. Some OT scholars had in the past suggested that the ancient Hebrews only thought in concrete terms… did not think abstractly… because the Hebrew language is built on concrete, rather than abstract, terms. That’s flawed. Every language, as far as we know, still deals with issues of time because we as humans need to separate activities of planning/preparation, from action, from recall/remembrance. Likewise all humans need to deal with abstract concepts whether we know it or not. Languages that do not have abstract terms have no problem with abstract concepts— that’s what metaphors do. Read Psalm 1 or Psalm 23 to see how concrete terms can be used to address highly abstract thoughts. In the movie Arrival, aliens give a timeless language to humans that is supposed to open one’s mind to timeless thought. One can think and recall timelessly (including “remember the future”) because the language “reprograms” the mind (if done early enough) to think timelessly.That also seems to take things too far (as far as we can tell) even though time in some ways is a mental construct. Language nudges our behavior and thought… and our behavior and thought nudges our language, but the causation is not normally dramatic.

What about us in ministry? I teach at a Protestant seminary in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic nation. I said in my class, “Interreligious Dialogue with Asian Religions”:

“Please, I ask you, stop saying things like this to other people– ‘I used to be Catholic, but now I am Christian.’ Just stop saying that. People of other faiths around the world think that Christians are a strange disconnected, fighting lot. Why reinforce that?  If you want to say ‘I used to be a Catholic Christian, but now I am a _________ Christian,” that is fine. Choose your words carefully.

I know people that like the fact that the People’s Republic of China recognizes several religions, and two of those recognized are ‘Catholics’ and ‘Christians.’ Why feel good that a nation has legislated division of our faith? And why feel good that we came to China with such animosity that Chinese non-Christians figured that we are two distinct faiths? If we think that keeping a line of demarcation in China is good, wouldn’t it be better at least to support new labels such as “Catholic Christians” and “Protestant Christians”?

Here in the Philippines the term ‘Born Again’ gets thrown around a bit loosely. There is nothing wrong with the term I guess. It is a metaphor for the rebirth (another metaphor) associated with following Christ. The problem is that the term has drifted over time so that often “born again” now means, “individuals or denominational groups that associate being a Christian with saying the Sinner’s Prayer.” There is no Biblical correlation with saying a specific prayer and being recognized by God as His child. I am not against the Sinner’s Prayer… it encapsulates the declaration of repentance and allegiance to Christ. However, because of the reinterpretation of “Born Again,” it is often assumed that those that don’t use that term, or those that don’t associate following Christ to the Sinner’s Prayer, are not saved… are not Christians. And likewise, those who have said the Sinner’s Prayer, regardless of their age, understanding, motivation, or interpretation, are often believed to be regenerated, regardless of evidence to the contrary. The term “Born Again” is not bad, but it’s careless usage has led to incorrect thoughts and behavior.

More humorously, people sometimes ask, “Is your denomination ‘Spirit-filled?'” I am tempted to say, “No my denomination is Spirit-empty,” or perhaps “Spirit-filling” or “Spirit-sharing.” After all, the concept of the Holy Spirit indwelling, to say nothing of ‘filling,’ an institution is so far away from sound theology that it doesn’t really deserve a serious response. What they mean by the question, really however, is “Does your church promote upbeat and ecstatic worship, and theologize such behavior suggesting that it directly correlates to one’s relationship with God?” In that case I could simply say, No and No. But the sloppiness of the language results in such a corresponding sloppiness of thought that there is no way to answer it both truthfully, and in such a way that the questioner would understand. Language can both clarify and obfuscate.

Consider a different case. What about language we use for non-Christians. Are there undesirable ramifications for the language we use… often unwittingly? Consider a few… some are commonly used, and some far less. But what pictures come into your mind when you read these. And if those labels are used for THEM, do those labels affect how we picture US?

  • The Unsaved
  • The Lost
  • The Unregenerate
  • Pagans
  • Heathens
  • The non-Elect
  • Sinners
  • The Unreached
  • Those Jesus Misses Most
  • The Mission Field
  • The World
  • Children of Darkness
  • Seekers

Some of terms are quite pejorative. If I was speaking in church and said,

“We are surrounded by Sinners, children of darkness,” versus

“We are surrounded by our mission field of the unreached, those Jesus misses most,”

does the imagery in our head, the attitude in our heart, or the motivation toward action change?


Lilliput and Blefuscu– Us versus Them

Lilliput and Blefuscu were two neighboring peoples in the book “Gulliver’s Travels.” The book was written by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). In the story, the two empires share much in common, including a common history, a common vernacular language, a common racial identity (at least in comparison to other peoples of the world), and a common religion. However, over time divisions increased until the time that Lemuel Gulliver visited. The biggest dividing issue was heresy. According to their shared religion, holy writ, and prophet, an egg should be opened at “the convenient end.” But what is the convenient end? There are three obvious choices:

  • Small end of the egg (legal constraint)
  • Large end of the egg (legal constraint)
  • Whatever end a person happens to find convenient (personal freedom)

The prophet of their faith was long dead so he could not be asked. As is typical, those wanting to show their faithful adherence to faith gravitated to the legal constraints rather than to freedom to show that they had more piety than others. This led to growing animosity and violence.

This does make me wonder. Why does animosity tie to disagreement. Why couldn’t the two empires live peacefully with disagreement. Or why did the beliefs lead to separation based on national lines of separation. This does not automatically happen… but it does commonly happen. The why I suppose I have to leave that to the experts. But, in general terms, we are social beings, and culture-forming beings. As such, we develop groups that are identified as US or THEM

We tend to polarize. We form attachments for a number of reasons. For example, we have family members– and with family members we accept sizable disagreements. You might say, for example, “Oh, you know Uncle Will. You know what a narrow-minded bigot he is. But… he is STILL family.” However, in complex societies there are a larger number of voluntary groups that we are part of. And some groups that were at one time considered not to be voluntary (one’s community, one’s nationality, or one’s religion) have become increasingly voluntary. With voluntary groups, there is a tendency to join with people we like or with people we agree with— and we tend to end up liking the people we agree with and agreeing with the people we like.  It is a process of polarization.

Polarization is “a sharp division, as of a population or group, into opposing factions.”

There are a lot of reasons for group polarization. For those interested, I would suggest reading “Social Psychology in Christian Perspective” by Angela M. Sabates.

But in much simpler terms. Consider the figure here. polarization-chart

The X-Axis shows degree of cognitive dissonance— ranging from disagreement to agreement. The Y-Axis is an affective scale from dislike to like. People want to simplify their lives into two groups: US (shown in green) and THEM (shown in red). For US, we like to like people we like and agree with. For THEM, we like to dislike people we disagree with.

We struggle in the yellow regions. We are uncomfortable liking people we disagree with, and we are uncomfortable with disliking people we agree with. We feel pressure to shift people into the green or red regions. Sometimes it gets quite silly. Look at social media and look at the horrible things that people will say about people or groups that they disagree with— people they really don’t even know. This is especially strong for groups— based on a principle called the “discontinuity effect” We can hate groups like we can no one person. It was noted in 1930s Germany, that many many Germans hated Jews. But when asked about Jews who lived in their neighborhood, it was more common to get a response like “Oh, they are okay I guess… for Jews.” The removal of a personal connection did not decrease animosity for the group, it actually increased it.

Consider Evangelism for a moment. In evangelism, the assumption is that the potential respondent disagrees with the evangelist. On the “polarization chart” shown in the figure, the two left quadrants apply. In the lower left, where there is animosity/dislike between the two, the two are already in a stable relationship (based on disagreement and dislike). It is unlikely that the evangelist can do much, at least in the short-term to change things. Of course, the Holy Spirit can do what we cannot… but animosity and disagreement is a difficult thing to change.

On the other hand, if there is a positive relationship/attachment between the two, the upper left, the situation is unstable. It can remain long-term, but there is pressure to move out of that quadrant. The respondent will feel a desire to change the relationship to either green (agreeing with the evangelist) or to red (changing the relationship to disaffection).

Consider Mentoring for a moment. In a mentoring relationship, the assumption is that the two, mentor and mentee, are in agreement generally. Therefore, on the polarization chart, the right quadrants apply. If the relationship is positive, with good attachment, this is a stable position, being in the green quadrant. However, if the relationship is more one of dislike, it is in the yellow quadrant– an unstable position. Resolution comes when the relationship is pushed either to green or to red.

Essentially, in ministry, it is important to develop healthy positive relationships both with Christians and non-Christians. Having a positive relationship does not automatically mean one will have a positive influence… but it certainly increases the likelihood of a positive influence on the other.