Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Gospel Contextualized

          Clearly, culture plans a critical role in communicating the gospel whether that is in different parts of our own communities or country or abroad in a faraway land.  Despite thinking to the contrary, different people groups do not think in the same or even in a manner similar to our own way of thinking.  At the heart of any culture is the worldview the people in the culture share.  The truth claims of Christianity are something that can be easily proven.  In short, they are a matter of faith.  The heart of the gospel is the something for which there is no precedent – the Resurrection.[1]  Brown, Robinson, and Willimon rightly point out that while we desire to reach people where they are, we have a limited ability to adapt the gospel.[2]
          Stated simply, contextualization is the notion of taking the gospel to a new context and finding easily understood ways for people to understand it in their own context.  While doing so, we must understand that it is simply not possible to deliver the whole of the gospel message on any single occasion.  Some part must be selected; others omitted and saved for another time.[3]  Lest the author be accused of not supporting the proclaiming of the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), it should be noted that Jesus and the apostles did not always begin with the interests and concerns of their audience or communicate what today we consider the heart of the gospel.[4]  What Christ and the apostles did do was note the level of understanding of their audience and start communicating with them at that point while reserving deeper teaching for those more mature in the faith.  From those receiving this deeper teaching such as the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, Paul expected a more mature practice of their faith.
Figure 2: Contextualization in a Hindu Setting
Trinity International Baptist Mission
          The Jesuits of the Seventeenth century were pioneers in the practice of indigenization which accommodating the local culture and taking cues from the local customs.[5]  The first of these missionaries to employ this approach lived in Japan in Japanese-style houses adopting the local type of dress and many of the local customs.  Notable successes using this approach occurred at Madurai in South India and China.  Regrettably this early success was not widespread.  Rulings against the Jesuits prevented peoples from other cultures such as those in China from being both Chinese and Christian.[6]  How far this set back the cause of Christ in this part of the world is unknown but those decisions may be felt even to this day.
          This early understanding of how to reach local cultures is what would later come to be referred to as contextualization.  Today, the church widely understands and employs methods very similar to these.  Modern missionaries acknowledge the effectiveness of following the powerful example of the Apostle Paul in trying to become as the people group they are trying to reach (1 Cor. 9:22).  Today we universally recognize that the goal of our Christian witness is to see people come to saving faith in Jesus Christ and be formed into groups that are culturally appropriate and biblical in their structure.[7]  We call these groups churches. 
In these groups familiar terms are used to communicate the gospel.  Along the way, these terms are transformed in their usage.  We must keep in mind that Christ came into the world and worked through the existing culture.  As His ministry progressed, the worldview of those who came to follow Him began to change.  In the opinion of the author, this is by design.  As the gospel penetrates deeply into the culture, eventually it begins to change the worldview of those new Christians which leads to changes in their belief systems and thus values and behavior.  That is a process that takes time but it does and will occur.  That is not to say that the resulting church will bear close resemblance to Western churches. 
To properly contextualize Christianity does not mean missionaries or evangelists are presenting a sort of product.  Western Christianity is mistaken if it believes that the faith has once and for all been developed in a way that is perfect for all peoples across all cultures in all times.   Christians in Western nations may attempt to apply Western business practices to the spread of the gospel.  This may lead to being tempted to try and prepackage all aspects of the gospel much as a Fortune 500 company might package a product.  At best, this well-intentioned approach is misguided and should be avoided.
The gospel message is to be planted as a seed in the soil of the local culture where it is permitted to grow and flourish.  A church that is truly contextualized will preach essentially the same message since the doctrines of the Christian faith will be clearly in focus.  Yet the way the message is put together and delivered, the issues addressed, and the illustrations used will vary from one culture to the next.[8]  This is proper and as it should be. 
The missionary or church planter should work with the new congregation to assist in their understanding of Scripture.  It is right and proper to be certain that sound hermeneutics are being practiced in the new congregation.  As a priesthood of all believers, the new church is a hermeneutical community and in most instances will be in a better position to exegete the meanings of local cultural practices and linguistic expressions.[9]  Where the missionary or church planter is trained to help laypeople determine the meaning of the text, laypeople help the missionary or church planter understand the receiving culture to which the Scriptures apply.[10]  
This is an ongoing dialog at least for a time until the missionary is no longer needed and departs.  Also in keeping with the cycle modeled by the Apostle Paul, the missionary or church planter should have definitive plans on how long it will be necessary to remain among the target people.  It is important to train local leaders with the intention of assuming leadership as soon as possible.  Paul’s stays in each place where he planted a new church we limited in duration though he remained in contact with them.  This approach helps to avoid the new congregation becoming dependent upon the missionary or church planter. 

[1] Brown, Stephen W., Haddon W. Robinson, and William H. Willimon. A Voice in the Wilderness: Clear Preaching in a Complicated World. (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1993) 65-66.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Hesselgrave, David J. Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North America and Beyond (2nd ed.). (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 149.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Winter, Ralph D., and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (4th ed.). (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1981, 1992, 1999, 2009), 230-31.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 404.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Hesselgrave, David J. Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North America and Beyond (2nd ed.). (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 222.
[10] Ibid, 223.

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